Henry Ford Perfected the Mass Production of Cars—and Antisemitism

The famed automaker not only inspired Hitler but gave rise to stereotypes and conspiracy theories that continue to plague Jews.

Keystone/Getty; Wikipedia

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Henry Ford may be known for revolutionizing the automobile industry, but there’s another thing he mass produced: antisemitism.

That’s one thing my colleague Dan Schulman explains in his new book, The Money Kings: The Epic Story of the Jewish Immigrants Who Transformed Wall Street and Shaped Modern America. The book tells the Gilded Age saga of a collection of German-Jewish financial dynasties—including the families who founded Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers—who profoundly influenced the 20th century. At the heart of the story is Jacob Schiff, a renowned financier and philanthropist who rivaled J.P. Morgan as the leading investment banker of that era. Though Schiff is not well remembered today, his legacy can be found in many aspects of modern life, including in the thriving Jewish community that his philanthropy helped to nurture.

There was also a tragic aspect of the story of Schiff and his allies, who would become leading characters in antisemitic conspiracy theories that persist to this day.

I recently got to chat with Schulman about some of the ways Schiff’s legacy persists today, and he filled me in on something that I found particularly interesting: Henry Ford’s obsession with German-Jewish bankers, which contributed to the automaker’s methodical, years-long dissemination of antisemitic propaganda via his weekly newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Over seven years, “this paper relentlessly attacked Jews—it blamed Jews not only for wars and financial panics but things like wrecking American baseball,” Schulman notes. Schiff and his partners in the investment bank of Kuhn Loeb were frequent targets.

Now, here’s where things take a turn. The Dearborn Independent collected its anti-Jewish writings into four volumes titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. Millions of copies were published throughout the world, including in Germany. And when a New York Times reporter visited an up-and-coming politician named Adolf Hitler in 1922, he noticed a portrait of Ford on the wall of Hitler’s office and a stack of copies of The International Jew. “Hitler and the Nazis were distributing millions of copies,” Schulman tells me. “In a very real way, Henry Ford was a Nazi muse.” It’s through the Indepedent‘s attacks on Schiff and other Jews that Ford not only helped to plant the seeds of modern antisemitic conspiracy theories about Jewish power but also influenced Germany’s genocidal leader. With antisemitism once again surging, it’s more important than ever to understand the origins and history of this hatred and bigotry.

Schulman’s book is on physical and digital shelves and is the perfect story for our moment.

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