John J. McCloy and the Exoneration and Release of Nazi War Criminals
By their actions, ye shall know them. In retrospect, John J. McCloy was not a complex person. He was consistent. Big business was best. It was this tunnel-minded philosophy that led him, as an unelected pro-American potentate, to facilitate the consistent and widespread exoneration of convicted, post-war, Nazi war criminals.
Initially, the Allied forces held a series of military tribunals at Nuremberg, known as the Trial of the Major War Criminals, from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946. This would lead to twelve additional trials there from 1946 to 1949 which focused on crimes against humanity and the prosecution of major industrialists (mostly accused of slave labour practices) as well as doctors and military figures involved in “racial cleansing,” executions, torture and deployment of mobile death squads.
The directors of the gigantic German company I.G. Farben were put on trial for war crimes in 1947 and 1948. The so-called I.G. Farben trial was the sixth of twelve trials overseen by U.S. authorities at Nuremberg. Some 23 I.G. Farben directors were tried but only thirteen were convicted. As well, in 1948, the industrialist Alfried Krupp was stripped of all his property and sentenced to twelve years in prison. Bizarrely, McCloy’s handling of Krupp Jr.’s case–one individual–would draw far more attention than his unwillingness to save six millions Jews as well as his eagerness to incarcerate as many Japanese American citizens as possible.
In June of 1949, President Truman sent McCloy to Germany to succeed General Lucius Clay as Military Governor or the proconsul of occupied Germany. He was instructed by Dean Acheson to solve the “German problem” by building a German state that was firmly aligned with NATO. [At the same time as McCloy became U.S. High Commissioner of Germany, in 1950, his brother-in-law Lewis Douglas was Truman’s U.S. ambassador in London.] McCloy’s office was in the former headquarters of I.G. Farben. This was the powerhouse, multi-faceted company with which McCloy had involvements as a lawyer prior to World War II.
The U.S. had seized the company’s offices in Frankfurt—built in 1931—and adapted them as headquarters of the Supreme Allied Command. McCloy later boasted, “We made unthinkable another European civil war,” a statement that would remain valid until Russia took over Crimea and invaded Ukraine.
For McCloy, monetary concerns invariably trumped moral concerns. In such matters, he never wavered. Hence, he heeded the urgings of Conrad Adenauer, America’s choice to serve as the top German official in the western zone, who wrote to McCloy in mid-November of 1950 asking for the “commutation of all death sentences” as well as “the widest possible clemency for persons sentenced to confinement” in the wake of trials for Nazi war crimes.
On December 5, 1950, Adenauer wrote to McCloy specifically requesting clemency for the industrialist Alfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach. This, after all, would not be seen as unprecedented because McCloy had not hesitated to free the former CEO of I.G. Farben, Hermann Schmitz, in 1950. (With protection from McCloy, Schmitz was allowed to join the supervisory board of Deutsche Bank.)
On January 31, 1951, McCloy agreed to review the sentences from the Nuremberg and Dachau trials. He could not overturn any sentences, but he could re-evaluate and re-determine punishments. At the time, 28 prisoners were on death row. McCloy and General Thomas T. Handy would commute the sentences of all but seven men (who included the ultra-heinous Paul Blobel, Oswald Pohl, Otto Ohlendorf, Werner Braune, Erich Naumann, Georg Schallermair of Muhldorf/Dachau and Hans Hermann Schmidt of Buchenwald). In spite of some public demonstrations for clemency to spare the lives of these monsters, they were executed on June 7, 1951. Hence, some justice was seen to be done.
Even though convicted executives of I.G. Farben had colluded with the S.S. to operate ruthless slave labour camps at Auschwitz III (Monowitz) and provided the diabolical Zyklon B gas (originally developed for the elimination of rodents), McCloy proceeded to arrange for the release of more I.G. Farben executives who had been convicted of war crimes in 1951. Most were quickly restored to their directorships in the post-war companies. For instance, McCloy pardoned Walter Durrfeld, the technical manager of the I.G. Farben Auschwitz plant, who was serving an eight-year sentence.
Under McCloy, I.G. Farben was “decartelized” into three founding firms: BASF, Bayer and Hoechst. This process nonetheless revitalized the business careers of some key German business figures who had been convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg. The former I.G. Farben board member Friedrich Jahne, with the blessing of McCloy, was hired as chairman for the Hoechst board of directors.
Sentenced in 1948 to seven years in prison for his role in planning the Monowitz concentration camp, as well as “mass murder and enslavement,” the German chemist, Nazi Party member and I.G. Farben board member Fritz ter Meer was released by McCloy in 1951 whereupon he would be selected to serve as chairman of the board of directors for Bayer AG in 1956. Fritz ter Meer had lived in the U.S. from 1925 to 1929 and had handled I.G. Farben’s negotiations with Standard Oil, as well as co-founding the Joint American Study Corporation (JASCO) in 1929.
These “new” corporations such as Bayer AG would staunchly claim they could not be held legally liable or blameworthy for I.G. Farben’s history and firmly rejected all claims for compensation from forced labourers until the late 1990s.
The steel baron Alfried Krupp was arrested by the Canadian army in 1945. Three years after he was sentenced at Nuremberg to twelve years in prison for crimes against humanity, after Krupp’s industries had worked some 80,000 slave labourers to death under the watchful eyes of the SS, John McCloy pardoned him and returned his properties. Eight of Krupp’s board of directors were also released. Winston Churchill was appalled and the Washington Post published a cartoon by Herb Block showing a smiling McCloy opening Krupp’s cell door while Joseph Stalin snapped a photo in the background.
McCloy had to dismiss allegations that he had been bribed by Krupp’s American lawyer, Earl J. Carroll. Such allegations become understandable if one considered that it was reported that Carroll’s employment terms for the case were simple. If he succeeded in getting Krupp released and his properties and assets restored, Carroll would receive five per cent of everything he recovered for Krupp. It was subsequently that Carroll’s five-year fee for services therefore amounted to $25 million (in the 1950s).
During the first World War, Krupp AG had become Germany’s largest armaments company. The company began producing tanks in 1933, as part of an Agricultural Tractor Scheme, as well submarines. In 1943, Hitler appointed Krupp as Minister of the War Economy. Some 45,000 Russian civilians provided forced labour in Krupp’s steel factories and some 120,000 prisoners worked in coalmines. Krupp had been arrested by the Canadian Army in 1945. After his father Gustav Krupp was considered too old to stand trial, the son took the fall.
Krupp Jr. rebounded thanks to McCloy. His company soon became the 12th largest corporation in the world. When he was accused in the press of liberating Krupp to mobilize German industry in order to assist U.S. during the Korean War, McCloy adamantly denied there was any agenda in support of American imperialism. “No lawyer told me what to do,” he protested, “and it wasn’t political. It was a matter of my conscience.”
McCloy was also openly sympathetic to Albert Speer, who he admired. From 89 appeals of clemency, U.S. High Commissioner granted concessions for 79 of them. Perhaps most heinously, he commuted the sentences of Nazi doctors who had undertaken hideous experiments in the concentration camps. After receiving a twenty-year sentence for injecting healthy children with oil and removing their limbs and organs without anesthesia while they were still alive and conscious, Dr. Herta Oberheuser of Ravensbrück was reprieved by McCloy after serving five years.
Friedrich Flick was one of Hitler’s main financial backers, helping to fund the National Socialist German Workers Party. After it was estimated that 80% of the approximately 48,000 slave labourers his companies had used during World War II had not survived, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years for his war crimes. He, too, was exonerated under McCloy’s watch. His properties were also restored. Flick proceeded to become one of the richest people in West Germany again and the largest shareholder of Daimler-Benz.
McCloy also pardoned Edmund Veesenmayer (1904−1977) who served only two years of a twenty-year sentence after being a senior officer in Schutzstaffel (SS), working directly with Adolf Eichmann to perpetuate the Holocaust.
He also pardoned Ernst von Weizsäcker (1882−1951) who had been convicted of crimes against humanity for his role in the deportation of French Jews to KZ Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Weizsäcker was later buried in his full Nazi uniform including a swastika armband.
The notorious Einsatzgruppe commander in Estonia and head of Gestapo in Verona, Martin Sandberger, had cleansed Estonia of its Jews and also massacred communists, Roma and the mentally ill. He received a death sentence but it was reprieved and pardoned by John J. McCloy. Sandberger was released and died in 2010 at the age of 98. Nine other death sentences were commuted under McCloy’s administration.
Sentenced to seven years for co-operating with the deportation of French Jews to Auschwitz, Ernst von Weizsäcker was released after only three years and three months with the interference of John J. McCloy who also liberated Josef Dietrich, convicted mass murderer Joachim Peiper, Nazi judges, SS officers and a Nazi doctor who had conducted experiments on Holocaust prisoners.
Out of the 104 defendants convicted at Nuremberg, 74 had their sentences reduced.
At the time, McCloy was upbraided by Eleanor Roosevelt who wrote to him and asked, “Why are we freeing so many Nazis?”
General Telford Taylor, who had been Chief Counsel for the Prosecution at the Nuremberg, wrote that the commutation of the sentences was “a blow to the principles of international law and concepts of humanity for which we fought the war.” But, by the mid-Fifties, after the Bavarian government had passed a parliamentary resolution declaring that military prisoners at Landsberg Prison should be regarded as prisoners-of-war, and thereby under the fiscal responsibility of the federal German government, the inmates were seen less as war criminals and more as political prisoners. Fairly quickly, McCloy’s pardoning of heinous Nazi war criminals was largely expunged from public memory. Or, rather, they don’t teach this stuff in school.
By 1956, the administration of the Landsberg Prison was shifted to the West Germany government, rather than controlled by the United States. Decisions made by military courts could therefore be regarded as foreign convictions that could be expunged from an individual’s criminal record. Control of the prison was entirely shifted to West Germany in 1958, by which time the four remaining Nazi war criminals were released from custody. Due to a 1961 Hollywood movie Judgement at Nuremberg, starring Spencer Tracy, written and directed by Stanley Kramer, most North Americans still assume most top Nazis were taken to task, etc, and rightfully punished. The movie was a propaganda sham if one stops to seriously consider the numerical extent of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity–the number of murders committed–versus the number of people responsible who were brought to justice.
The American policy and attitude that stimulating business (capitalism) should take precedence over moral issues prevailed. John J. McCloy can be credited or blamed. When the French discovered Klaus Barbie (“The Butcher of Lyon”) was in U.S. protective custody and requested that the former Nazi (convicted in absentia of crimes against humanity) be turned over to them for execution, it was McCloy who refused the request. Barbie fled to Bolivia, allegedly with assistance from the United States.
John McCloy never questioned the pardons he had granted for convicted I.G. Farben executives and other high profile war criminals such as Krupp. To the contrary, the great American patriot who served on the supervisory boards of several chemical companies was self-congratulatory. “I had the powers of a dictator as High Commissioner of Allied Forces in West Germany,” he once boasted, “but I think I was a benevolent dictator. I think the rebuilding came off very well, with no significant problems. It wasn’t a matter of ordering things done so much as using orderly persuasion with the Germans.”
The cover image of Kissinger, at left, magically pulling a bird out of a hat, celebrates showmanship. But there was no corresponding TIME magazine cover image for McCloy when he was liberating the men who were at the top of the food chain as Nazi Germany was systematically annihilating six million Jews. Perhaps McCloy’s greatest achievement as a fixer—as someone who achieves outrageous ends while somehow making himself exempt from notice or criticism—was his success at liberating Nazi war criminals in plain sight. In Paul Roland’s London-published compendium The Nuremberg Trials: The Nazis and their Crimes Against Humanity, published in 2010, the name John J. McCloy does not appear even once. Surely this disappearance from history is a Machiavellian achievement of the highest order. To consort so inextricably with evil, for so long, even choosing to exonerate the mass murderers of Jews on the public record, and to do so with minimal rebuke or censure, is a gargantuan achievement of distinctly brazen, self-satisfied American arrogance. THIS was also who Rudolf Vrba was fighting against as much as he was trying to blow the whistle on the Holocaust.
While still working closely with David Rockefeller, McCloy, as chairman of the Rockefeller-dominated Chase Bank, proceeded to oversee its merger with the Bank of Manhattan in 1955 to form the second-largest bank in the country, Chase Manhattan Bank, in 1955. He acted as chairman until 1960, as well as chairman of the Ford Foundation from 1958 to 1965. McCloy was simultaneously chairman of the Council of Foreign Relations from 1955 to 1970, succeeded by David Rockefeller, as well as Honorary Chairman of the Paris-based Atlantic Institute from 1966 to 1968.
In 1967, McCloy turned down an offer from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for the administration of President Lyndon Johnson; having previously responded favourably to Johnson’s request to serve on the Warren Commission along with his friend Allen Dulles. In that latter capacity, McCloy, even though he remained privately skeptical that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted as a lone gunman, was willing to help persuade the gullible American public that Oswald had killed Kennedy on his own volition–even though Oswald had been quickly put to death by Mafioso Jack Ruby to prevent him from spilling any beans. As a key member of the Warren Commission, McCloy brokered the compromised language of its final report.
If mentioned at all, McCloy is rarely cited as the American who mimicked the Nazi agenda of consolidating Jews in ghettos and confiscating their possessions and properties–when he was chiefly responsible for the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. Instead, he is either mostly forgotten or else revered as a stalwart believer in the economic and political doctrine of mainstream of America: that it has a God-given destiny to lead the world.
If Rudolf Vrba could have lived long enough to read this article, he would have identified McCloy in a heartbeat as World War II’s foremost, non-German desk murderer or Schreibtischtäter. Hannah Arendt used this term to describe the architects of the Holocaust, chiefly Albert Speer and Adolf Eichmann, but Dan Gretton, in his omnibus survey, I You, We, Them: Walking in the World of the Desk Killer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2020), has traced the concept of desk murderer to Gideon Hausner, who served as a prosecutor in Eichmann’s trial in 1961.
Gretton once described Hitler’s favoured architect Albert Speer as a man who “sought safety in abstraction—systems, statistics, problems…. Although he was personable, even charming, this disguised an essential lacuna in him — an inability to fully understand the emotions of others, or indeed himself.” It would not be much of a stretch to apply much the same commentary when evaluating McCloy.
A benevolent view of John McCloy would suggest that his reverence for the pre-eminence of big business and capitalism served as a set of blinders in much the same way that Albert Speer sought safety in abstraction. Whether high-ranking collaborators with evil are overtly complicit, as in the case of the American “statesman” John McCloy, or whether they are more delicately in league with the denial of reality—such as Israeli historians who have suggested Rudi Vrba’s anger at Jewish leadership for keeping Auschwitz a secret from their fellow Jews should be dismissed as misguided aggression triggered by trauma—there must always be some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel…
One American president has been willing to accept some complicity in the Holocaust. When President Jimmy Carter first met Elie Wiesel in 1979, he provided him with a copy of the aerial photographs of Auschwitz-Birkenau taken in August of 1944 when Wiesel was imprisoned in Auschwitz III and Allied planes bombed the I.G. Farben complex. It was a meaningful gesture. The Allies did know. “Every bomb filled us with joy and gave us new confidence in life,” Wiesel said. Two months later, attending a Remembrance ceremony at the Capitol rotunda in April, Wiesel, after having gratefully accepted those images, spoke candidly. “The evidence is before us: The world knew and kept silent. The documents that you, Mr. President, handed to the chairman of your Commission on the Holocaust, testify to the effect.”
In his later years, McCloy served as a lawyer for multinational oil companies, including Exxon, giving rise to the somewhat dubious title, “Chairman of the American establishment.”
Praised by Helmut Schmidt, the former Chancellor of West Germany, for his role as the architect of Germany’s rehabilitation, McCloy never served in the Cabinet of any president, yet, as Henry Kissinger noted, “few Americans have had a greater impact on their time.”
For President Kennedy, McCloy negotiated with Nikita Khrushchev about partitioned Berlin and nuclear disarmament, and he worked with U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson to resolve the Cuban missile crisis.
When Chase Manhattan Bank paid for his ninetieth birthday party in March of 1985, President Ronald Reagan invited him to the White House for a garden party. You can listen to President Reagan’s comments to John McCloy here. Still serving on the board of Mercedes-Benz in North America, Henry Stimson’s lieutenant during World War II arrived in his pale-blue Mercedes limousine, still confident that his imperial vision of a beneficent United States imposing its will on a hostile world was entirely just. Reagan praised his “selfless heart,” the president of Germany, Richard von Weizsacker conferred honorary German citizenship and his pal Henry Kissinger’s unctuously intoned, “John McCloy, I believe, heard the footsteps of God… and if we followed in his footsteps we were in the path of doing God’s work.”
There were only a few dissenters. A coalition of students and faculty protested when Harvard University accepted Volkswagen money via the McCloy Fund and publications such as The New Republic, Commentary and Washington Post attempted to remind the public about McCloy’s policy decisions, on behalf of the country, to ensure the internment of Japanese Americans and to prohibit any bombings of Auschwitz or its railway tracks.
After more than fifty years of marriage, when his wife Ellen was beset by dementia, McCloy once returned home from his offices at Milbank, Tweed and found his lifetime companion hallucinating. He was shocked to realize that his wife, who knew him better than anyone, believed he was a Nazi general who had come to take her away.
Next: McCLOY AND AMERICA