In late 1922, The New York Times reported the “rumor” passing through Berlin that Henry Ford was bankrolling Adolf Hitler and his curiously well-funded Nazi movement. The wall of Hitler’s office featured a large picture of the American mogul, the Times noted, and copies of a book bearing Ford’s byline littered a table in the anteroom. Titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, the volume was an anthology of articles published by Ford’s Dearborn Independent newspaper, which two years earlier had launched an unrelenting crusade to expose Jews’ supposed “financial and commercial control, usurpation of political power, monopoly of necessities, and autocratic direction of the very news that the American people read.” The series, which eventually spanned 92 issues over seven years, concluded that the “International Jew and his satellites” lurked behind virtually all of the world’s ills: labor unrest, Bolshevism, financial panics, wars.
Hitler denied receiving funding from Ford but made no secret that he considered him an inspiration. “We look on Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing Fascisti movement in America,” Hitler said in 1923. “We admire particularly his anti-Jewish policy which is the Bavarian Fascisti platform.” At the time, Ford was being floated as a possible Democratic candidate for president, and Hitler said that he wished he could deploy “some of my shock troops to Chicago and other big American cities to help in the elections.”
Ford’s anti-Jewish beliefs are well known. Not well understood is his singular role in unleashing a new era of anti-Semitism, a modern strain of an ancient poison built upon the themes of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. You can glimpse Ford’s influence in the casual anti-Semitism of Donald Trump, who has deployed barely coded references to “globalists” and to “international banks” plotting secretly with one of his Democratic rivals to weaken the U.S. for their own enrichment; in Elon Musk’s signal-boosting of anti-Semites and his suggestion that George Soros “appears to want nothing less than the destruction of western civilization”; and in a surge in anti-Jewish harassment and hate crimes around the world, including the 2018 massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.
Often, Ford’s anti-Semitism is portrayed as an unfortunate footnote to a storied career—the Henry Ford Museum describes his “descent into anti-Semitism” as a “sad chapter in Henry Ford’s life”—but it was arguably the most significant part of the automaker’s legacy. In other words, Ford was one of the 20th century’s most dangerous anti-Jewish propagandists, and he also made cars. Making sense of the current moment of mounting anti-Semitism requires examining Ford’s outsize part in its origins.
Ford’s biographers have struggled to trace his insidious anti-Semitism to its source. Ford himself suggested that the clarifying moment occurred in late 1915, as he steamed to Norway with a group of pacifists on a quixotic mission to broker an end to World War I, a freelance diplomacy effort the papers derided as “Ford’s folly” and the “Ship of Fools.”
“On that ship were two very prominent Jews,” Ford explained six years later. “We had not been to sea 200 miles before these two Jews began telling me of the power of the Jewish race, how they controlled the world through their control of gold, and that the Jew, and no one but the Jew, could stop the war … They said, and they believed, that the Jews had started the war; that they would continue it as long as they wished.”
Yet Ford appears to have been steeped in anti-Semitic beliefs well before setting sail. Rosika Schwimmer, the activist with whom Ford hatched the ill-fated voyage, recalled that during her first meeting with the industrialist, a month before departing for Europe, he declared, unprompted, “I know who caused the war—German Jewish bankers!” Indeed, to Ford, the conspirators at the heart of the Jews’ concentric plots were German Jewish financiers. His newspaper would later fixate on the Frankfurt-born tycoon Jacob Schiff; Schiff’s partners in the investment bank of Kuhn, Loeb & Co.; and members of the Warburg banking dynasty, who had close personal and professional ties to Schiff and his family.
The Independent’s preoccupation with Schiff and the Warburgs appears to have been spurred by a Russian expatriate named Boris Brasol, who heavily influenced Ford’s anti-Jewish crusade. Brasol had worked for the Russian Ministry of Justice and was a member of the Black Hundreds, the ultranationalist organization of Romanov loyalists whose followers were at the center of many of Russia’s anti-Jewish pogroms. During World War I, Brasol had filled a diplomatic posting in the United States. Following the Russian Revolution, amid a wave of anti-communist hysteria, he became an investigator for U.S. military intelligence, which was trying to root out radicals and foreign agitators. Brasol supplied his intelligence-community handlers with a steady flow of information on the group he considered the most subversive element of all: the Jews. And he was responsible for the widespread dissemination of the touchstone of modern anti-Semitism, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The fabricated document, which contains passages lifted from several sources, claims to be the product of secret conclaves convened by Jewish leaders in the late 19th century as they devised a plan to destroy Christian civilization and gain global control. It was first published in Russia in 1903, but the text did not circulate widely until after the Russian Revolution, when Brasol and other czarists promoted the document in order to prove that the uprising—and Bolshevism itself—was but one prong of a broader Jewish scheme.
By 1919, Brasol began searching for a U.S. publisher for the Protocols. After repeated rejections, a small Boston publishing house agreed to issue the English version. Titled The Protocols and World Revolution and published in the summer of 1920, the 149-page volume is augmented with anonymous commentary written by Brasol. As “evidence” that the Protocols are genuine, and that Jews really are scheming to throw the world into disarray, Brasol cites another set of forged papers, the “Sisson documents,” which suggest that the Hamburg-based bank M.M. Warburg secretly provided support to the Bolsheviks. It is a nesting doll of fraudulence—forged document reinforcing forged document. Nevertheless, the myth of a worldwide Jewish plot soon went global, as versions of the Protocols were published everywhere from Denmark to Japan. Hitler invokes the Protocols in Mein Kampf, and their message and themes would become a staple of Nazi propaganda.
In 1921, Brasol bragged: “Within the last year I have written three books, two of which have done the Jews more injury than would have been done to them by ten pogroms.” If anything, he underestimated his malevolent impact by orders of magnitude.
Brasol found a fellow traveler in Henry Ford’s top lieutenant, Ernest Liebold, who had purchased the Independent, a weekly newspaper in Ford’s hometown, in late 1918 on Ford’s behalf. At the time, Ford had just narrowly lost a Senate bid in a contest in which his opponent had attacked his pacifism and the draft exemption obtained by his son, Edsel. Convinced that victory had been stolen from him and embittered by the press’s treatment of him, Ford sought a platform for his populist message, unfiltered by media skeptics and naysayers. The paper’s tagline captured its Ford-inspired ethos: “Chronicler of the Neglected Truth.” With Brasol’s help, it would become the nation’s foremost tribune of anti-Semitic lies.
Brasol’s affiliation with the Independent dated back to at least early 1919, when the paper published an article by the Russian propagandist titled “The Bolshevik Menace to Russia.” Then, in May 1920, it ran the first installment of its “International Jew” series, inspired deeply by Brasol.
“There is no question as to the connection between [Ford’s] secretary and Boris Brasol and other Jew-baiters,” Edwin Pipp, the Independent’s onetime editor, recounts in his book The Real Henry Ford. “They helped fan the flame of prejudice against the Jews in Ford’s mind.” According to Pipp, Brasol met privately with Liebold and Ford himself on multiple occasions. The “International Jew” series began around the same time that Brasol’s version of the Protocols was published, and the Independent covered the text extensively.
Week after week, the Independent explored such loaded topics as “Does a Definite Jewish World Program Exist?,” “Did the Jews Foresee the World War?,” and “Does Jewish Power Control the World Press?” (Yes, yes, and yes, according to Ford’s paper.) Jacob Schiff and his banking partners featured regularly as the field marshals of the Jewish master plan. An article on “How Jewish International Finance Functions” mused ominously about the “farsighted manner in which the house of Kuhn, Loeb & Company disposes itself over world affairs.” The article highlighted Kuhn Loeb’s Otto Kahn as the archetype of the “International Jew,” a financier-statesman who at various points held American, British, and German citizenship.
The binational Warburg clan came under particular suspicion. Max Warburg headed M.M. Warburg, the German investment bank. His New York–based brothers Felix and Paul had been partners of Kuhn Loeb and were related to Schiff by marriage. Paul had been closely involved in the creation of the Federal Reserve, which in the Independent’s telling was an underhanded scheme to foster economic subservience. In an article on the “Jewish idea” behind the Federal Reserve system, the paper highlighted passages from the Protocols that, it contended, laid bare Warburg’s true aims: “In the Twentieth Protocol, wherein the great financial plan of the world subversion and control is disclosed, there is another mention of the rulers’ ignorance of financial problems. It is a coincidence that, while he does not use the term ‘ignorance,’ Mr. Warburg is quite outspoken concerning the benighted state in which he found this country.”
The conspiracy went deeper still. “Max Warburg was a factor” in the “establishment of Bolshevism in Russia,” the Independent reported, citing the phony Sisson documents. And Schiff, a financier and philanthropist of towering renown, was the kingpin of the effort to overthrow Russia’s Romanov dynasty. “It was a family enterprise,” Ford’s paper contended. “Jacob Schiff swore to destroy Russia. Paul M. Warburg was his brother-in-law; Felix Warburg was his son-in-law. Max Warburg, of Hamburg, banker to the Bolsheviks, was thus brother-in-law to Jacob Schiff’s wife and daughter.” Case closed!
The Independent’s barrage of libels reached a wide audience. With Ford’s substantial backing, its initial circulation of 70,000 rose to a peak of 900,000, making it one of the largest papers in the country. The Independent was ubiquitous in Ford dealerships, which were pressured to hawk the publication alongside the latest Model Ts. And that was just the start: Ford’s paper collected the “International Jew” series in four volumes. Millions of copies were printed and distributed throughout the world.
Legal action ultimately brought Ford’s anti-Semitic campaign to an end. In 1923, the journalist Herman Bernstein filed a libel suit against Ford, who had remarked in an interview that Bernstein was the one who had told him aboard the “peace ship” that Jewish financiers were at the root of the war. In 1925, another target of the Independent sued Ford and his paper. The plaintiff, Aaron Sapiro, was a pioneer in organizing farming cooperatives. In an article on “Jewish Exploitation of Farmers’ Organizations,” the Independent had cast Sapiro as the chief villain. (Otto Kahn also made a cameo in this conspiracy, as a member of the Jewish banking cartel facilitating Sapiro’s plot.)
Ford dodged service in the Bernstein case, but the Sapiro lawsuit went to trial in March 1927. Shortly before Ford was expected to take the stand, he had a mysterious accident in which his car was supposedly forced off the road and sent careering down an embankment, leaving him unable to testify. The proceedings ended in a mistrial, but Sapiro pressed forward with his case. Ford, however, was done fighting. In addition to enmeshing him in expensive litigation, the Independent’s anti-Jewish attacks were fueling negative publicity and sparking boycotts against his businesses.
That summer, Ford representatives enlisted Louis Marshall, the president of the American Jewish Committee, to help bring the “International Jew” debacle to a close. Marshall drafted, and Ford signed, a statement apologizing for his paper’s anti-Semitic campaign. It read in part: “I am deeply mortified that this journal, which is intended to be constructive and not destructive, has been made the medium for resurrecting exploded fictions, for giving currency to the so-called Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion … and for contending that the Jews have been engaged in a conspiracy to control the capital and the industries of the world.” Ford settled separately with Sapiro and Bernstein. And he folded the Independent, which published its final issue in December 1927.
If Ford’s statement suggested contrition, his actions indicated otherwise. In the last decades of his life, he kept company with Nazi sympathizers, including the aviator Charles Lindbergh and Gerald L. K. Smith, the founder of the America First Party. Hitlerites also populated the ranks of the Ford Motor Company, among them Heinz Spanknöbel, who fronted the American branch of the Nazi Party, and Fritz Kuhn, the leader of the German American Bund. On Ford’s 75th birthday, in 1938, Hitler’s government awarded the automaker—who had established a German subsidiary—the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle, the highest honor bestowed on foreign citizens.
As World War II loomed, Ford continued to decry “international financiers.” He was typically careful to omit the word Jewish from his fulminations. But in June 1940, the year before the U.S. entered the war, the mask slipped. During a conversation with an Associated Press reporter, Ford remarked, “I still think this is a phony war made by the international Jewish bankers.”
Ford did eventually reckon with the lethal hatred he had helped whip up, according to Josephine Gomon, who oversaw female personnel at a Ford plant. She was among a group of executives who joined Ford in May 1946 for a screening of Death Stations, a government-produced film documenting the liberation of Hitler’s concentration camps. For an hour, horrifying images flashed across the screen: a crematorium at the Majdanek camp, torture chambers, a warehouse filled with the confiscated belongings of murdered Jews. When the film ended and the lights rose, Ford’s colleagues found him clinging to consciousness. He had had a major stroke. Ford died the following year at the age of 83.
It is impossible to know what flickered through his mind in the moments before he was afflicted, but Gomon believed that he was deeply disturbed by the footage. Finally, Ford “saw the ravages of a plague he had helped to spread,” she wrote in her unpublished memoir. “The virus had come full circle.”
By then, the virus that had infected him, and to which he had exposed millions, was long past the point where it could be contained. The tropes, stereotypes, and conspiracies that had justified mass murder were now atmospheric, as common as spotting a Ford on the highway.
This article was adapted from Daniel Schulman’s new book, The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America.
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