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Continuing controversy over Shell leaders financial relationship with Hitler

English translation of an article published by the German newspaper WELT on 17 May 2024

(Die Welt (“The World”) is a German national daily newspaper, published as a broadsheet)
Article by Von Sven Felix Kellerhoff

Leitender Redakteur Geschichte

How brown was the “Napoleon of the oil business” really?

Some considered Henri Deterding to be the “most powerful man in the world” in the 1920s. As a convinced anti-Bolshevik, he became involved with Hitler and paid with the permanent loss of his reputation. Historian Jochen Thies traces the life of the long-time Shell boss.

Many people who are in the public spotlight have to live with gossip and rumours. For some, practically everything rolls off without affecting them, even verifiable accusations; For others, however, their good reputation is permanently ruined. Henri Deterding undoubtedly belonged to the second group.

At the height of his life in the 1920s, the co-founder and long-time boss of the Shell Group was considered the “Napoleon of the oil business” and even the “most powerful man in the world”. Nevertheless, he is almost forgotten today, in all three countries in which he lived for a long time – neither his native Netherlands nor Great Britain nor Switzerland want to know anything about Deterding.

“No street in Amsterdam, no square in London, no plaque on a chalet in St. Moritz reminds us of the ‘stateless person’,” writes historian and journalist Jochen Thies, who has now published the first serious biography of the corporate leader (“Power and powerlessness. The life story of the Royal Dutch/Shell founder Sir Henri Deterding”. Edition Olzog / Lau-Verlag. Why is that? The answer has a lot to do with the unwillingness to let go of lies that have long since been refuted.

Anyone who searches for Henri Deterding in press archives will find descriptions such as “enthusiastic cartel designer” (according to the 1998 Hamburg weekly newspaper “Die Zeit”) or “hard as nails” (1976 in “Spiegel”); In 1974, WELT uncomfortably called him “womanly” and a “worshipper of baroque ladies”. But what is undoubtedly even more important is his unclear relationship with Hitler and the NSDAP. It can be clarified, says Jochen Thies, who has a doctorate in history, wrote speeches for Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and then made a career as a journalist.

According to the common account, which is now disseminated via Wikipedia, on countless websites on the Internet and in many printed publications, Deterding is said to have supported the NSDAP with large sums of money since 1921. At least that’s what an otherwise unknown author by the name of Glyn Roberts claimed in 1938. But can that be true?

In the year of supposedly first support, Hitler was the almost unknown leader of a tiny splinter party outside of Upper Bavaria. Deterding, on the other hand, had recently received the dignity of “Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” from the British King, combined with elevation to the personal, non-inheritable nobility – for his services in supplying oil to the Entente powers in the World War 1914 to 1918. The alleged support of Hitler from 1921 onwards can safely be ignored as a bad invention.

In the summer of 1928, similar rumours arose again – the SPD newspaper “Münchener Post”, which liked to print speculations from murky sources, published a letter on July 27th under the heading “National Socialist Confessions” in which it said: “Hitler gets Money from Deterding (Shell company; this is confidential, just for you). In any case, this means that Hitler is committed to pro-Western foreign policy, which is evident from his statements to the public.”

The NSDAP leader immediately contradicted: “I state that I never received any money from Deterding, nor from the Shell Group, nor from the Royal Dutch Company, nor from any party through which I was determined in foreign or domestic policy Of course that didn’t have to be true just because Hitler said so. But in fact, historical research has not been able to find the slightest evidence of this since then, nor has the police at the time.

Speculation that, after the NSDAP’s landslide success in the early Reichstag elections in September 1930, Deterding made millions of dollars available to the SA in order to make it organizationally independent of the NSDAP also remained unsubstantiated. In reality, Hitler did everything in 1930/31 to bind the brown shirts closer to himself and the party: he first took the place of the previous SA chief Franz Pfeffer von Salomon and then won over Ernst Röhm, his old comrade from Munich Putsch days in 1923, as future chief of staff.

However, the rumours about a collaboration between Shell and the NSDAP had a (small) kernel of truth. What Hitler and Deterding had in common was the total rejection of Bolshevism – albeit for different motives: the NSDAP “leader” obviously compensated for his own involvement in the short-lived Munich Soviet Republic with his pathological hatred of Jews and communists, while Deterding’s anger was driven by nationalization the oil fields around Baku in 1920, through which his Royal Dutch Shell not only lost a “third of its total oil production,” as Thies shows, but also the huge sum of more than eight million pounds of capital invested in Russian companies. “

In 1932, Royal Dutch Shell began placing large-format advertisements for gasoline and motor oils in the “Völkischer Observer,” writes Jochen Thies. This was indirect support for the Hitler party, which other oil companies active in Germany also did. When there were protests against advertising for a foreign company, the NSDAP publishing director Max Amann brushed off the criticism: “We are taking up the Shell ads because we National Socialists cannot travel with water either.”

In March 1933, the Shell boss asked for an appointment with the new Reich Chancellor, which was rejected – perhaps also because a clear recommendation found its way into the files of the Reich Chancellery on March 18th: “We will have to urgently warn against getting involved D. to get in too close.” The reasons given in the note were that Deterding “in reality had no other interests” “than those of his wallet” and that his “business dealings (…) were almost exclusively Jewish.”

It wasn’t until July 1934 that the oil entrepreneur met Hitler in person. But the appointment apparently didn’t leave much of an impression on the German dictator, because in the same year the state took over the Berlin Shell headquarters on the Landwehr Canal as the headquarters for the naval management. There were no further meetings.

At the beginning of 1937, Joseph Goebbels recorded that Deterding had “donated 40 million” to the “Winterhilfswerk”, a type of social organization run by the NSDAP, by far the largest amount that year. Apparently, the entrepreneur, who was almost 71 years old at the time, wanted to buy sympathy – after all, since his departure as Shell boss the previous year, he had been living primarily in the specially purchased Dobbin Castle in Mecklenburg for the sake of his third wife, Charlotte Mina.

Hitler sent a wreath to Henri Deterding’s funeral in Dobbin Park after his unexpected death in St. Moritz at the beginning of February 1939 – a sign of sympathy, but not exactly proof of a close relationship. In his place came the head of the “Winter Relief Organization”: not exactly a high-ranking representative in the Third Reich either. In the laudatory obituaries that appeared in the controlled German press, there was no mention of financial donations before 1936.

Jochen Thies brings the “wanderer between worlds” Henri Deterding out of the fog of rumours. That doesn’t necessarily make the long-standing company owner any more likeable. But it offers a realistic look at a life that reached the highest peaks – and then ended in obscurity.
The above screenshots (with captions) are from the filmed funeral and come from Shell’s archives. The Reuters article published in The New York Times confirmed a 4 day meeting between Deterding and Hitler in OCTOBER 1934. If there is evidence of a meeting in July 1934 (The date of a meeting quoted in the above WELT article, then that was an additional meeting between Deterding & Hitler.
See the related John Donovan website for much more evidence:

See also on Amazon

A glowing tribute on behalf of the German nation was inscribed on a wreath sent by Hitler. Fears that the Nazis intended to exploit the death of Sir Henri, just before the start of WW2, to seize…

Documentary film to follow?

This website and sisters,,,, and, are owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia segment.

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