Why the Koch Family’s Nazi History Matters

Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money, expands on the work she has done over the past five years exposing the influence of Charles and David Koch on American democracy. Her excellent reporting has revealed, in at times shocking ways, the Koch brothers as anti-government puppet-masters manipulating our political system for massive profit. This new, exhaustive look into just how terrible the Kochs are is already grabbing headlines for its election year timing — 2016 will be the first election since 1965 without the full Voting Rights Act protections, thanks in large part to the Kochs — as well as the deeply troubling Koch family history Mayer has unearthed.

There are a few not-funny-haha-but-funny-ugh facts here, such as the fact that Charles Koch was potty trained by a Nazi nanny. But, alas, Dark Money is not a satirical take on right wing neuroses played out on the Kansas plains. It is an exhaustively researched, deeply important book about the recent history of the American republic, and the ideological roots of the major manipulators of that history. So in addition to the Nazi potty training fact, we also learn the crucial role the Kochs have played in right-wing attempts to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, campaign finance laws, and any effective social safety net for America’s disenfranchised.

We also learn more about the family’s patriarch, Fred Koch, Charles and David’s father. Fred, it turns out, made the Koch family hundreds of millions by being, repeatedly and unabashedly, on the wrong side of history.

Not only was Fred Koch a founding member of the “Anarcho-Totalitarian” John Birch Society and happy business partner of Stalin, he was, we now know, instrumental in building the war machine of the Third Reich.

There is, unsurprisingly, a lot of money to be made in evil, and the Kochs have made bank.

Here’s how Mayer tells it:

“After leaving the U.S.S.R.,Fred Koch turned to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Hitler became chancellor in 1933, and soon after, his government oversaw and funded massive industrial expansion, including the buildup of Germany’s capacity to manufacture fuel for its growing military ambitions. During the 1930s, Fred Koch traveled frequently to Germany on oil business. Archival records document that in 1934 Winkler-Koch Engineering of Wichita, Kansas, as Fred’s firm was then known, provided the engineering plans and began overseeing the construction of a massive oil refinery owned by a company on the Elbe River in Hamburg.”

This oil refinery wasn’t just a rinky dink operation. Once it got up and running, it provided necessary fuel for the Third Reich from the mid-thirties through 1944, when the Allies finally destroyed it. It took two full days of bombing raids involving over 150 B-17s from the Eighth Air Force division, but they stopped the oil production, weeks after D-Day and months before Germany officially surrendered. The history of this refinery is the history of the Reich. It provided high octane jet fuel for Hitler’s war machine for nearly the life-span of his rule and all but the last months of the war itself. And Fred Koch wasn’t just a bit player. It almost certainly wouldn’t have been built without him.

Since this fact came to light, the Kochs have released a statement saying, essentially, lots of people helped out the Nazis back then, why pick on them, and anyway it wasn’t yet treason to help out Hitler in 1933.

While it’s true you can find both Bush and Kennedy family connections to the Third Reich, and that 1933 was before the full extent of Hitler’s evil had manifested itself, it’s still an awfully weak defense for what can charitably called a catastrophic moral failing with global consequences. But, in light of everything else in Dark Money, going into business with Hitler looks less like a mistake and much more like the tried-and-true Koch family strategy — bet on the strong exploiting the weak, pocket the cash, dissemble after the facts come to light. Mayer’s book doesn’t speculate on Fred Koch’s true Nazi sympathies, only how the Koch patriarch actively sought out this contract, meticulously oversaw the plans, and knew full well the project had been personally approved by Hitler.

At the very least, Fred Koch definitively answered this question for the Koch family and effectively cashed in on Stalin and Hitler’s war machines. And now we’re all living in the aftermath.

In a nutshell, a pair of brothers once-removed from direct participation in the major horrors of the 20th century use their legacy money to dismantle governmental protections for the vast majority of Americans in order to make billions for Koch Industries, damn the consequences.

I think this should stop. I think you should join me in fighting against Koch influence. On purely practical and political grounds, Dark Money makes clear the Kochs are once again on the wrong side of history.

But, on a personal note, this touches a deep familial wound, as I’m sure it does for many others.

My grandfather was a Bombardier in World War II, flying 49 missions in a B-17 Flying Fortress throughout Europe. He was a young Indiana farm boy when he enlisted in the Air Force, and he spent his early 20s in the middle of this catastrophe. In 1944, he was the lead bombardier on his 50th and final bombing run, this one over the Blechhammer oil refinery in lower Silesia, when the Nazis shot him down.

Miraculously — and here is where his account differs from thousands of others — he survived the crash. He hid in the Polish countryside for days before a local family hid him in the barn. No small thing in disputed territory. This family, particularly a young woman named Ludwika Bandolac, sheltered my grandpa from the Nazis and eventually helped him make it back to his base in Italy.

It’s a remarkable story and also an amazingly common one for those who lived through the 20th century (if you’re interested, my grandpa wrote about it here). It’s a “greatest generation” story that has become essentially a Hollywood trope, in large part because I think it’s almost impossible to fully imagine, and so becomes a shorthand for struggle, heroism, triumph over evil.

In 2004, my wife and I went with my grandpa back to Poland to look for Ludwika and to find out how the Bombardier’s memories of the area matched with whatever was left in 2004 Silesia. Unsurprisingly, that was weird. I wrote about it here.

What I didn’t get to in that book was a lot of what I learned about in the process of researching it were the connections between Nazi forced labor and oil production at places like Blechhammer. Like many other refineries and plants, Blechhammer had its own concentration camp that fed it slave labor in increasing quantities as the war went on. If the Reich classified you as undesirable, your best option was often to choose forced labor, though it didn’t appreciably increase your chance of survival. Millions of people died this way.

When we went to Blechhammer in 2004, this nearby forced labor camp was just a series of concrete ruins in the weeds, essentially unremarkable to the locals, reminding me mostly of an abandoned parks and rec area from where I grew up in Iowa.

But the Koch Nazi oil refinery was different. It was huge. It was remarkable, even then. The Allies bombed it repeatedly for the duration of the war. The bombing runs that eventually took it out reportedly killed up to 40,000 people. It had eleven years of increasing forced labor to fuel Hitler’s designs for global domination. It’s shocking to think how many soldiers, “undesirables,” and civilians were killed in and around the oil refinery Fred Koch built.

21st century dark money is 20th century blood money.

True, we can’t blame Charles and David Koch for the sins of Fred, any more than you can credit or blame me for my grandpa’s bombing, or blame my son whatever of my own moral failings seem clear 80 years from now. But what you can do is look to the past for instruction, for insight into what is happening in the present. Today, I see Koch money destroying environmental protections, democratic rights, and the freedoms my grandfather and millions of others fought for in World War II. Thanks to Jane Mayer, I know where that money comes from, and I know where it leads.