German Industry's Guilt In Nazi History Lingers On

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.

Production of Tiger tanks in a Krupp factory in 1943.
Production of Tiger tanks in a Krupp factory in 1943.
Joachim Käppner


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."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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