How Coca-Cola became Hitler’s drink of choice

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It’s an oft-repeated bit of internet trivia that The Coca-Cola Company created Fanta in order to break the market of World War II Germany, then deeply suspicious of anything American.

The reality is slightly different and less to do with anti-Americanism and more to do with pragmatism and Allied blockades.

According to mythbusting megasite, shortages of the necessary Coca-Cola syrup forced the company’s German arm – Coca-Cola GmbH – to conjure up a new drink with apple fibres left over from the cider-making process.

Concerned by the implications of Coca-Cola GmbH being cut off from the US head office and working with the Nazi regime, after the war The Coca-Cola Company investigated its German chief Max Keith, eventually ruling he had not only continued to act in the interests of his parent company, but had rejected Nazi Party membership as a shortcut to official favour.

The origins of Fanta are by no means the end of the story. Nor are they the end of the questions hovering over the fizzy stuff’s relationship with the Third Reich.

A German Fanta advert from 1941
A German Fanta advert from 1941

For God, Country, And Coca-Cola: The Definitive History Of The Great American Soft Drink And The Company That Makes It by Mark Pendergrast recalls German prisoners of war arriving in New Jersey in 1945 and looking on amazed at the Coca-Cola hoarding. Their guard, confused by their sudden excitement, demanded an explanation.

“We are surprised,” explained one English-speaking prisoner, “that you have Coca-Cola here too.”

First introduced in the United States in 1886, Coca-Cola made its German debut during the heady days of the Weimar Republic when ex-pat Yank and all-round wheeler-dealer (he claimed to “have done everything in the world but murder”) Ray Rivington Powers started bottling the drink for German consumption in 1929. The sort of cartoon tycoon who would later be a feature of venomous anti-American propaganda, Rivington deliberately spoke broken German and promised investors unbelievable riches and villas in Florida.

Despite his carefully contrived buffoonery, Rivington was onto a winner and by the time Adolf Hitler ascended to proverbial throne in 1933 sales of Coca-Cola had risen from 6,000 cases a year to 100,000. These sorts of figures were impossible to ignore and Coca-Cola GmbH was given the trademark and a license to manufacture the off-brown nectar in this booming new market.

German Coca-Cola adverts from the 1930s
German Coca-Cola adverts from the 1930s

That same year Max Keith joined the firm and brought its less-than-stellar accounts and business practices in line with its stellar business model.

The two red banners were waved, if not yet in unison, then in perfect symmetry.

While the Nazi Party began to take over the institutions of German government and control public opinion through propaganda and spectacle, Coca-Cola GmbH expanded its operation into new bottling plants and warehouses with a relentless schedule and work ethic that would have given the Wehrmacht pause for breath.

Meanwhile a Blitzkrieg advertising campaign worked to convince the beer-necking populace that fizzy drinks were worthy of the workingman and slogans urged the glistening industrial labour force to down tools and down a refreshing bottle of Coca-Cola mid-rivet.

Whenever Hitler appeared on a magazine cover, a Coca-Cola advert appeared on the back, and whenever propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels booked out the Sportpalast for mass displays of serpentine rhetoric Coca-Cola billboards appeared outside, right where the Party faithful were queuing.

As the chorus of the hateful Nazi creed reached its thunderous high, Coca-Cola GmbH found itself at a crossroads.

A German Coca-Cola ad from 1935
A German Coca-Cola ad from 1935

Still very much associated with the US, the mood was turning against them and in 1936 a homegrown rival, Afri-Cola, began circulating pictures of Coke bottle tops from the US that showed the Hebrew characters identifying it as Kosher. All this really meant was that Coca-Cola ticked all the boxes for consumption by observant Jews, but under the bilious spotlight of Nazi ideology the insinuation was that this soft-drink success story was under the control of a Jewish cabal.

A Bavarian spring-water bottler – smarting from loss of profits – got in on the act too, writing to the Food and Agriculture Ministry in Berlin to opine that “it would be interesting to know whether Jewish capital is active in Coca-Cola GmbH.”

Sales tanked and the Nazi HQ cancelled their orders, forcing Keith to deny any Jewish connection in an advert placed in the Party’s propaganda sheet, Der Stuermer. This inspired headlines back home to cry “Coca-Cola Finances Hitler” – a slight blow to its all-American, super-patriotic image, but one that left little mark.

Economic pressure as well as public pressure was being brought to bear on Coke too as Reichstag president, Reichsminister of Economics and Hitler’s clear second Hermann Göring was clamping down on foreign companies, forcing Keith – as well as The Coca-Cola Company back in the States – to pull every possible string to keep the syrup flowing.

Hermann Göring in 1935
Hermann Göring in 1935

There were health concerns too and Selling Modernity: Advertising In Twentieth-Century Germany by Jonathan R Zatlin and Pamela E Swett notes that while many of the Nazi government’s policies – in particular its war on drunk driving and restrictions on how much control breweries could exert on bars – worked to Coke’s advantage, the same drive for a pure and strong German people threatened to take it off the shelves altogether over fears of its caffeine content.

It’s one thing to defend your business from attack, but something else to cosy up to the totalitarian regime, and following this brush with ruin Max Keith pulled out all the stops to get the red and white flag of Coca-Cola flying alongside the red and white (and black) flag of the Nazi Party.

What he needed was a truly global spectacle, one that would place the new confident and ultra-modern Germany at the top table of the civilised world and burnish the brand’s credentials in the process.

And he found one.

Though better known for African-American athlete Jesse Owens’ medal-winning mockery of Hitler’s neo-imperialist pomp, the 1936 Olympics was a triumph for Coke too and they enthusiastically sponsored the event, providing sidewalk concession stands for the crowds and branded brochures packed with Olympic facts. The whole thing was enough of a jamboree for the firm to bring The Coca-Cola Company boss Robert Woodruff over from the United States to witness his brand’s expert penetration of the German market.

Coca-Cola ads from the 1946 Summer Olympics
Coca-Cola ads from the 1936 Summer Olympics

As the war drums began to beat out the rat-tat-tat of Anschluss, Coca-Cola GmbH made sure it was seen to be marching in step. In March 1938, while the Wehrmacht stormed across the border into Austria to make good on their “bloodless” invasion, Max Keith presided over the Ninth Annual Concessionaire Convention bellowing his Nazi Party loyalty to the rafters.

According to Prendergrast, “Behind the main table, a huge banner proclaimed in German, ‘Coca-Cola is the world-famous trademark for the unique product of 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. The meeting closed with a ceremonial pledge to Coca-Cola and a ringing three-fold ‘Sieg Heil’ to Hitler.”

At another convention, Keith ordered a mass “Sieg Heil” in honour of Hitler’s 50th birthday, to commemorate “our deepest admiration and gratitude for our Führer who has led our nation into a brilliant higher sphere.”

Stranger still was the spectacle at the Reichsausstellung Schaffendes Volk in Dusseldorf, an exhibition that celebrated the achievements of the German worker under the Nazi regime. Coca-Cola wormed its way into the floorplan of this propaganda-fest with a miniature train for the children, a model bottling plant that could wash, cap and fill 4,000 bottles an hour and a 16-metre (50-foot)-long service counter selling ice-cold Cokes to the stupefied punters.

All the while display cases, models and illustrations boasted of the importance of Coca-Cola to the German economy. Amid the madness, Hermann Göring himself paused to enjoy a cool glass of the brown stuff – a moment captured by a company photographer.

The front of the Schaffendes Volk Exhibition in Dusseldorf on a German postcard
A German postcard showing the Reichsausstellung Schaffendes Volk building

Sales exploded in the wake of Dusseldorf, with the appeal of Coca-Cola going right to the top, and Prendergrast adds: “Though no such picture documented the Führer’s tastes, Hitler reputedly enjoyed Coca-Cola too, sipping the Atlanta drink as he watched Gone With The Wind in his private theatre.”

“Our beverage is a Volksgetränk [drink for all Germans]”, boasted the company in 1937.

And it really was.

With its place in the heart of the Third Reich secure, Coca-Cola GmbH turned to war profiteering and Max Keith’s reputation grows shadier still.

Following the annexation of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in June 1938, Max Keith rushed into occupied territory as German law – in particular, recent legislation restricting the amount of glass in packaging because of its use in bomber sights, cathode ray tubes and radar – had yet to come into effect. Glasswork had long been a traditional industry for the Sudeten Germans, and suddenly in the wake of the Wehrmacht their huge pool of expertise had become available.

Not only did the raft of new bottling plants in the Sudetenland save the iconic Coca-Cola bottle in Germany, but it also demonstrated the company’s commitment to the economy in the new frontier of Hitler’s realm.

German soldiers being welcomed into the Sudetenland by its German population
German soldiers being welcomed into the Sudetenland by its German population

This didn’t go unnoticed and as the war drew in Britain and France, Keith found himself with a mandate at the Office of Enemy Property, supervising soft-drink manufacturers in all occupied territories and annexing Coca-Cola operations in France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway and Italy for his own carbonated empire.

It’s certainly true – as The Coca-Cola Company maintained post-war – that Max Keith acted only in the interests of the firm, but in his hunger for profit he was only too happy to take advantage of the opportunities offered by Nazi regime, even making use of convict slave labour and boasting that his best salesman “had killed his father and was serving a 20-year sentence for it.”

If anything, Keith was proud of his dogged service to the company and with the fall of Berlin in 1945, he sent a quick telegram back to the head office in Atlanta. His first official contact with the motherbrand since at least 1942 when the United States joined the war.

“Coca-Cola GmbH still functioning”, he said, before turning to his booming balance sheet. “Send auditors.”

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  • For God, Country, And Coca-Cola: The Definitive History Of The Great American Soft Drink And The Company That Makes It by Mark Pendergrast
  • Selling Modernity: Advertising In Twentieth-Century Germany by Jonathan R Zatlin and Pamela E Swett
  • The Emperors Of Coca Cola by Murray J Eldred