Some German companies that used concentration camp victims as forced labor during World War II took decades to own up to their wretched acquiescence to the Hitler regime.
MUNICH — They made it sound as if the big company was sinning against the public good. It was 1959, and both the Federation of German Industries (BDI) and the Adenauer government warned steel giant Krupp about "going it alone," which could have unforeseen and undesirable consequences.
At the time, Krupp's chief representative Berthold Beitz, who had joined the company in 1953, was planning to compensate Jewish concentration camp inmates who had worked as slave laborers for the company during the war.
Beitz, who rescued hundreds of Jews from the SS during the Holocaust, gave the issue a new, civil face. But his compensation project was unfortunately crushed by a multitude of competing interests.
Even at that time, 15 years after the collapse of Adolph Hitler's regime, West German industry saw no reason to examine its role or consider where it may have been at fault in the war of extermination.
It took Audi, the successful Ingolstadt-based carmaker, nearly 70 years to face the issue. It is honorable that the company now acknowledges that its predecessor companies used the slave labor of concentration camp inmates "to a scandalous degree" during World War II. But even though the company's current leaders can't help what went on, this should have been addressed many years ago.
A unconscionable defense
For decades after 1945, and even during and after the forced labor debates that took place around 2000, German companies acted as if the people who had been exploited, tortured and murdered providing slave labor for them weren't the victims — but that they were.
At the outset, the line of defense was that the companies had no choice but to bow to the prerogatives of the Nazi state, producing for the war effort and using prisoners and concentration camp inmates to do so. When in 1957 the Frankfurt regional court decided that companies should nevertheless have shown concern for the well-being and lives of slave laborers, there was an industry outcry at what it called "this new collective guilt."
Since then, the story of how German companies have dealt with their Nazi-era past is a sad succession of disconcerting chapters, along with an utter lack of empathy and sense of responsibility.
There are some exceptions, but this was all too often the prevailing reality. With time, the steel manufacturer Krupp lost its "aura of particular reprehensibility," as historian Ulrich Herbert described it. But not because Krupp didn't deserve its blemished pre-1945 reputation, but rather because most other companies were no better.
Tyrants don't just use terror and secret police to function. They require the agreement and collaboration of some areas of society. And who can deny that acceptance of Nazi dictatorship and its ideology was frighteningly high on the part of the "people's community"? Everywhere, resistance and opposition were the exception.
Here, people — important people — espoused dark forces either out of opportunism, ideology, cowardice or greed. They had the choice, and they made the wrong one. They went along with a system of terror, and afterwards shoved all the blame onto "the Nazis," as if the Nazis were aliens from another planet like the Martians in H.G. Wells novel The War of the Worlds.
What has been neglected cannot be made right, not least because so few victims are still alive. For some young company managers, the Nazi era may seem as far removed as ancient Rome. Still, it is not merely an academic exercise when Audi finally looks the past square between the eyes.
Although people in business often claim their world is far-removed from politics, it isn’t. There are moral yardsticks that apply to everyone. And there are times to defend human dignity instead of saying "it's not our fault."