Avoiding the Nazis. This was the task that the Dutch multinational Unilever set itself during the Second World War. The company took good care of dismissed Jewish workers, and protected others from forced labour in Germany. Yet historian Ben Wubs, who researched Unilever 's role during the war, is reluctant to draw conclusions about whether the company acted rightly or wrongly.
"Journalists ask the question of whether Unilever was good or bad, and usually get the answer already included," jokes Ben Wubs. "However, such a judgement can only be made about individual managers, not about the whole multinational.
Wubs is also often asked whether Unilever was good or bad. Most people knew the answer beforehand: Unilever must have had a misleading position. His book was written, among other things, in order to nuance this image. The reality is more complicated than these two extremes.
At the top of the multinational were explicit opponents of the Nazis, such as Paul Rijkens, who worked as an advisor to Queen Wilhelmina in London. However, there were also clear Hitler sympathisers, such as Frans Schicht in Berlin, who had joined the Nazi party, and wanted the company to come under Nazi control.
Control attempts failed
Berlin's attempts to take control of the multinational, such as the establishment of a state commissioner above the company's leadership, ended in complete failure.
This was partly due to contradictions within German management, and the fact that the Germans were not sure what to do with Unilever. It was indeed a very complex company. Wubs explains that before the Nazis came to understand how this business group worked, wartime conditions had turned around, and the seizure of Unilever was no longer relevant.
The German accountants who were supposed to decipher the company's administration for the Nazis ended up with little result. It took them years to do their research, partly because of the generous compensation Unilever gave them for the cost statements, which amounted to almost half a million guilders. Unilever was thus trying to prolong the investigation as long as possible, to avoid falling into the hands of the Nazis.
Jewish managers were kept as long as possible in their posts, but eventually ended up in exile in England. In 1941, all persons with a Jewish background were to be dismissed, by order of the Nazis. There was no escape from this measure. Unilever gave its workers a very good severance package, but could not prevent a considerable number of employees from being deported to concentration camps, says Wubs.
How did Unilever manage to maintain friendly relations with the Nazis? According to Wubs, the company performed perfectly in its role as an indispensable factor. Unilever supplied 60% of the German tallow industry, which was of vital importance for feeding the population, and thus the fighting soldiers. In this way, the company was an indirect contributor to the German war machine.
According to Wubs, Unilever operated on the basis of purely business considerations rather than moral convictions. The historian wants to dispel the prejudice that multinationals are almost by definition unscrupulous and ally themselves with dubious regimes. Wubs finds it more relevant to hold individuals at the top of the company accountable than to judge the company as a whole.
An appreciation of current business practices fills Wubs with scepticism. It is almost impossible to control the actions of multinationals in conflict areas through national measures. This is partly because multinationals are very complex organisms, something the Nazis also had to deal with.