The Faustian Bargain: Industrialist Fritz Thyssen and the Nazis
“Fritz Thyssen, German industrialist who gave Reichsfuehrer Hitler early financial backing, is now in the hands of the Gestapo, it was reliably learned here today.”
—Reuters wire service report, Sept. 1, 1942
In German legend, Faust was a successful scholar and astronomer who, dissatisfied with his life, transacted a deal with the Devil, selling his soul in exchange for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasure. Over time, the term “Faustian bargain” came to mean the moral corruption of an individual for profit. If ever there were a real life Faust, it was industrialist Fritz Thyssen.
Thyssen was the son of steel magnate August Thyssen, head of the largest steel manufacturer in Germany, far larger than the “cannon kings” of Krupp. In 1926, he assumed control of the family empire. Within two years Thyssen’s companies controlled more than 75 percent of Germany’s iron ore reserves and employed more than 200,000 people. A devout Catholic, political conservative, and ardent German nationalist, Thyssen held a prominent role in elite German circles.
Thyssen’s association with the Nazis began in 1923, when retired general Erich Ludendorff convinced him to attend a rally where Adolf Hitler was to give a speech. Thyssen was captivated by Hitler’s oratory and found common cause in Hitler’s hatred of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Shortly afterward Thyssen donated 100,000 gold marks, the first of many financial contributions to the Nazi party. It’s worth noting the indirect manner of this donation, because it suggests a more complex reason for his later falling out with the Nazis.
In 1945, Thyssen was one of a large group of German industrialists, politicians, scientists, and generals held and interrogated by the Americans. Operation Paperclip, focusing on scientists making rockets and jet engines, was the most famous of these. Thyssen was interrogated as part of Operation Dustbin. Of that first contribution, Thyssen told his interrogator Clifford Hynning, “I did not want to give any money directly to the [Nazi] party, so I gave it to Ludendorff and he gave it to the party.”
Thyssen was the first important industrialist to support the Nazis, and he was instrumental in bringing on board his fellow industrialists and helping the Nazis gain political control of Germany.
Hitler’s growing militarism alarmed Thyssen, who believed another war would be ruinous. When Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland, the breach between the two was complete. Thyssen and his wife went into exile, first to Switzerland, then to France. Thyssen left behind a document intended for publication by the German press. It was an impassioned attack on Hitler and his policies and it concluded with the sentence, “Your policy will terminate in a finis Germaniae.” The document was not published. Thyssen’s companies and properties were confiscated.
There was a family precedent to Thyssen’s document. In World War I, his father published a pamphlet that indicted the Kaiser and the House of Hohenzollern for its pre-war policies and deception during the war. Thyssen pére was arrested for treason, later freed.
German police issued an international arrest warrant against Fritz Thyssen, charging him with “theft, embezzlement, fraud, non-payment in income and other taxes, and contravention of the German currency restrictions.” When interviewed by reporters, Thyssen called the charges “ridiculous.” But in this instance the Nazis actually had a credible case. The Thyssen family had a history of tax evasion dating back to World War I, when August Thyssen set up a number of firms in the neutral Netherlands, including a bank, in order to safeguard and funnel assets and avoid taxes. In 1939 the Tax Directorate in Düsseldorf gathered sufficient proof to indict Thyssen for tax evasion and illegal foreign currency transactions.
After Germany’s defeat of France in 1940, Thyssen took refuge in Vichy France, ultimately intending to go to Argentina. But in August 1942 Vichy authorities turned him over to the Gestapo. Later joined by his wife, they were eventually imprisoned in Dachau.
In April 1945, with the war in Europe in its final days, Thyssen and his wife were rounded up with other important prisoners, collectively known as the Niederdorf group after the name of a hotel where they were to stay, and transported by the SS to the Austrian Tyrol. The newsreel clip above shows the group, including Thyssen and his wife, shortly after they were freed by American troops.