Rather than try and sweep Henry Ford’s virulent racism and antisemitism under the rug, it is time to confront that history head-on.
Fifteen years ago, my family spent a leisurely Sunday at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, perusing the incredible Americana available to enjoy and experience. As we took the time to sit in the Rosa Parks bus, which sits in the museum on permanent display, I noticed an African American family sitting near us. I turned to my wife and quipped, “If Henry Ford knew that a Jewish family was sitting together with an African American family in the Rosa Parks bus in the museum that carried his name, he would be rolling in his grave.”
My wife responded with a bitter smirk as she recognized the accuracy of my painful joke. But in truth, it was and is painful, and it was not funny. Rather than try and sweep Henry Ford’s virulent racism and antisemitism under the rug, it is time to confront that history head-on.
Henry Ford wasn’t just an incredibly successful entrepreneur and industrialist. He was a virulent racist and antisemite. He not only believed and spewed hateful rhetoric about Blacks and Jews; he bought a newspaper and over the course of several years promoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, blaming the Jews for a myriad of evils that they ostensibly perpetrated around the globe.
As historian Hasia Diner explains, Ford was able to promote his hatred not only in Dearborn, but throughout every Ford dealership around the country. Due to his status and popularity, his antisemitism carried great influence across American culture.
Moreover, Ford’s venom had chilling, deadly real-world consequences. Ford served as a role model to no less than Adolph Hitler, who mentioned Ford favorably in his Mein Kamph, kept a life-sized portrait of Ford in his office in Munich and considered Ford an “inspiration.”
In 1938, as the Nazis were preparing to unleash their armies on Europe, which ultimately killed tens of millions of souls, the Nazi regime awarded Henry Ford with the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest honor it could bestow upon a non-German. Testifying at the Nuremberg trials after World War II, convicted Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach who, in his role as military governor of Vienna, deported 65,000 Jews to camps in Poland, stated: “The decisive antisemitic book I was reading and the book that influenced my comrades was … that book by Henry Ford, The International Jew. I read it and became antisemitic. The book made a great influence on myself and my friends because we saw in Henry Ford the representative of success and also the representative of a progressive social policy.”
Moreover, Ford’s vocal hatred had a chilling effect on the millions of American Jews who undoubtedly felt threatened by Ford’s hatred and did very little to lobby the United States government to stop the mass extinction of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis. Professor Diner explained, “Their sense of what they could do was tempered by the knowledge of how pervasive antisemitism was in America. If somebody like Henry Ford, with such power and such wealth, could be such an outspoken anti-Semite … there’s really a limit to what we can do.”
There’s no way to know how many Jews, Roma, gays, and other civilians perished at the hands of the Nazi regime as a result of Henry Ford’s hatred. But a number in the tens of thousands — if not the hundreds of thousands — would be a conservative estimate.
Even the Henry Ford Museum’s website seems to equivocate about Ford’s tarnished past. The page that acknowledges Ford’s antisemitism describes it as a “complex” story. “Seen within the context of the times, they demonstrate the sharp realities and tensions that emerge in societies undergoing profound cultural, economic and political change.”
In other words, we have to view Henry Ford as a product of his time and understand the “sharp realities” that led to his hatred of Jews.
No, we don’t. Not any longer.
The global events of the last month have prompted many around the world to reevaluate the veneration of historical figures who may have achieved great accomplishments, but whose legacy was tarnished by hatred and racism. Princeton University recently announced that it would remove the name of President Woodrow Wilson from its school of public policy and a residential college. Princeton stated that, “We have taken this extraordinary step because we believe that Wilson’s racist thinking and policies make him an inappropriate namesake for a school whose scholars, students and alumni must be firmly committed to combating the scourge of racism in all its forms.”
I do not minimize the great contributions of the Ford family to the United States and its decades-long effort to distance itself from the hatred of the family patriarch. But today, good works are not enough. Henry Ford’s virulent hatred is too damning to allow us to overlook any longer.
The Henry Ford museum must take immediate action to:
- Change the name of the museum to the Ford Museum, removing the name of its namesake
- Remove the statue that stands proudly today at the entrance to Greenfield Village
- Construct a permanent display at the museum cataloging Ford’s antisemitism and racism, bringing the truth of Ford’s history into the light of day.
If modern society is indeed committed to combatting the scourge of racism in all forms, that commitment must apply to antisemitism as well. Telling the true, full history of Henry Ford will be an important first step.
Reuven Spolter served as the rabbi of the Young Israel of Oak Park in Oak Park, until 2008.