Was President Bush’s great-grandfather a Nazi?

SHARE Was President Bush’s great-grandfather a Nazi?

Dear Cecil: I read in the New Yorker that George W. Bush’s grandfather and great-grandfather worked for Brown Brothers Harriman, and had clients who funded the building of the Nazi regime. I searched the Net and found hundreds of sites giving volumes of details and listing sources like the New York Times and the Library of Congress. Conspiracy theories aside, what’s the truth about our president’s family? Matt Tiegler


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Remember how during the Clinton era there were all those rabid EOBs (Enemies of Bill) who seemingly devoted their every waking hour to propagating scurrilous stories about the president and his family? Well, an equally dedicated crew is now spreading sensational allegations about Dubya and his forebears. (Sample: the president’s grandfather not only financed the Nazis, he used concentration-camp prisoners as slaves.) So each side gets a chance to drag the other through the mud. Is this a great country or what?

Though the Bush family’s detractors are legion, one of the most prominent is John Loftus, a former federal prosecutor and past president of the Florida Holocaust Museum in Saint Petersburg. In 1994 Loftus coauthored a book with Mark Aarons entitled The Secret War Against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed the Jewish People. The book alleges various misdeeds by George W.’s father, George H.W., his grandfather, Prescott Bush, and his great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker. Since space is limited we’ll focus on the accusations against Prescott Bush, which in my opinion are the most serious.

The central charge against Prescott Bush has a basis in fact. In 1942, under the Trading With the Enemy Act, the U.S. government seized several companies in which he had an interest. Prescott at the time was an investment banker with Brown Brothers Harriman (BBH), which had funneled U.S. capital into Germany during the 1920s and ’30s. Among the seized companies was the Union Banking Corporation (UBC) of New York, which was controlled by German industrialist Fritz Thyssen. Thyssen had been an early financier of the Nazi party — in fact, in 1941 he published a book entitled I Paid Hitler. Ergo, Prescott helped finance the Nazis.

An article by journalist Toby Rogers posted on Loftus’s Web site makes an even more explosive charge. Another company in which Prescott and his associates had a stake was the Silesian-American Corporation (SAC), which owned several industrial concerns in Poland. The Auschwitz death camp was established in a district where SAC already had a steel plant. The plant allegedly used forced labor from Auschwitz during World War II. The article asserts that “a portion of the slave labor force in Poland was ‘managed by Prescott Bush,’ according to a Dutch intelligence agent.” (See www.john-loftus.com/Thyssen.asp.)

The slave labor charge is easy to dismiss. SAC plants in Poland were taken over by the German government after the Nazi invasion of 1939, and the Auschwitz prison camp wasn’t established until 1940. No one can seriously claim that Prescott Bush managed camp inmates in any of those plants.

Prescott’s involvement with Nazi finance is more complicated. Though Thyssen had been an ardent backer of the Nazis in the early days, he broke with them in 1938 after the Kristallnacht pogrom against the Jews. He fled to Switzerland the following year, and Hitler confiscated his fortune and stripped him of his citizenship. In I Paid Hitler Thyssen confessed his role in financing the Nazis and denounced the Führer. Arrested in Vichy France, he spent the balance of the war as an Axis prisoner. Prescott Bush, for his part, owned a single share of stock (of 4,000) in UBC, the Thyssen bank. According to a 2001 Boston Globe piece, the New York Herald Tribune ran a story in July 1942 headlined “Hitler’s Angel Has 3 Million in US Bank,” in which Prescott and other BBH partners “explain[ed] to government regulators that their position [as directors of UBC] was merely an unpaid courtesy for a client.”

So, did Bush and his firm finance the Nazis and enable Germany to rearm? Indirectly, yes. But they had a lot of company. Some of the most distinguished names in American business had investments or subsidiaries in prewar Germany, including Standard Oil and General Motors. Critics have argued for years that without U.S. money, the Nazis could never have waged war. But American business has always invested in totalitarian regimes — witness our dealings with mainland China.

Loftus tells me there’s more to it than that. He says that the value of German industrial assets in which Bush and friends invested increased during World War II, in part due to slave labor, and that Bush benefited from this increase when the assets were returned — supposedly he got $1.5 million when UBC was liquidated in 1951. I’ll buy the claim that Bush got his share of UBC back — it was an American bank, after all — but the idea that his German holdings increased in value despite being obliterated by Allied bombs is ridiculous.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.