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Royal Dutch Shell’s blind spot towards anti-Semitism, Fascism and Nazism

By John Donovan

All the text below in italics is taken directly from “A History of Royal Dutch Shell Vol 1.”  A work authored by eminent historians hired by Shell who had access to Shell’s archives.

Although beholding to their rich client (Shell) they concede that the “resignations” of Jewish directors in frightening circumstances from Shell’s German subsidiary Rhenania-Ossag took place with the full approval of “Central Offices” i.e. Royal Dutch Shell Group HQ offices in “London and The Hague”.

Shell attempted at the time to downplay the seriousness of the ghastly violence against Jews, asking Group directors to place denials in English and Dutch newspapers.

In an antisemitic letter from RDS Group Director Fritz De Kok addressed to Wilhem Rudloff the Chairman of Rhenania-Ossag, De Kok wrote off the attacks as ‘false reports of German atrocities against Jews’. He drew attention as an example, to the denial Royal Dutch Shell had arranged to be published in the Dutch Telegraph newspaper.  

The extracts end with a reference to the “horrendous threat hanging over the Jewish employees in the Group’s care. We do not know the Group’s treatment of the staff members concerned, nor their fates.” 

Sadly, they almost certainly suffered the same horrendous fate as millions of other Jewish people at the hands of the Nazis and their evil accomplices, such as Shell’s Nazi-run partner IG Farben. 


The first months of the Hitler government were characterized by great social turmoil. Brownshirt bands acting as auxiliary police roamed the streets, terrorizing their political opponents. The Reichstag fire in February 1933 was blamed on arson by Communists and taken as an opportunity to ban the Communist party and arrest its members and sympathisers.

Outbreaks of violence against Jews and Jewish businesses also became widespread, culminating in an organized, national boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933. A week later the German government enacted a law barring Jews from holding civil service and university appointments, which was followed by similar regulations concerning the professions.

Rhenania-Ossag was also confronted with scattered actions. In February, a bomb was thrown at a service station in Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad), but it failed to explode. On 31 March, Nazi mobs besieged three service stations in the Westphalia region, claimed the keys with the intention of closing them as belonging to a Jewish company.

And on 3 April the Nazi representatives of Rhenania-Ossag’s works council presented the management with demands for the immediate dismissal of all Jewish directors. Two Jewish directors of the Colas asphalt works near Dresden had already resigned after similar pressure there, and the Jewish lube oil sales manager in Berlin had taken immediate leave, shocked by what was happening.

The events convinced the Rhenania-Ossag managers that the company needed to be aligned with the New Order in Germany, and quickly. Though they had earlier attempted to downplay the seriousness of the violence against Jews, asking Group directors to have denials placed in English and Dutch newspapers, such actions had clearly unsettled them, as evident from the relief with which chairman Rudeloff greeted the well-organized boycott as a sign that the government could control the Nazi mob’s violent antl-Semltlsm. In his view, the banning of Jews from the civil service and the professions would surely be followed by similar regulations for private business; the government had already barred Jews from membership of the semi-public branch organizations representing business interests at government level.

Accordingly, Rudeloff proposed to transfer a number of Jewish employees to other Group companies since he expected that this legislation would seriously limit their ability to work in the business.

During May and June, Rhenania-Ossag’s Aufsichtsrat (board of directors) was thoroughly overhauled as well. The Jewish members resigned, among them the Stern-Sonneborn founders Jacques Sonneborn and Leo Stern. In at least one case, the resignation does not appear to have happened voluntarily. The appointments to replace them included a member of the Nazi party NSDAP, the second one on the board because Kruspig was already a member. Rudeloff postponed the appointment of a third because he wanted to wait and see how the situation would develop.

Rhenania-Ossag also put pressure on two Dutch members to make way for Germans, but this did not happen until 1935. In retrospect the remodelling of the senior management to suit the New Order would appear to have happened with undue haste, long before the introduction of formal legislation, but Rhenania-Ossag did no more than follow the trend in German business. At about the same time, companies as diverse as Deutsche Bank and Unilever took identical action.

The far-reaching changes to the Rhenania-Ossag board could not have taken place without the full consent of Central Offices. The record is incomplete and we have found no documents from which the attitude taken by London and The Hague might be construed. Nor have we found any indications that Rhenania-Ossag took them under the influence of fanatical Nazis.

Moving managers and employees to other jobs was probably seen as a cosmetic exercise of the kind occasionally required to placate particular regimes, and no more. No questions of principle or moral judgements about the Hitler regime appear to have arisen and it bears pointing out that, whereas correspondence shows Group managers quick to identify and condemn Bolshevism, they appear not to have had the same sensitivity to Fascism or Nazism. This blind spot, quite a common affliction in the 1930S, may have impaired their vision when it came to perceiving the intentions of the unfolding Third Reich and the horrendous threat hanging over the Jewish employees in the Group’s care. We do not know the Group’s treatment of the staff members concerned, nor their fates. 


Dear Mr. Rudeloff,

I have received your letter on the reports concerning the horror of German Jew crime and have immediately published in the big Dutch newspapers that you have informed me that in Germany the various representatives of the Rhenania-Ossag have no riots.

Please find attached a copy of “Telegraaf” where you will find the relevant message.

As far as our house magazine “De Bron” is concerned, the March number has just been published so that the desired message could not be taken until April. I will be happy to do that if it turns out that such a communication should be up to the end of April.

With best regards

w.g. J.E.F. DE KOK
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