People are pretty upset after Coca-Cola recently told their employees to "Be less white" during a diversity training program.
But it's not the first time the company has misfired on racial issues.
Back in the mid-20th century Coca-Cola collaborated with Nazis to create a soft drink brand you're probably still well familiar with today.
In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, Coca-Cola’s local unit sold 100,000 cases. The subsidiary’s finances were in shambles, however.
Enter 30-year-old German businessman Max Keith, a giant of a man with an imperious air and a massive greatcoat. Keith, a “born leader” who terrified subordinates but commanded their respect, took over Coca-Cola Germany’s books and quickly put them in order. He then revolutionized sales, breaking records every year and eventually heading the company.
One of Keith’s first marketing triumphs was supplying massive amounts of Coke to the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. At that time, Hitler was riding high. Not only did German athletes win the most gold medals, German boxer Max Schmeling had recently beaten black American Joe Louis in New York. (Schmeling watched a film of the match at a lunch with Hitler, who slapped him with glee every time Schmeling landed a punch.)
Nazi Germany was preparing to conquer Europe, and that September, Hitler’s second-in-command Hermann Göering announced a self-sufficiency regime, severely limiting imports and discouraging foreign companies. Coca-Cola’s Atlanta-based president Robert Woodruff sought to protect his European business, just as many other U.S. executives did.
As Mark Pendergrast points out in For God, Country & Coca-Cola, “Some, like Henry Ford, were in fact Nazi sympathizers, while others, such as Walter Teagle of Standard Oil, avoided taking sides but saw nothing wrong with doing business with the Nazis. Like his friend and hunting companion Teagle, Woodruff practiced expediency.”
Woodruff enlisted a German banking envoy to convince Göering to let him keep exporting flavor syrup to Germany. Keith, meanwhile, began producing much of the syrup he needed domestically, and briefly considered smuggling the remaining ingredients in.
Then in 1937, a rival German soda maker on a trip to the U.S. discovered Coke bottle caps with Hebrew writing on them, indicating they were kosher. The company quickly claimed Coca-Cola was run by Harold Hirsch, a Jew on the American company’s board. German Coke sales plummeted. Keith told Woodruff he should sack Hirsch, but he refused.
So Keith took steps to identify Coke with Nazism, including sending sales teams to mass patriotic events.
“As young men goose-stepped in formation at Hitler Youth rallies,” writes Pendergrast, “Coca-Cola trucks accompanied the marchers, hoping to capture the next generation.”
Keith put Coke at the center — literally — of a 1937 exhibition showcasing Nazi Germany’s industry. He built a working bottling plant in the middle of the fair, where a company photographer snapped Göering enjoying a Coke.
German troops captured Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region in February of 1938. In March, Hitler annexed Austria. Woodruff and Coke Germany argued over who should get the sales royalties from occupied Austria. Woodruff won.
That month, Keith held a convention for Coke Germany’s 1,500 salesmen and bottlers. Journalist Ralph McGill describes “a giant picture of Hitler that covered the entire back wall — a picture that inspired frequent stiff-armed salutes and shouts of ‘Heil, Hitler!’” Keith, speaking from beneath a huge Coca-Cola banner bearing three enormous swastikas, called for a massive Sieg-Heil! in the Führer’s honor.
In April 1939, Hitler turned 50, and Coke Germany turned 10. At the celebration, Keith exhorted the crowd for another Sieg-Heil! “to commemorate our deepest admiration and gratitude for our Führer who has led our nation into a brilliant higher sphere.”
Hitler, who reportedly enjoyed sipping Coke while watching Gone With the Wind in his private theater, wasn’t finished. In September, he captured the rest of Czechoslovakia — and Western Poland, triggering war with Britain and France. By July, Germany had captured France and began attacking Britain, in preparation for a planned invasion.
With war declared in Europe, Keith worried his foreign-linked business might be nationalized, and that he’d be thrown in jail. Working his connections in the Third Reich, he was appointed supervisor of all soft-drink plants in Germany — and its occupied territories. He soon controlled the business in Italy, France, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Norway.
That year, Coke sold almost 4.5 million cases in Nazi Germany.
In 1940 Keith, still worried import restrictions might tighten, developed a soda he could brew in Germany. It used industrial byproducts like whey from cheese-making, and apple pulp. Keith told his salesmen to let their fantasie (imagination) run wild in coming up with a name. A senior salesman immediately shot back, “Fanta!”
Woodruff kept sending Coke syrup to Keith, too — until America entered the war in December 1941. The U.S. Army declared Keith an enemy, and communications with Woodruff were severed. Keith made sure his dwindling supplies of Coca-Cola only went to hospitals for soldiers who were Nazi Party members.
Meanwhile Fanta, labeled as a product of Coca-Cola Germany, kept both the business and the brand alive. In 1941, Keith used his influence to get around the ban on sugar. Thus, Fanta tasted better than rival drinks. Housewives even sweetened soups and stews with it. Fanta sold 3 million cases in 1943.
Keith also kept Coke employees like American Carl West, who’d unsuccessfully tried to flee occupied Belgium, alive and employed. But Pendergrast theorizes he may have employed slave labor as well.
Asthe war ended in 1945, “technical observers” with the victorious Allied military took control of Germany’s industry. Keith welcomed the T.O.s, but they refused to employ him, with one calling him “a second Hitler.” Furious but patient, Keith bided his time until the T.O.s began to leave. In 1949, he tricked a T.O. into selling him some expired Coke syrup, and used it to bottle his first batch since 1942.
Woodruff decided bottling should be handed back to Germans and sent an investigator to Germany to check out Keith’s war record. He found Keith had fought “intense pressure” to join the Nazi party, and refused requests to give senior positions to top Nazis. Keith also gave Coke the profits he’d made on Fanta.
Woodruff reinstated Keith, eventually naming him Coca-Cola’s chief for all Europe. (Some rebellious bottlers referred to him as “Super-Führer.”)
In 1957, Coke USA also gave boxing legend Max Schmeling control of bottling operations in Hamburg, and made him brand ambassador for Germany.
“Once the personification of Nazi superiority,” writes Pendergrast, “the man who kept a signed autograph of Hitler in his study joined the [cheerful] Coca-Cola family.” Woodruff justified it by saying Schmeling had sheltered Jews in his home during the war.
As for Fanta, it’s sold today and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2015. Coke released Fanta Classic, a version of the wartime recipe, in the original bottle.
The upbeat ad proclaimed, “75 years ago, resources for our beloved Coke were scarce.” It didn’t explain why. Then: “We are bringing back the feeling of the good old times.” There was an immediate backlash.
Coca-Cola quickly pulled the ad, and told BeverageDaily.com that Fanta “had no association with Hitler or the Nazi Party.” The truth is more