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  • European Business, Dictatorship, and Political Risk, 1920–1945
  • Richard A. Hawkins
Christopher Kobrak and Per H. Hansen, eds. European Business, Dictatorship, and Political Risk, 1920–1945. New York: Berghahn Books, 2004. xiv + 261 pp. ISBN 1-57181-629-1, $60.00.

In recent years pressure from international Jewish organizations has led many European corporations to open previously closed archives to historians. In Germany a number of major businesses and financial institutions also have commissioned corporate histories by leading historians, in order to throw light on their activities during the Nazi period. This book is a collection of papers (in the case of Gerald D. Feldman based on one of these corporate histories) presented at a series of workshops organized by the Society for European Business History. Mira Wilkins provides a synthesis and concentrates on the main theme of the book—how businesses manage political risk—and also refers to her own work on Ford's subsidiary in Germany.

The book looks at domestic and foreign businesses under dictatorships, businesses in countries that were occupied by neighboring dictatorships, and foreign subsidiaries of businesses based in countries ruled by dictators. Given the number of dictatorships and autocratic governments in interwar Europe, the book concentrates in particular on the dictatorships of Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. There are no case studies of other dictatorships, such as those in Portugal, Spain, Poland, and Hungary.

One of the most interesting chapters is by Feldman, who looks at competition and collaboration among the Axis multinational insurers Munich Re, Generali, and Riunione Adriactica. Jews played an important role in the management of both Italian insurers even after the Italian anti-Jewish legislation of 1938. The Italian insurers collaborated with Munich Re even during World War II. They must have been well aware of the worsening plight of German Jews and of the countries that came under the control of Germany both before and after the outbreak of war. However, Jewish executives such as Arnoldo Frigessi di Rattalma of Riunione appear to have believed in a policy of "business as usual." Indeed, Frigessi continued to socialize with Alois Alzheimer of Munich Re until 1943, when the former was forced to go into hiding.

Jewish businessmen throughout Europe faced a growing threat from Nazi Germany during the 1930s, and for many of them the assessment of political risk was to become a matter of life or death. The chapter by Eduard Kubu, Jirí Novotný, and Jirí Šouša on multinationals in the Czech lands offers a number of examples of how Jewish businesses made good assessments. However, Martin Dean's chapter on [End Page 521] the Aryanization of Jewish businesses in Nazi Germany provides case studies of where businessmen were less successful. He suggests that this was because many German Jews had a deep-rooted tradition of obedience. However, their unwillingness to evade German currency regulations also may have been as much the result of the fear of the consequences of exposure in a state in which they progressively lost all of their legal rights.

Several chapters address the challenges facing multinationals that were based in democratic countries but had subsidiaries in the dictatorships. Lars Heide's chapter on IBM argues that Edwin Black's account of IBM and the Nazis was wrong to suggest that Thomas J. Watson, the American head of IBM, was a collaborator with the Nazis. In fact, Heide shows that IBM's subsidiary became almost completely autonomous of its American parent during the Nazi era. Neil Forbes considers how British companies, in particular banks, managed political risk in their business with Nazi Germany during the 1930s. He mentions that in mid-1938 Unilever was threatened with an American Jewish boycott of its products because of allegations that it supported the Nazi Party. Businessmen trading with or in Nazi Germany found that adopting a principled position might involve a high cost. The Mond family had to withdraw from active participation in a campaign begun in 1933 to boycott German goods in Britain after they realized the implications the boycott would have for Imperial Chemical Industries' relationship with I. G. Farben. Kurt Jacobsen's chapter is a case study of the Great Northern...


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pp. 521-522
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