What do decaffeinated coffee and Hitler have to do with each other?


by S. Jonathan Wiesen

In the United States, there are numerous consumer products with controversial pasts. We need only think of our grocery aisles and kitchen cabinets, where racist images of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have only recently given way to updated, less stereotypical depictions of African Americans. Other countries, notably Germany, have not been immune from this legacy of racist marketing. Most famously, Volkswagen, Hitler’s “people’s car,” by its very name bears the stigma of the Nazis’ violent quest for biological purity. Indeed most German companies that had been around in the 1930s and 1940s—from car companies like BMW to pharmaceutical giants like Bayer—maintained links to the National Socialist project that have come back to haunt the firms after 1945.

One product, however, that has received little attention in this history of racism and consumerism is decaffeinated coffee. What does coffee, notably the famous Sanka brand, have to do with Adolf Hitler? For one thing, Ludwig Roselius, the inventor of the decaffeination process and the head of the major coffee company that spawned Sanka, was a supporter of National Socialism and a celebrated entrepreneur in Nazi Germany. But the links, as I will suggest below, between decaf coffee and Nazism go deeper than this. For in a regime devoted to biological health, decaffeinated coffee promised to cleanse the “Volk” of toxins and to elevate the Aryan people to new heights of greatness.

Kaffee HAG poster, Lucian Bernhard, 1914

A former apprentice in a coffee-roasting house, the Bremen businessman Ludwig Roselius became part owner of his father’s import and wholesale coffee company in 1897. In 1906 he patented the procedure for the decaffeination of coffee and the following year founded the Kaffee Handels–Aktiengesellschaft (Kaffee HAG), which began showcasing its decaffeination techniques at culinary exhibitions, inventors conferences, and at gatherings of drug researchers and manufacturers. HAG soon established markets and subsidiaries abroad, including in the United States in 1914. HAG also committed itself to diversified branding, introducing a variety of products including Sanka in France (the “H” in HAG was too difficult to pronounce, thus Sanka, from sans caffeine). In the United States the Sanka Coffee Corporation was founded in 1924, replacing the name of HAG in the American market; this subsidiary became part of the General Foods group, with Roselius retaining some control over the product.

A businessman achieving great heights with the help of HAG, 1938

Ludwig Roselius’s firm was on the cutting edge of product advertising in pre-Nazi Germany, and it maintained this position throughout the Third Reich as well. One of the centerpieces of its advertising was HAG’s claim that caffeine was a poison and that decaf coffee was good for one’s heart, calmed the nerves, and enabled people to maximize productivity at work and play. This message had a strong resonance in Germany after World War I, when a cult of fitness pervaded a country eager to replenish and revitalize a population diminished by wartime causalities. After Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, the fitness craze was transformed into a more violent obsession with biological engineering. By virtue of its health claims, Kaffee Hag found a ready place in this new ideological setting. It not only linked decaf coffee to athletes, like world heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling. It also made sure that it could actively advertise and sell products in the vicinity of macho figures like Italian leader Benito Mussolini, who visited Hitler in 1937. Kaffee Hag sold products that promised high achievement (or “Leistung”—to invoke the Nazis’ ideologically tinged phrase), and it provided drinks at Hitler Youth rallies.

The upshot of all of these activities was that the main brand of decaf coffee—Kaffee HAG—was a key player on the commercial landscape of Nazi Germany. This might seem like nothing more than guilt by association and little proof that Roselius or his company were supporters of National Socialism. But until his death in 1943, decaf pioneer Roselius was a loyal backer of Hitler, whom he saw as ushering in a period of greatness for his people. He used his personal fortune to support conferences on “Nordic” culture, to back publications about racial strength, and to build an exercise facility whose fitness regimens were packaged in the Nazis’ rhetoric of health. And he made sure that his company’s advertisements for decaf coffee spoke to the regime’s promotion of racial vigor.

HAG Kaffee display at a doctors conference, with a “scientific” presentation combined with posters (one asking “nervous?”), c.1930

By looking at this intersection of advertising, health, and race, we can get at some of the realities of German society under the Nazis. For one, the Nazis were very eager to use everyday consumer products to instill a racial awareness in the German population. They invested products and ad campaigns that had predated the onset of Nazi rule with an ideological import. In and of itself, Kaffee HAG’s focus on toxins, poisons, and high performance was not racist. But Hitler was able to align these existing motifs with a newfound racial urgency. “Volkish” health—whether enabled by caffeine-free coffee, effective cleaning supplies, or pharmaceuticals—took on new meaning after 1933, linked now with the attempt to root out “undesirables” (Jews, Gypsies, and mentally and physically disabled people) from German society.

Window displays and advertising columns selling Kaffee HAG

The ability to enlist prosaic products and advertising slogans in a larger ideological crusade bespeaks a basic reality of Nazi Germany: the radical violence of the Third Reich was shrouded in a superficial “normality” in many areas of life. The everyday experiences of many pre-World War II Germans (those who were not deemed politically or racially suspect), such as working, shopping, and consuming, were not necessarily rife with ideology. Rather, in the aftermath of the punishing economic depression of the early 1930s, Germans spent their disposable incomes on necessities and luxuries that on the surface had little to do with violence or race. Indeed commercial advertising was forbidden from exploiting the themes and images of the Nazi regime—such as swastikas and Hitler’s face. But the Nazi regime used the very normalcy of everyday life—and heightened economic opportunities before the outbreak of World War II—to enhance its own power and to pave the way for larger racial goals. As time went on and as war became the defining feature of National Socialism, conventional marketing norms and practices became tied to horrible crimes.

About the Author:

S. Jonathan Wiesen is Associate Professor of History at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His publications include West German industry and the Challenge of the Nazi Past, 1945-1955 (Chapel Hill, NC 2001), Selling Modernity: Advertising in Twentieth Century Germany (Durham, NC 2007) (edited with Pamela Swett and Jonathan Zatlin), and Creating the Nazi Marketplace: Commerce and Consumption in the Third Reich (Cambridge, 2011).