Chemical Warfare in World War I

Press Release, 26 March 2014

Chemical warfare, slave labor, munitions production

World War I: “BAYER not recognizing responsibility”

Last year the company BAYER AG celebrated its 150th anniversary. However, the dark sides of the company’s history were completely ignored: neither its mutually beneficial relationship with the Third Reich nor pesticide poisonings or deadly pharma products were mentioned in the celebrations. Now we are approaching the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Once again BAYER is avoiding any discussion of its numerous corporate crimes.

In the First World War the German chemical industry produced explosives, munitions and poison gas. The high prices guaranteed by the government significantly increased its profits. Dividends of up to 25% were distributed.

BAYER built a factory in Cologne-Flittard dedicated to the production of explosives that turned out 250 metric tons of TNT every month. There was also a boom in the production of substitute materials. Carl Duisberg, the Managing Director of BAYER, boasted of its achievement in July 1915. “If you could see what things look like here in Leverkusen, how the entire plant has been transformed and reorganized, how we turn out almost nothing but war supplies any more …, you would be delighted.”

Axel Koehler-Schnura from the Coalition against BAYER Dangers says: “The name BAYER particularly stands for the development and production of poison gas. Nevertheless the company has not come to terms with its involvement in the atrocities of the First World War. BAYER has not even distanced itself from Carl Duisberg´s crimes. The actions of the Board of Management therefore should not be ratified.” Koehler-Schnura introduced a countermotion to the upcoming shareholder meeting, which was published on the Bayer website, and will speak up in the meeting.

As early as in the fall of 1914, in response to a suggestion from the Ministry of War, a commission was established to deal with the use of poisonous waste from the chemical industry. The commission was chaired by Fritz Haber (director of the Kaiser Wilhelm-Institut), Carl Duisberg of BAYER and the chemist Walter Nernst. The commission recommended to the Supreme Army Command the use of chlorine gas, which was a deliberate violation of the Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, under which the use of poison gas for military purposes had been banned since 1907.

Carl Duisberg was personally present during early tests of poison gas and enthusiastically praised the new weapon: “The enemy won’t even know when an area has been sprayed with it or the danger facing them and will remain quietly in place until the consequences occur.” A school for chemical warfare was even built in Leverkusen. The German army ultimately used chlorine gas for the first time in Ypres, Belgium. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 people died in this attack and many times that number were seriously injured.

Under Carl Duisberg’s leadership BAYER continued to develop increasingly lethal chemical weapons, first phosgene and later mustard gas. Duisberg vehemently demanded that they be used. “This phosgene is the meanest weapon I know (…). I strongly recommend that we not let the opportunity of this war pass without also testing gas grenades.” An estimated total of 60,000 people died as a result of the gas warfare started by Germany.

BAYER also exploited forced laborers in World War I. In the fall of 1916, Carl Duisberg demanded, “Give us access to the vast pool of people in Belgium.” The government then had approximately 60,000 Belgians deported, which resulted in major international protests. Duisberg argued for rationing jobs and food in Belgium to increase the Belgians’ “desire” to work in Germany. The deportation foreshadowed the incomparably more extensive program of forced labor in the Second World War.

The BAYER management was involved in all facets of the war up to 1918. For example, Carl Duisberg promoted unlimited submarine warfare, the bombing of England in violation of international law and the annexation of Belgium and northern France. He also demanded “Lebensraum” – additional territory – for Germans in Poland and Russia.

As the war dragged on the German government realized that it could no longer win and armistice negotiations should commence. BAYER feared the end of its war profits. In February 1917, together with the military leadership, Carl Duisberg therefore demanded the dismissal of Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann. “If it came to a choice between Hindenburg and Bethmann, Bethmann’s removal would be assured (…). We are on an all-out war footing, and it would be best if this situation could also be expressed to the rest of the world by merging the offices of Field Marshal and Chancellor (…) because politics is now war, and war is politics.” Shortly thereafter the Chancellor was indeed dismissed. There were no armistice negotiations.

When the war ended, Carl Duisberg was on the list of people the Allies wanted extradited, and he had good reason to fear being tried as a war criminal. BAYER’s subsidiaries in the USA were expropriated.

More information: 150 years of BAYER