Corporations are, if nothing else, emphatically devoid of conscience, marketing their wares wherever the promise of profit glimmers.
By 1936, anyone who kept up with the news knew that Hitler’s Germany was the most transgressive the modern world had ever seen, openly breaching the limitations on its military mandated by the Treaty of Versailles and ruthlessly purging Jews and other ethnic minorities from the public sphere, with dark hints of things to come.
Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, planned the Nazi Olympics as a public spectacle to confirm the glorious nature of his regime, and luring corporations from across the Atlantic as corporate sponsors of his masterpiece.
One eager participant was that most iconic of brands, Coca-Cola, seeing the games as an opportunity to forge an identity with the regime.
Coke laid out the cash and flooded Germany with billboards and other forms of promotion.
One of the least controversial ads featured a German sprinter leading the pack, a reminder that a nice cold drink was the perfect antidote to the summer heat in Berlin and enjoy the massive stadium built by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer.
Playing up to the Nazis
How better to identify itself with the Hitler regime than to appropriate one of its most infamous slogans: Ein Volk. Ein Reich. Ein Fuhrer [One People, One Empire, One Fuhrer]. In Coca-Cola’s own version, it became One People, One Empire, One drink, adding the familiar international motto, “Coke is it.”
A wartime embargo leads to a new brand
When the war began, German bottlers couldn’t import the coca and cola nuts needed to produce the brown beverage, so at Keith’s command, company chemists came up with a substitute, using, among other things, whey powder derived from the leavings of cheesemakers and the residue from apple cider presses.
Stuck for a name for his new beverage, Keith turned to his employees for suggestions, telling them to let their Fantasie [fantasy] run wild.
One salesman, knowing that the best way to please a boss is to feed him back his own idea, came up with the winner. The company came up with a bottle similar to the Coke original, but with out the characteristic profile.
And thus a brand was born.
Early last year, on Fanta’s 75th anniversary, German television featured a commemorative ad, celebrating those “good old times” when Germany’s innovators created such a marvelous beverage.
The ad didn’t sit too well with countless Germans and countless others who lost parents, grandparents, spouses, and siblings during those “good old times,” and the ad was pulled and the requisite apology issued.
Still, major American corporations [including GM and IBM] and banks [including the one which George H.W. Bush’s father helped set up and profited from] made lots of money off the Third Reich. Indeed, it was IBM’s mechanical computers that enabled to Nazis to keep track of Jews in Germany and lands the Nazis conquered and send them on their ways to death camps, where more records were compiled by IBM’s Hollerith machines.
A more detailed look at Coke’s Nazi connection
During his tenure as a lecturer at Harvard Law School, food and drug public interest attorney Peter Barton Hutt wrote a very perceptive essay about the relationship between Coke’s German subsidiary and the Hitler regime. [Though the essay is no longer on the Harvard server, the KillerCoke website has reposted it.]
As the time Coca-Cola GmbH was headed by a German national, Max Keith, who worked hard to develop strong ties to the Nazi regime.
It has been suggested that Coke’s success was directly related to the “striking parallels” between Coca-Cola GmbH and the nation at large. Hitler was a proponent of American mass-consumption and welcomed America’s efficient methods of production (although he was anti-American in all other respects). Interestingly enough, Keith’s looks and personality have been compared to those of Hitler, and Keith’s enthusiasm for Coke was seen by some of his employees, who were often overworked, as evidence of his fanatical tendencies. It seems that Company and government interests overlapped. The Nazis regarded mass-production and mass-consumption as crucial building blocks of their new society, and they must have been impressed by Coca-Cola’s modern means of producing a uniform product. Additionally, Coke’s advertising strategies reflected values central to the Nationalist-Socialist society.
Keith supplied Coca-Cola for the athletes and visitors at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where Hitler was the proud host to the nations of the world, and where Woodruff was a guest. An abundance of Coke’s advertising supported the Third Reich. Keith zeroed in on special events (as Woodruff had done in America) to further Coke’s image, not as an American drink this time, but as a German drink in Nazi Germany. For example, Coca-Cola appeared at Hitler youth rallies, as “Coca-Cola trucks accompanied the marchers, hoping to capture the next generation.” In 1937, at a “Working People” Exhibit displaying the accomplishments of the German worker during the first five years of Hitler’s rule, Coca-Cola set up a miniature bottling plant “with a miniature train carting Kinder beneath it…at the very center of the fair, adjacent to the Propaganda Office.” In March of 1938, when Hitler’s troops went into Austria, Keith convened the annual concessionaire convention, with 1,500 people in attendance. Keith sat at the main table (a large swastika draped in front of him), and encouraged his workers to continue their “march to success.” The ceremony ended with a “Sieg-Heil” to Hitler. In April of 1939, at the tenth anniversary of the German Coca-Cola business, Keith gloated that the past year had been historic because Hitler had annexed Austria and Sudentland; yet the spread of Coca-Cola during 1938 was a close second. This strategy of direct association with Nazi leaders and of lending support to events propagandized by Nazi ideology sent a powerful message to the German consumers and government by signaling that Coca-Cola was on Germany’s side.
This show of support for Nazis was perhaps an aggressive advertising technique designed to combat slander against the company. In 1936, Herr Flasch, who manufactured an imitation drink called Afri-Cola, began circulating flyers depicting Coca-Cola bottle caps from the U.S. with Hebrew inscriptions. Although the inscriptions were nothing but an indication that Coke was kosher, the flyers claimed to prove that Coca-Cola was a Jewish company. Sales plummeted, and Nazi party headquarters cancelled their orders. Keith denounced the accusations in The Stuermer, the official Nazi publication renowned for its vicious attacks against Jews. Coke was able to survive the fiasco, probably through the aggressive marketing techniques described above. Again, ironically, the Coke bottles in question pronounced that they were kosher to appeal to the American Jewish population at home; yet here was Keith, denying that Coca-Cola was a Jewish company, because to be a Jewish company would be a terrible thing.