Thursday, September 25, 2008

Coca-Cola & the Nazis/British Comedian Publicizes Coke's Nazi Past

Sometimes during one of the many reversal of fortune so characteristic for the North African theater of war, German troops on the offensive stumbled across a cache of Coca-Cola left behind by retreating Allied troops. But the welcome find came with a snag and thirsty throats stayed dry despite the heat: The enemy had forgotten to leave some ice as well, and since every German soldier knew that a bottle of Coca-Cola had to be consumed eiskalt, the booty remained worthless unless somebody came up with another method of refrigeration under the scorching African sun.

Luftwaffe-pilots stationed nearby eventually provided an ingenious answer to this let-down by wrapping wet towels around the bottles and tying them to the wings of their Messerschmidts 109F before take off. Once the fighters were airborne, evaporation and the lower temperature of higher altitudes cooled the precious load down. The subsequent scene upon the pilots' return to base must have been irresistible: The pilots hopped out of their planes, plucked ice- cold Coca-Colas from the wings, opened them and then let the brown juice run down their throats to celebrate the thirsty return from another successful mission.

So much for the commercial potential of this image. Once the vision wears off, however, another question demands an answer. Would anybody have suspected that this harmless war-anecdote exemplifies the Coca-Cola Company's dual roles during the Second World War? Leaving aside the accidental aspect of this incident in the North African desert, it is still a fact that the soft drinks giant from Atlanta, Georgia collaborated with the Nazi-regime throughout its reign from 1933 to 1945 and sold countless millions of bottled beverages to Hitler's Germany.

Unfortunately, this in itself seems neither surprising nor exciting. Cooperation if not outright collaboration with the Nazis was the rule for many transnational corporations with a stake in Germany and has been the subject of extensive research. Next to Standard Oil and I.G. Farben, for instance, Coke's story of peddling soda to opposing trenches appears tame.

The immorality of bottling Coca-Cola for the Nazis stands in no relation to STP's selling of aviation fuel to the German war machine, nor can it overshadow the oil- producer's cozy wartime relationship with Germany's chemical giant I.G. Farben. Simply put, Coca-Cola's infamous deeds were not the Second World War's only ones, nor were they particularly sinister. After all, Coke cannot be used to fly airplanes or make bombs.

The Coca-Cola Company's tale of questionable wartime conduct would thus be comparatively insignificant and not worth the effort of dwelling upon, were it not for the fact that its product, namely Coca-Cola, was and is a luxuary item whose commercial success is inseparably tied to a public image created through advertising. Like all other companies in the business of selling goods nobody really needs, the Coca-Cola Company's advertisements must reflect the desires of the times in order to defend its share of the mass-market. How Coca- Cola chose to define itself through advertising was crucial to its success during the war years in the United States and is the story of the previous chapter. Thanks to a relentless barrage of war-supportive advertising built upon the Company's credo that "It isn't what a product is, but what it does that interests us," Coca-Cola after December 1941 convinced Americans at the front and at home that drinking Coca-Cola was somehow synonimous with fighting against the enemies of freedom and democracy. Coke wanted to be understood as a morale- booster for the American effort.

There was a moral price attached to this sort of advertising, because Coca-Cola's managers failed to couple the new patriotic image with a correspondent curbing of its contradictory activities in Germany, the company's second biggest market. While Coke-drinking GI's and other U.S. citizens had their carbonated soft-drink sweetened with patriotic statements like the 1943 slogan "Universal Symbol of the American way of Life," German Coca-Cola men had been busy quenching the thirst of the Third Reich and its conquered territories for years. To say the least, catchwords like Universal and American Way of Life were at odds with the Nazis' pursuit of their own "universalist" goals.

However, for the Coca-Cola GmbH (Inc.) odds existed in order to be overcome. While establishing itself in Germany, a politically difficult, but potentially rewarding market of seventy million people, the company solved an overwhelming number of problems: In defiance of strong anti-American sentiments within the turbulent Weimar Republic, Coca-Cola entered the country at the onset of the Great Depresion in 1929. Despite the bad timing for launching a consumer product, Coca-Cola overcame the intense competition of Germany's breweries and cola-imitators, learned to combine its interests with those of Germany's Nazi-rulers after 1933 in an overall harmonic symbiosis and thus even managed the seemingly impossible task of surviving the war intact as an American-owned company.

What saved the Coca-Cola GmbH from being crushed by Germany's fascist rulers was that its corporate structure and advertising philosophy came naturally close to the Nazis' totalitarian ideas of a brave new world. The case of Coca-Cola thus goes beyond mere collaboration: before Hitler decreed the Principle of Leadership (Fuehreprinzip) in industry, which replaced collective bargaining by handing dictatorial powers to company directors, the Coca-Cola GmbH was already dominated by its own authoritarian leader.

Company and government interests subsequently overlapped: the Nazis regarded mass-production and mass-consumption as crucial building blocks of their new society. Coca-Cola's modern means of producing a uniform product could have only impressed them. Similar things can be said about Coke's advertising strategy, which again reflected values central to the National-Socialist society. Through the same modern channels that the Nazis used for propaganda; namely film, radio, mass- publications, and sports events, Coca-Cola appealed, among others, to workers, soldiers, and automobilists, target groups that are significant insofar as they epitomized the Nazis' idea of modernity.

7X and Merchandise #5 aside, these were the true secret ingredients for Coca-Cola's German success, fully confirmed by the company's sales figures: In the ten year period spanning 1929 and 1939, the company's annual sales of cases of beverage soared from zero to a staggering four million. Even during the war's difficult late stages the company didn't falter; in 1944 the company still produced a respectable two million cases of bottled beverages, selling them to a country that was being rapidly reduced to rubble.

Back in 1929, these achievements seemed all but impossible. Germany between the wars was a humiliated and revanchist country. Public sentiments for the World War I victor nation USA were ambiguous at best as Dan Diner's excellent essay on the history of anti-Americanism in Germany points out. Despite an undeniable trend toward the "`Americanization' of the economy, technology and culture," Germany was still seething with increasingly entrenched anti- American sentiments," a situation not conducive to the high profile marketing of American brands.

Fears of U.S. economic domination, a country perceived as both ultra-capitalist and culturally inferior, encompassed the whole of the political spectrum. Indeed, next to the desire to tear down the embattled republic, virulent anti-Americanism may have been the only characteristic shared by the many political extremists. Communist Reichstag member Clara Zetkin's ad hoc rejection of the Dawes Plan in 1923 provides an illustrative example for the enthusiastic response to anti- American rhetoric, for it was met by the unusual sound of standing ovations from the gentlemen ideologically most opposed to Communism, the National-Socialists. Zetkin began her impromptu speech by claiming that America was bent upon turning Germany into "a colonized country." "The United States," she continued, "represents sharp-eyed and reckless capitalists without any of the old traditions that still sometimes constrain capitalism in Europe, so that they would be the last to trip over the thin thread of moral qualms. No, [the U.S. wants] to capture the German labor force with American capital, [make] cheap labor [out of them] and to thus turn Germany into a colony of the United States. No illusions about this fact!"

Since such rhetoric met with the approval of politicians of all colors, it seems not too far-fetched to argue that the general public cannot have been too warm about the United States either. Quite to the contrary: America, as David Large sums it up, became the object of a revival of "a set of deprecatory images [...] because doing so afforded [Germans] a measure of self-respect at a time of great inner doubt." Large argues that, true to a tradition that continues to this day "America [became] a kind of composite symbol for all the things that Germans [found] unpalatable in their own country, which [was], after all, the most Americanized in Europe."

Given such hostile circumstances, the Company had no illusions that it had to distance Coca-Cola from its American roots, were the Coca-Colonization of Germany to be successful. One cannot help but note that this initial strategy departed radically from the marketing ploys of the years after 1945, when, as Ralph Willett points out "Coca-Cola [came] to symbolize America and American culture: [...] the identification was already so strong by 1948 that when non- Americans thought of democracy, it was claimed, they instantly called to mind Coca-Cola."

The post-war Americanized image stands in complete contrast to the pre-war situation, a factor which helps account for the inability of Germans to recall Coke's presence prior to the war. Indeed, Coca-Cola's original German marketing strategy so successfully disassociated the drink from its Atlanta roots that Hans Dieter Schaefer felt compelled to note six decades later "It is characteristic for the state of our mind that we associate Coca-Cola only with the years of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle)."

But the failure to remember once the clock struck "Stunde Null" (zero hour) cannot alter the facts of history. Coke's German business began with Ray Rivington Powers in 1929. The expatriate American set up shop in the City of Essen in the Ruhrgebiet, Germany's industrial heartland "where the thirst of workers would need quenching." He had a difficult stand there: Not only did Powers face the powerful competition of cola-imitators Sinalco and Afri-Cola, he also had to convince Germans that Coca-Cola was a tasty alternative to their beer-drinking habits. This meant hard work. Hubert Strauf, an advertising man in the service of Powers, described how this eccentric six and a half feet tall man who had allegedly once claimed to "have done everything in the world but murder," "filled the first bottles himself with the help of just one worker. With him he then drove to the Ruhr to peddle the first bottles of Coca-Cola in Germany himself - the American with his beautiful Marengo topcoat and stiff hat, a hulking fellow who called out with a thick Southern accent: `Drinken Coca-Cola, kostlich und erfrescht.'(which approximately means: `Drink Coca-Cola, delicious and refreshing')"

To properly introduce Coca-Cola in grammatically correct German, Powers printed up leaflets titled "Was ist Coca-Cola?" and had them distributed at sporting events and on the tables of restaurants in and around Essen. "When distraught proprietors threw them out, the Coke men doggedly replaced them," reports Mark Pendergrast and continues that "Many who picked up the folder expected to find an analysis of the ingredients and were angered when it simply said that Coke was a refreshing drink, but the endless repetition of the product name had its intended effect." The effect was that an increasing number of retailers carried Coca-Cola, most of them stashed beneath beer bottles so as not to anger the breweries that owned most restaurants and did not like potential competitors like Coca-Cola.

Thanks to the vigorous targeting of industrial workers with Hubert Strauf's slogan to "Mach doch mal Pause" (Come on, take a break) apparently derived from its U.S. pendant "The pause that refreshes" and a lot of hard work to open new outlets, Coca-Cola's annual sales rose to 111.000 cases four years later (see appendix). The Company had gained a small, but respectable foothold by the time the crucial year of 1933 came around.

It cannot be overemphasized, however, that a big portion of this success must be attributed to what the Coca- Cola ads failed to mention: Coke's U.S. roots. The Company had successfully established itself as a German brand in the unconscious mind of the soda-drinking public. The following anecdote shows just how successful the Company was in this respect: When a group of German prisoners of war debarked in Hoboken, New Jersey, in early 1945, one of the first things that caught their eyes was a large Coca-Cola sign.

This prompted excitement among the Germans and when one of the guards demanded an explanation for their behaviour, he received the answer: "We are surprised that you have Coca- Cola here too."

The twelve years separating 1933 from the end of the war provide an explanation for Coca-Cola's boom. One year after 1933, Coke's output had already more than doubled to 234,000 cases. This was no coincidence.

There were striking parallels between the Coca-Cola GmbH and the nation at large. Firstly, the business of Coca-Cola and the Reich was guided by similar-minded (and similar-looking) people: In Coke's case, the name of the man now in charge was Max Keith (pronounced Kite). According to the testimony of former employees, Keith's charisma and uncompromising nature invited more than one analogy to the Adolf Hitler. "He was a born leader and very charismatic," claims one. "You liked to work for him although he was almost a slave driver . . . . Oh, yes, I was scared of him. We all were, even aides who were older." Still, so the witness concludes, most of his followers "would have died for this man." Keith's own words definitely betray the fanatic in him: "I was full of activity and enthusiasm," he reported in 1963, "and the thing which then took possesion of all that was in me and which . . . has never lost its hold on me, was Coca-Cola. From then on and to all eternity, I was tied to this product for better and for worse."

It was mostly for the better that Keith was tied to Coke, because, as he himself recognized, "time marched with us." To quote Felix Gilbert, "At the time the Nazis took over, recovery from the recession was beginning" and Germany was economically prospering. The Nazis, through a massive public works system, which included "the construction of the systems of Autobahns, and . . . providing industry with armament contracts," were determined to keep the upward swing going and Germans content.

Economic prosperity, however, as catchwords like public works and infrastructure programs reveal, also meant the continued Americanization of Germany's economy under Hitler. Indeed, the dictator himself seems to have welcomed America's efficient methods of production. Hitler was, for instance, a proponent of mass-consumption, as shown by his statement from September 1941: "Frugality is the enemy of progress. Therein we we are similar to the Americans, that we are fastidious." Detlev Peukert underlines Hitler's pro- American stance, arguing that, not unlike the U.S., the Third Reich consciously aimed to represent "the dawning of the new achievement-orientated consumer society based on the nuclear family, upward mobility, mass media, leisure and an interventionist welfare state [. . .]."

The Nazis were thus not anti-modernists, but, according to Peukert, "Agrarian romanticism notwithstanding, [. . .] fostered enthusiasm for modern technology, not only because it needed it as part of its armoury for conquering Lebensraum, but also because the toughness, frictionless functionality and efficiency of the machine matched the ideal of the fighter and the soldier, the man hard as Krupp steel." Interestingly, Peukert assumes that the man "hard as Krupp steel" liked to quench his thirst with Coca-Cola, for in the same paragraph he mentions that "Even Coca-Cola consumption rose significantly in Germany in the thirties."

In other words, that Coca-Cola had tied its fortunes to the thirst of industrial workers paid out now, for the increasingly busy workers needed the pause that refreshed more than ever. The destruction of the trade unions resulted in longer working hours and Coke's chairman Max Keith himself recognized that "The requirements of the people were much higher than in the past . . . . They had to work harder, had to work faster, the technical equipment they had to handle required soberness." What soda could do a better job than a deliciously refreshing Coca-Cola?

Beside its industrial connection, modernization and newfound wealth opened additional avenues for Coke: refrigeration steadily invaded German households throughout the thirties which made home-consumption possible, whereas the massive infrastructure programs and the ensuing infatuation with the automobile allowed Coke to sell its products along Germany's vast network of new highways (see appendix). With the Company's dependency on restaurants removed, expansion proved limitless.

Coca-Cola's success was thus based on the needs of a modernizing and economically prospering totalitarian state. It was a stroke of luck that for strategy-purposes the company could consult with the Atlanta headquarters and imitate some of the New Deal ad campaigns pertinent to the German experience. This, however, is where the analogies with the United States must end, for it should be emphasized that neither Germany nor the Coca-Cola GmbH in Essen were turning distincly American under the Nazis. Far from it, Nazi- ideology thrived on a xenophobia that did not spare the U.S. and while Hitler might have been jealous of the efficieny of the U.S. economy, he was nevertheless rabidly anti-American in all other respects.

He openly described the United States as a "deeply lazy country full of racial problems and social inequities. . .", stating that his "feelings for America are full of hatred and antipathy; half Jewish, half negro and everything based on the dollar . . . Americans have the brain of a chicken. This land is a house of cards with an unequal standard of living. Americans live like swines, even if in a very luxurious pigsty."

During the 21 years of its existence in Germany, the producers of Coca-Cola could have easily constructed a mammouth concern. . . . with its own bottling plants, packaging, ice box producers, its own storage spaces, advertising companies and printing presses. They didn't do so but instead passed all contracts along to independent industries.

But Coke was not above moving behind the scenes and handing out bribes when their policy of limited greed failed to calm down xenophobic nazi-officials. Thus was the case when Hermann Goering in 1936 introduced a Four-Year Plan, which restricted imports to a bare minimum in order to make Germany self-sufficient and ready for war. When Coke's main lawyer could not convince the authorities that Coca-Cola was a German business which deserved government support, the company announced that it would from now on produce all of the concentrate's elements, with the exception of Merchandise No.5 and 7X, within Germany. When even this show of goodwill did not suffice to sway the government into granting an import exemption, the company turned to a frantic pulling of strings behind the scenes, which seems to have included a bribe for Goering. Coca-Cola gained the needed import license and saved itself from impending doom.

Coke's readiness to strike deals points to the second pillar of Coke's survival strategy which had a lot to do with the leadership of Max Keith, "the quintessential Coca-Cola man and Nazi-collaborator." Simply put, his strategy was to please the Nazis whenever possible and through whatever means necessary.

An abundance of examples shows how Coke's advertising supported the Third Reich. Hans Dieter Schaefer reports, for instance, that after the aggressive news broadcast by the Reichsrundfunk, silly advertising jingles propagating the evangelium of refreshment were next. Coke ads deliberately sought the close contact to the men in power. This meant that when the cover of a magazine sported a picture of the Fuehrer, chances were good that a Coke advertisement would grace the back of that cover. Even when visitors streamed into the Sportpalast to listen to one of Dr. Goebbels' infamous speeches, they had to pass by a large billboard urging them to drink "Coca-Cola eiskalt."

Max Keith left out no opportunity to ingratiate himself with Germany's leaders. Coca-Cola was one of the three official beverage sponsors with a Getraenkedienst (beverage service) at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and thus participated in an event the Nazis deliberately exploited to celebrate Germany's return to power and status. Moreover, to quote Ralph Willett, "By servicing the Olympices, Coca-Cola associated itself with the modernity of media technology, in the form of microphones, transmitter vans, and cameras for (respectively) radio broadcasts [. . .]. It was true that "the emphasis on sport [. . .] was in line with curent cultural ideology epitomized by the Berlin Olympics." Athletic competition was a Nazi ideal and the Coca-Cola GmbH cashed in heavily on this infatuation by becoming one of the biggest sponsors of sports events, most notably the annual Deutschlandrundfahrt (National Bycicle Championships) and the Soccer Cup.

In 1937, Keith succeeded in taking Coca-Cola literally into the heart of nazism. The occasion was the Reichsausstellung Schaffendes Volk, or Reich "A Working People" Exhibit. In this industrial exhibition reserved to the companies most loyal to the new order, the Coca-Cola GmbH, according to Mark Pendergrast, set up a functioning bottling plant, with a "miniature train carting Kinder beneath it, [. . .] at the very center of the fair, adjacent to the Propaganda Office."

The strategy of direct association with Nazi-leaders or of lending support to events propagandized by nazi-ideology sent a powerful subliminal message to both consumers and government by signaling that Coca-Cola was on Germany's side. Sometimes, however, it took a little more than that and it is interesting to note the circumstances under which Coca- Cola transgressed the boundaries of political neutrality in a more open show of support of the Nazis.

A flagrant example for such a transgression can be found in the October 1938 issue of the army-magazine Die Wehrmacht printed up to celebrate the annexation of the Sudetenland. In this (unfortunately unavailable) ad, Hans- Dieter Schaefer reports that a hand holds out a Coke bottle in front of a world map underlined by the caption Ja, Coca-Cola hat Weltruf (Yes, Coca-Cola enjoys international reputation) that goes on stating that `of the forty million automobilists from all over the world increasing attention is demanded,' which is the reason why they 'like to take advantage of the "pause that refreshes."' Schaefer quite correctly remarks that "this ad aimed at German soldiers and mixed a global point of view with a technologic-athletic perspective", but fails to point out the cynical effect of such a global point of view in a magazine dedicated to the glorification of Germany's recent annexations.

That such aggressive advertisements had become necessary was in part the result of the slanderous activities of Karl Flach, the boss of Afri-Cola. Intent on driving out the foreign competitor, Flach in 1936 began circulating flyers depicting Coca-Cola bottle caps from the U.S. with Hebrew inscriptions.

Although the inscriptions were nothing but an indication that Coke was kosher, the flyers claimed to prove that Coca-Cola was a Jewish company.

The damage was terrific and never quite contained as both the flyers and the rumor of Coke's Jewish owners continued to circulate over the years.

However, sales figures prove that most of the impact was only temporary and due to the bad publicity generated when, as Mark Pendergrast rightly asserts, "Nazi Party Headquarters hastily canceled their orders."

Pendergrast seems to be wrong, however, when he claims that "the entire business was in jeopardy" because the Atlanta headquarters had forbidden Keith "to print defensive literature." If Keith had been given such an order, he disregarded it, for he knew just like Coke's company lawyer Walter Oppenhof that nobody outside Germany "could have any conception" of the scope of the problem. Coca-Cola thus did attempt to regain status in the eyes of Germany's rulers by placing several ads denouncing the anti-semitic accusations in the Stuermer, the official Nazi publication renowned for its vicious attacks against Jews. These ads did not go unnoticed in the United States and produced angry headlines claiming that "Coca-Cola Finances Hitler."

It seems as if the only principle that the Coca-Cola GmbH never betrayed in its history of wheeling and dealing under the Nazis was the product itself.

The company fought the Nazi-bureaucracy tooth and nail to keep Coca-Cola unchanged after the Ministry of Economics in 1939 passed out rules demanding that bottles conform to a metric standard based on decimals.

Since the Coke bottle contained 180 cubic centimeters instead of 200, the Nazis promptly halted the production of new bottles, showing little understanding for the argument that the production of different-sized bottles would constitute an unacceptable drain on Germany's scarce glas resources.

Not surprisingly, the company found an ingenious and unscrupulous solution. With the help of Reinhard Spitzy, a well-connected former high official in the German Foreign Office, Coca-Cola manouvred to take advantage of the situation in the recently annexed Sudetenland, where German laws, including the packaging regulations, did not fully apply yet.

Spitzy recounts that when he asked the Gauleiter (District Leader) how the local glas industry was coping with the international embargo imposed on all German products after the annexation of Czechoslovakia, he received the answer: "My dear Party Comrade Spitzy, the situation of the glas industry is absolutely shitty, the machines run only a few hours a day." When Spitzy told him how unfortunate this was given that "the international company Coca-Cola urgently needs millions and millions of new bottles," the Gauleiter reacted predictably by engineering an import exemption for Coca-Cola bottles manufactured in the Sudetenland.

While this exemption could be regarded as the result of a successful act of opposition against the Nazi bureaucracy, one should not exaggerate the heroism in Coke's stand: by helping the Sudetendeutsche industries back on its feet, the Coca-Cola GmbH supported the Nazi-government in circumventing an international embargo designed to cripple its rule.

Stories like these illustrate how Coca-Cola achieved its success under the Nazis. Simply put, the Coca-Cola GmbH and the Nazis needed one another.

The former took advantage of the latter's economic and territorial expansionism, while the latter needed modern companies like Coca-Cola as role-models for mass-production. Underlying these overlapping interests was an undeniable ideological affinity that kept the relationship strong. The tale of the March 1938 concessionaire convention sums up best what is meant here. While Max Keith presided over the 1,500 people in attendance, German soldiers stormed across the Austrian border to execute the Anschluss. Mark Pendergrast's description of the event leaves no doubt that the swastika and the Coca-Cola logo rested next to each other comfortably.

Behind the main table, a huge banner proclaimed, in German, `Coca-Cola is the world-famous trademark for the unique product of the Coca-Cola GmbH.' Directly below, three gigantic swastikas stood out, black on red. At the main table, Max Keith sat surrounded by his deputies, another swastika draped in front of him.

Although acknowledging glorious past efforts, Keith urged his workers to forge onward into the future, never to be content until every citizen was a Coke consumer. "We know we will reach our goal only if we muster all our power in a total effort," he said. "Our marvelous drink has the power of endurance to continue this march to success." [. . .] The meeting closed with a "ceremonial pledge" to Coca-Cola and a ringing, three-fold "Sieg-Heil" to Hitler. Coca-Cola ?ber alles.

Given this overtly enthusiastic embrace of the Nazis, the fact that the Coca-Cola GmbH survived the oncoming war seems more a logical conclusion to this paper than a surprise in need of an explanation. Despite all the difficulties inherent in Coke's rise, by the time war broke out, Coke's situation was so secure that Max Keith could get himself "appointed to the Office of Enemy Property to supervise all soft drink plants, both in Germany and the captured teritory. As German troops overran Europe, Keith and Oppenhof followed, assisting and taking over the Coca-Cola businesses in Italy, France, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and Norway." Even that the war had cut off the supply of 7X and Merchandise #5 proved unimportant. Keith and his men countered by inventing Fanta to see them through the war, and thus created a success that still reverberates throughout the corners of the world where local bottling companies fill Fanta bottles.

Although it must be noted in all fairness that the Coca- Cola GmbH only in rare instances directly endorsed the Nazis, it is still a fact that the Coca-Cola GmbH went beyond mere opportunism to stay alive. Coca-Cola was part of the Nazi state. Should this paper have proven inadequate in pointing this out, plenty of other sources can. The survivors of the forced labourers kidnapped from the conquered territories will testify to that. Some of them were sent to work for Max Keith's Coca-Cola GmbH.


No laughing matter: comedian advertises Coca-Cola's 'Nazi" past
By Ciar Byrne, Media Correspondent
26 May 2004

Coca-Cola adverts are to be found in the farthest corners of the globe promoting a happy, wholesome image, but now they are the subject of a new exhibition which links the soft drinks giant with Nazi Germany.

The comedian Mark Thomas and the artist Tracey Sanders-Wood, who curated the art show Coca-Cola's Nazi Adverts, which opened in central London yesterday, say the company advertised in Nazi papers, exhibited at Nazi trade fairs and opened bottling plants in Sudetenland shortly after the Nazis invaded Czechoslavia.

Coca-Cola has rejected any suggestion that it sympathised with the Nazi regime, although it admits it operated in Germany while Hitler was in power.

Artists and members of the public with artistic aspirations were invited to contribute to the exhibition. Their brief was to imagine Coca-Cola's adverts in Nazi Germany. Mr Thomas said: "Coke exists through advertising. That's why people drink the stuff. You can't escape it. What we wanted to do was to create an exhibition which made people think again every time they reached for a Coke.

"It's a very democratic exhibition. I mentioned it after gigs and we set up a website. If a work is submitted, it will be exhibited."

Images in the exhibition, which will include more than 400 pieces when it moves to the Foundry in east London next month, feature Coca-Cola symbols - the company's slogan and the Coke bottle - combined with Nazi slogans, propaganda and pictures of Adolf Hitler.

Predictably, it has not gone down well at Coca-Cola. "We reject out of hand the suggestion that as a company Coca-Cola ever sympathised in any way with the abhorrent acts or policies of the Nazi regime in Germany," said Tim Wilkinson, communications director for Coca-Cola Great Britain. "That is an unwarranted insult toward every person working for our company."

Coca-Cola has donated money to help those who were involved in forced labour during the Nazi years in Austria and Germany, but Mr Wilkinson said this was good corporate practice and not an admission of guilt.

Richard Niman, whose sculpture portraying Hitler as a little girl holding a doll has been on display at the Imperial War Museum in London since 1990, is involved with the project. He believes that focusing on Coca-Cola's past gives the show wider appeal. "You have to pick something big to make it have a more universal context. Hopefully it will embarrass Coca-Cola," he said.

Thomas, known for his attacks on the Government and on corporate Britain, has been compared with the American Michael Moore. He uses stand-up gigs and his Channel 4 show to decry miscarriages of justice and oppression.

He has forced the former armed forces minister Nicholas Soames to display a family heirloom, a mahogany three-tier buffet, at Christie's in London, under a law that made works of art available to the nation in lieu of inheritance tax, and has driven a tank into a McDonald's "drive-thru" restaurant.

He has also has set up an exhibition of contaminated sea- gull droppings at the Sellafield nuclear centre, and went to the Athens arms fair in 1998 posing as a PR consultant and encouraging dealers to put on a media-friendly spin.

Thomas's concerns centre on Coca-Cola's actions in Kerala in India, where it has come under fire from courts over water consumption at its bottling plant. Coca-Cola denies that it is responsible for depleted water reserves in the region.

Coca-Cola's Nazi Adverts is on show at the Nancy Victor Basement, 36 Charlotte Street, London W1 until 10 June. The exhibition will then move to the Foundry, 84-86 Great Eastern Street, London EC1.