Aug. 8 (Bloomberg) -- A sweet stench filled the site in occupied Poland where chemical maker I.G. Farbenindustrie AG was building a factory to feed Adolf Hitler's tanks and bombers with synthetic rubber and fuel.
Amid the hammering, barking dogs and screaming kapos, emaciated men unloaded cement bags at a trot, bent under iron girders, and died like animals. All around milled I.G. Farben men -- ``quiet men in impeccable civilian clothes,'' as one survivor recalled, ``picking their way through corpses they did not want to see, measuring timbers with bright yellow folding rules.''
This was Buna-Werke, a.k.a. I.G. Auschwitz, and the cloying smell came from the crematoriums at Birkenau.
Buna-Werke was I.G. Farben's single biggest investment ever, the site where eight years of Nazi collaboration culminated in ``a carefully planned process of extermination through labor,'' as Diarmuid Jeffreys writes in his damning new history, ``Hell's Cartel: I.G. Farben and the Making of Hitler's War Machine.''
Jeffreys is a British journalist and television producer whose previous book, ``Aspirin,'' recounted how German chemical makers pioneered that painkiller. In ``Hell's Cartel,'' he draws on Nuremberg tribunal documents, corporate and state archives, memoirs and his own interviews with survivors to explore the dark side of I.G. Farben, which was once the world's fourth-largest industrial concern.
The leading lights of the German chemical makers that merged into I.G. Farben in 1925 had invented breakthrough drugs, succeeded in mass-producing fertilizer and won Nobel Prizes.
They also had shown a disturbing willingness to put German nationalism -- and profits -- ahead of humanity: Fritz Haber, the scientist renowned for ``fixing'' nitrate, also engineered the first poison-gas attack in World War I.
Jeffreys brings a rare combination of forensic acumen and narrative flair to bear on the material. Tracing the story back to the 19th century, he exposes the historical logic, financial pressures and moral failings that would place sophisticated executives and scientists at the heart of Hitler's strategy of autarky and conquest.
The real madness began in the 1920s, when I.G. Farben gambled its future on breakthrough technology: synthetic gasoline made from coal. The bet was predicated on research that concluded the world was running out of oil.
The first Leuna gasoline went on sale in 1927. Barely three years later, massive oil reserves were discovered in Texas, then more in the Mideast. As the Great Depression drove down demand, Leuna's prospects looked grim.
When the Nazis came to power in 1933, a new market emerged: Hermann Goering was building his illegal military air force, and the secret Luftwaffe needed stealth supplies of aviation fuel.
By the end of 1933, the Reich agreed to buy all of the Leuna factory's output that couldn't be sold on the market, Jeffreys says. That same year, I.G. Farben donated more than 4.5 million Reich marks to Nazi Party funds, he says.
The cooperation deepened as I.G. Farben bosses joined the Nazi Party, worked on government commissions, dismissed Jewish workers and executives. How central was the company to Hitler's war? Here's how Jeffreys describes the Luftwaffe's dependence on I.G. Farben products as Germany prepared to invade Poland:
"The Heinkel and Junkers Stuka bombers that would launch attacks on Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz and Lublin were largely made from the I.G.'s light metals. Around 75 percent of their engines were produced from high-grade I.G. nickel, their fuselages from I.G. aluminum, their wings from I.G. magnesium.''
The company supplied the fuel and oils. More than 90 percent of the phosphorous incendiaries they carried were made from I.G. Farben materials.
Later, at Auschwitz, the company financed the diabolical experiments of Josef Mengele and supplied the Zyklon B used in the gas chambers.
After the war, I.G. Farben was broken up and 23 of its executives were tried in Nuremberg. Most resorted to blanket denials of wrongdoing: They acted under orders, didn't dare oppose Hitler, and had no idea prisoners were being murdered.
Though 13 were found guilty of crimes including plunder, slavery and mass murder, the stiffest sentence was eight years in prison. By early 1951, all had been released on good behavior. They returned to boardrooms at German companies including I.G. Farben successors BASF AG, Bayer AG and Hoechst AG.
Some evil in Nazi Germany was born of cowardice, and some sprang from greed and ambition. Jeffreys leaves no doubt about which variety of malevolence motivated I.G. Farben.
"Hell's Cartel'' is from Bloomsbury in the U.K. and from Metropolitan in the U.S. (406 pages, 20 pounds, $32).
(James Pressley writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)