Making Soviet and Nazi Fordism in the Global Thirties
Stefan J. Link
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Forging Global Fordism
Making Soviet and Nazi Fordism in the Global Thirties
Stefan J. Link
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About This Book
A new global history of Fordism from the Great Depression to the postwar era As the United States rose to ascendancy in the first decades of the twentieth century, observers abroad associated American economic power most directly with its burgeoning automobile industry. In the 1930s, in a bid to emulate and challenge America, engineers from across the world flocked to Detroit. Chief among them were Nazi and Soviet specialists who sought to study, copy, and sometimes steal the techniques of American automotive mass production, or Fordism. Forging Global Fordism traces how Germany and the Soviet Union embraced Fordism amid widespread economic crisis and ideological turmoil. This incisive book recovers the crucial role of activist states in global industrial transformations and reconceives the global thirties as an era of intense competitive development, providing a new genealogy of the postwar industrial order.Stefan Link uncovers the forgotten origins of Fordism in Midwestern populism, and shows how Henry Ford's antiliberal vision of society appealed to both the Soviet and Nazi regimes. He explores how they positioned themselves as America's antagonists in reaction to growing American hegemony and seismic shifts in the global economy during the interwar years, and shows how Detroit visitors like William Werner, Ferdinand Porsche, and Stepan Dybets helped spread versions of Fordism abroad and mobilize them in total war. Forging Global Fordism challenges the notion that global mass production was a product of post–World War II liberal internationalism, demonstrating how it first began in the global thirties, and how the spread of Fordism had a distinctly illiberal trajectory.
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The primary object of the corporation is to make money, not just motor cars.
—ALFRED P. SLOAN
The primary object of the manufacturing corporation is to produce, and if that objective is always kept, finance becomes a wholly secondary matter.
THE YEAR IS 1937. Traveling to Detroit by train, you leave New York City northbound and advance along the Hudson, pass through Albany, and cross upstate to Buffalo. See the waterfalls at Niagara, if your schedule allows. On the journey’s next leg, book a seat on the right side of your Pullman: this will afford you stunning views of Lake Erie as your train measures the full length of its southern shore. After passing through Cleveland and Toledo, you get your first glimpse of Canada on the far side of the Detroit River to your right, as you finally approach the outskirts of Detroit from the south. Your train crosses the Rouge River on a steel bridge, giving you a view of Ford’s smokestacks off in the distance to the left, then traverses the neighborhoods of Detroit’s West Side, before pulling into Michigan Central Station—today an eviscerated ruin, but then a bustling terminal of art deco beauty, rising high.
From here, take a short cab ride downtown along Michigan Avenue, where neoclassical skyscrapers testify to the youth and vigor of the Motor City. Put up at the Book Cadillac if you have the means, where you can mingle with the many distinguished visitors—engineers, ambassadors, royalty, managers, heads of state—drawn to the Motor City in its prime. Then stroll up a few blocks to Orchestra Hall, home to the Detroit Symphony, sponsored by the city’s automotive elite. Or make your way to the close-by bank district and marvel at the modernist splendor of the Penobscot Building, the city’s financial center.
Of course, in the twenty-first century, no one boards a train to reach Detroit. But in the city’s heyday, it was the train that brought bankers and automotive executives, migrant workers and mobsters, journalists and engineers to Detroit, America’s young manufacturing heart. This was the journey also made by William Werner, technical director of the German carmaker Auto-Union, on the occasion of his Detroit visit in October 1937. Werner had crossed the Atlantic on the Bremen, alighted at the docks of New York City, and made his way to Detroit by train. He lodged at the Book Cadillac and wrote his letters home to Chemnitz, Saxony, on the hotel’s stationery. Werner was the senior figure in a delegation of seven automotive engineers, whose task was to compile an extensive survey of the latest mass production technology used by American automobile makers. Through the connections afforded by automotive trade associations, both German and American, Werner and his group procured introductions to the factories of General Motors and Ford, where, as Werner noted, they were “received with extraordinary friendliness.” General Motors provided a chauffeur, and Ford opened its doors for an intensive, three-day inspection, “the likes of which few surely have had the opportunity to enjoy.”
Testifying to a remarkably dense traffic across the Atlantic, Werner’s sortie overlapped with several other high-profile journeys. In November, the German Federation of Car Dealers traveled to the Automobile Exhibition in New York City. In June, Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the Volkswagen and just-anointed executive of the state-sponsored plant that would bear its name, led his own group of engineers to Detroit. Porsche was on the hunt for ideas, machinery, and skilled technicians to equip his brand-new factory, then in the planning stage. Several of Porsche’s engineers stayed on through the fall months, purchasing machinery and recruiting specialists. The German engineering delegations were only the latest to voyage to Detroit. A year earlier, a group of representatives from the Italian carmaker Fiat had paid a visit. That group included chief engineer Rambaldo Bruschi as well as Vittorio Bonadè Bottino, one of the foremost architects of Fascist Italy, who was tasked with designing the expansive Mirafiori manufacturing plant outside of Turin.1
Following a tightly packed schedule, Werner and his engineers visited twelve different factories over the course of two weeks. The divisions of General Motors came first. At Pontiac, forty miles north of Detroit, GM had built a factory in 1933 that now employed 20,000 workers. The foundry there left “an extraordinarily good and modern impression,” the Germans recorded. In the machine shop, they marveled at the elaborate flow production methods and the intricate subdivision of operations. The final assembly line, they reported matter-of-factly, was “one kilometer in length.” Detailed descriptions of GM’s modern machine tools made it into the Germans’ report. They acknowledged, for example, the sophistication of hydraulic presses that took three punches to convert a sheet of metal into a car’s roof, and of the battery of fourteen welding machines that fused a car’s body into existence within minutes.
At each factory, the Germans took pictures and extensive technical notes. The final report took weeks to compile and finally ran to hundreds of pages, replete with high-quality photographs of machines and work processes and filled with detailed technical descriptions. The Germans, highly qualified specialists in their own right, were not easily impressed and did not spare critical observations where they felt them appropriate: Packard’s factory seemed “downright antiquated”; the forge supplying Chevrolet left the unfavorable impression of “decidedly poor working conditions” and “insufferable noise.”
For one plant, however, the Germans had nothing but praise. Visiting River Rouge, Ford’s giant factory just west of Detroit’s city limits, constituted nothing less than the “climax,” they recorded, of their American sojourn. Joe Galamb, one of Ford’s closest associates, was assigned as a special guide to Werner and his engineers. Their tour began, as it did for thousands of other visitors in the late Thirties, at the Ford Rotunda. A six-story white structure that resembled a set of gears, the Rotunda was designed by Albert Kahn for Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933. In May 1936, Ford moved the Rotunda to Dearborn to serve as a visitors’ center. Inside the Rotunda, Werner and his group could marvel at the famous globe that displayed the world-spanning operations of the Ford Motor Company, and take in billboard-sized photomurals of Rouge operations as well as choice Henry Ford quotes embossed on spacious marble plates.
From the Rotunda, it was a short bus ride to the factory premises. Passing through the gates, Werner’s group entered an industrial complex of world fame. Since coming to full capacity in the Twenties, the Rouge had drawn engineers and artists, journalists and tourists, pundits and photographers. Extensive press features—in periodicals like Industrial Management, World’s Work, and Scientific American—presented Rouge operations to the public. In 1928, Vanity Fair featured a series of high-resolution images of the Rouge by Charles Sheeler—iconic works that were style-defining for an entire generation of industrial photographers. Sponsored by Edsel Ford, Mexican artist Diego Rivera in 1933 immortalized the Rouge in a world-famous set of frescoes at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
By all accounts, the Rouge that welcomed Werner was a remarkable spectacle. Here the myriad operations that went into making an automobile came together in a dazzling “ballet mécanique” (Sheeler’s phrase). Ships brought ore and coal across the Great Lakes. At the Rouge slip, they disgorged their freight into hissing blast furnaces, which in turn fed the foundry, where molds—propelled by moving conveyors past cascades of liquid iron—cast the automotive innards: engine blocks, crankshafts, pistons, and brake drums. A separate flow of white-hot iron crept from the furnaces toward the steel mill, where gargantuan presses rolled it into strips that emerged as bodies and fenders. Next, the conveyors marched the raw parts into the screeching jaws of the machine shops, where massive power tools bored, drilled, ground, and polished them into shape. Emerging as pistons, gears, flywheels, and spark plugs, these elements met the engine blocks at the motor assembly shop. Feeding off tributaries from the glass plant, tires, and springs shop, another set of conveyors pushed bodies and engines onto the final assembly line, whence the finished automobile, if the Rouge PR department can be believed, rolled exactly 28 hours after the ore from which it was fashioned arrived by ship.2
What most impressed visitors to the Rouge was the precise coordination that synchronized the production process into a system of myriad tributaries feeding into each other and finally issuing onto the finishing assembly line. This was “flow production”—Fließfertigung, as the Germans said; potochnoe proizvodstvo, in Russian parlance—taken to perfection. The symbol of the Rouge’s dazzling prowess was the automatic conveyor. The factory resembled a vast maze of all conceivable propulsion devices: “gravity conveyors, bucket conveyors, spiral conveyors, moving belts, trolleys, electric and gasoline tractors, motor cars, moving platforms, cranes of every type, steam and electric locomotives, cable cars.” From this cacophony seemed to emerge, as though by magic, an astonishing harmony, as the myriad operations came together to form “one huge, perfectly timed, smoothly operating industrial machine of almost unbelievable efficiency.” Coming away from the Rouge, observers reached for superlatives. This, evidently, was “the largest and surely the most inspiring industrial machine that has ever been created.” Here, truly, “Ford ha[d] brought the hand of God and the hand of Man closer together than they have ever been brought in any other industrial undertaking.” Or, as Werner concluded his report: “Without doubt the Ford works in Detroit are among the most brilliant technical achievements in the history of the world.”3
Werner and his group considered River Rouge an apex of industrial achievement because something unprecedented was happening there: a factory of awesome proportions put out a device of great complexity in quantities—thousands, millions—that boggled the mind. Before automotive mass production, factories that required huge capital outlays and employed a large labor force usually turned out goods that were extremely expensive. They produced capital goods that supplied other factories (machine tools, for example) or served transportation (stagecoaches, ships, railroads, or railway cars). To be sure, by the late nineteenth-century America was mass-producing a wide range of consumer goods—things like textiles, stoves, sewing machines, and bicycles. But compared to the automobile, these were simple devices. What set automotive mass production apart was this achievement: unseen economies of scale allowed decoupling large inputs from high prices. Even as automotive technology improved, automobile prices tumbled, while the industry paid the highest wages that unskilled labor had been able to garner since the dawn of industrialization.
This, as the Germans well recognized, was a groundbreaking economic phenomenon. Appreciating the momentous impact of automotive mass production, they recalled just how powerful the industry had become since its origins at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1899, when Ransom Olds set up shop in Detroit, America possessed a very different economic makeup. Here was a country that had industrialized by drawing the bounty of the North American continent into markets both at home and overseas. Steel built the railroads on which freight trains, drawn by coal-fueled locomotives, carried hogs and wheat to the cities. The dominant industries reflected this pattern. At the turn of the century, the banking houses of the East were busy orchestrating the mergers of coal and steel corporations, sectors closely associated with the railroads. Meanwhile, some of the biggest industries—mills, stockyards, and breweries—were devoted to processing agricultural products. Wages in these branches were often pitifully low and workweeks punishingly long. This industrial pattern lasted well into the twentieth century. In 1914, the US census listed “slaughtering and meatpacking” as the largest industry by value of product, followed by steel and flour milling. Eastern regions—New England with its textile mills, Pennsylvania with its steel and oil, New Jersey with its metalworking, New York City with its manufactures, trading houses, and banks—dominated the economic geography of the USA.4
In contrast, by 1937, the year of Werner’s visit, the center of gravity of the American economy had shifted west. Easily trumping the rest of the country in industrial value added, the Midwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin—had pulled past the steel towns and centers of coal mining, oil rigging, and metalworking in upstate New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The Midwest still benefited from Chicago’s stockyards, but the region’s strength was now broadly based on the automobile industry and its suppliers, whose combined value-added surpassed that of America’s second largest industry, steel.5 The Detroit Big Three, who, as the Germans noted, had “recovered very well” from the Depression, recorded their best year since the boom times of the Twenties. The industry’s strength radiated into the larger economy, as statistics in Werner’s report reflected: the auto industry consumed one-fifth of all steel produced in the USA, more than half of all malleable iron, four-fifths of crude rubber, almost a third of its lead, and a good part of its precious metals. One out of seven Americans relied for employment on the industry and its supply chains.6
Detroit was the center of a new American growth regime, one that departed from nineteenth-century patterns. The city’s population had grown fivefold since the turn of the century, as the auto industry drew tens of thousands of migrants into its factories. These newcomers settled into a city that, while rife with racial hierarchies and class tensions, was flush with cash. In 1927, the New York Times mused that “Detroiters are the most prosperous slice of average humanity that now exists or that has ever existed.”7 In 1937, as employment again soared, the larger Detroit area easily surpassed all other manufacturing agglomerates—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago—in per capita wages. The contrast was stark, wi...
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Citation styles for Forging Global Fordism
APA 6 Citation
Link, S. (2020). Forging Global Fordism ([edition unavailable]). Princeton University Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1422347/forging-global-fordism-making-soviet-and-nazi-fordism-in-the-global-thirties-pdf (Original work published 2020)
Link, Stefan. (2020) 2020. Forging Global Fordism. [Edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/1422347/forging-global-fordism-making-soviet-and-nazi-fordism-in-the-global-thirties-pdf.
Link, S. (2020) Forging Global Fordism. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1422347/forging-global-fordism-making-soviet-and-nazi-fordism-in-the-global-thirties-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Link, Stefan. Forging Global Fordism. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.