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Originally published Friday, July 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

"Hell's Cartel": The German chemical industry's deal with the devil

"Hell's Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler's War Machine" by Diarmuid Jeffreys is a top-notch work of popular history, a chronicle of how the German chemical industry's fortunes became inextricably intertwined with those of the Third Reich.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Hell's Cartel: IG Farben and the Making of Hitler's War Machine"

by Diarmuid Jeffreys

Metropolitan, 480 pp., $30

The cover of "Hell's Cartel" is a composite photo showing a large, unidentified man passing cash to Adolf Hitler. It suggests that Der Führer was doing the work of big business. The story told by historian Diarmuid Jeffreys is mainly the opposite: of business that came to do the work of Hitler.

The German chemical industry was born 75 years before Hitler's National Socialist party, and far away from the arenas of politics and war. The chemical industry had begun with dyes for dresses. By the early 1900s, it had followed the science into pharmaceuticals. One was Novocain. Another was aspirin, the subject of Jeffreys' 2004 book, "Aspirin: The Remarkable Story of a Wonder Drug."

It was World War I, Jeffreys writes, that brought the German chemical companies "into a mutually dependent relationship with the state."

A few years before the war, BASF scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch had invented a way to "fix" nitrogen from the air. They had done it because they believed the world was going to run out of organic nitrates for fertilizer. But nitrates were also used for explosives — remember that the Oklahoma City bombing was done with fertilizer. And so at the beginning of the war, when Imperial Germany was cut off from imported organic nitrates by the British blockade, it was a crisis. Without nitrates, Germany was going to run out of ammunition.

Into this crisis stepped the chemical industry. Using the Haber-Bosch process, it could provide the military with explosives using nitrogen from the air. With Haber's help, it also provided poison gas.

War had caused the companies — BASF, Bayer, Hoechst, Agfa and the others — to work together. After the war, as they struggled to get back their global position, they agreed on a semi-merger. They called their cartel IG Farben, the dye syndicate.

In the 1920s, IG Farben's riskiest investment was Bosch's grand project to make motor fuel from coal. Germany had plenty of coal, but no petroleum. Bosch believed synfuels would become a profitable German product when the world's oil ran out, which at that point was forecast for the early 1930s. But a gusher was discovered in Texas, the price of oil collapsed and rivals within IG Farben pushed to cancel the synfuels project.

It was then that Bosch turned to politicians, asking for tariff protection. His first champion, in 1931, was Heinrich Bruening of the Center Party. The next, in 1933, was Hitler.

And that was the fateful decision. Six years later, when the panzer divisions rolled into Poland, it was on tires of IG Farben's synthetic rubber, with engines burning IG Farben synthetic fuel. The death camps used IG Farben poison gas, invented as a pesticide.

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The last half of the book is horrifying, especially Jeffreys' chapters on Auschwitz, where IG Farben was vainly struggling to build a high-tech synfuels and rubber plant using slave labor. The inventive, competitive, civilian chemical industry of 1900 had become, 40 years later, a kind of monster.

At the conflict's end, IG Farben's bosses were put on trial as war criminals. Of course, they said they had had no choice, and after some point they hadn't had much choice. But what point? Jeffreys presents the case of Bosch, who by the late 1930s was "sunk in the depths of depression and alcoholism" and guilt for helping bring to power a man who, he predicted, would destroy his country.

"Hell's Cartel" is popular history at its best.

Bruce Ramsey is an editorial writer for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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