(Peter Gumbel is an award winning journalist and author who has
lived in Paris since 2002. The opinions expressed are his own.)
By Peter Gumbel
June 6 As the world marks the 70th anniversary
of D-Day this week with films, TV and radio broadcasts and
dozens of new books specially published for the occasion, you
might think that by now we know everything there is to know
about World War Two. Check out any library or bookstore, and the
amount of shelf-space dedicated to the 12 years of Hitler's
Third Reich often exceeds that of any other period in history,
Yet even today, one facet of this period continues to be
shrouded in obscurity, and still yields new secrets. It is the
role, and complicity, of companies in the atrocities committed
by the Nazis.
Just last month, two German historians published a detailed
account of how the forerunner of automaker Audi AG, Auto Union
AG, used concentration camp inmates and dragooned labor at its
factories in eastern Germany to produce tank and aircraft
engines. About 3,700 inmates of makeshift concentration camps,
set up specially for the company by the SS, worked as slave
laborers in Zwickau and Chemnitz, alongside 16,500 others who
were forcibly conscripted. Moreover, 18,000 inmates of the
Flossenbürg concentration camp were put to work to build a
massive underground factory for producing tank engines. An
estimated 4,500 of those workers died in the process.
While there had been reports in the past about Auto Union's
use of slave labor, the new details went far beyond previous
estimates. The historians' study was financed by Audi itself.
"We think we need to be completely open about our past," says
spokesman Jürgen de Graeve. The automaker is altering a
permanent exhibition about its history, housed next to its
headquarters in Ingolstadt, and de Graeve says Audi intends to
make instructional use of the material to teach young employees
about the dangers of nationalism and extremism.
Audi is just the latest big German firm to bring in outside
historians to investigate its war record. Rival automaker
Daimler AG was one of the first, opening its archives in the
1980s and 1990s, and other big companies have followed suit.
Some commissioned non-German historians, including Deutsche Bank
AG and insurer Allianz AG. Volkswagen, meanwhile, has converted
a former air-raid shelter on its factory premises in Wolfsburg
into a permanent exhibition of its use of wartime slave labor.
Rudolf Boch, one of the historians who wrote the Auto Union
study, says there are still many aspects of business activity
during the Third Reich that haven't come out. While most big
German companies with internationally known brands have now
published histories, Boch says there are plenty of smaller firms
that operated during the war and haven't followed suit.
Moreover, details remain patchy about the activities of firms in
other countries, including in Italy, the Czech Republic and the
Netherlands, that were doing business with the Nazi war machine.
Not to mention Japan, where corporate involvement in World War
Two remains largely unpublicized.
History can ambush firms in unexpected ways. Earlier this
year, a subsidiary of the French state-owned railway SNCF was
invited to bid on a $6 billion light-rail line in Maryland, only
to run into fierce opposition from Holocaust survivors and
others who demanded that it shouldn't be allowed to do business
in the United States unless it first paid reparations to the
families of thousands of Jews and others it transported from
France to Nazi death camps. The U.S. and French governments are
currently seeking to negotiate a settlement.
In Germany, the efforts to come to terms with the Nazi past
crystallized in 2000, when some 6,000 German companies joined
together with the government to create the foundation
Remembrance, Responsibility and Future, which paid reparations
to victims. In part it was a defensive move to head off U.S.
class-action lawsuits, similar to those filed against Swiss
banks by the heirs of Holocaust victims. The payments officially
ended in 2007, but the foundation continues to sponsor projects
aimed at fostering "a culture of remembrance."
None of this has stopped the flow of revelations. One of
Germany's richest families, the Quandts, major shareholders in
automaker BMW and chemical firm Altana, commissioned a study
after German TV aired an exposé in 2007 alleging that Günther
Quandt built a fortune during the Third Reich by exploiting
slave labor. When the study was published in 2011, Gabriele and
Stefan Quandt, Günther's grandchildren, gave an interview to the
weekly Die Zeit describing their shock and shame. "Günther
Quandt is our grandfather. But we would have rather have had a
different one," Gabriele Quandt said. "Or rather, we would have
liked him to have been different."
Why has it taken so long? Some business executives who were
active during the Third Reich continued in positions of power
after 1945, and were at times revered for their role in creating
post-war prosperity. In Ingolstadt, where Audi is based, there's
a street named after Richard Bruhn, who ran Auto Union's wartime
operations and then, after the war, played a key role in
rebuilding the automaker. Ingolstadt city council is now
considering renaming the street.
The Cold War provides another explanation for why some
details are only now coming out. In Audi's case the archives
were in Chemnitz, in the former East Germany, and only
accessible after German reunification in 1990.
Another reason is the sheer size of the universe of Nazi
destruction. "You'll never see the end of new revelations about
this corporate evil," predicts Edwin Black, an American author
who has written a slew of books focusing on the wartime
activities of American companies, including IBM, General Motors
and Ford. Among other details, Black describes how the Nazis
used 3-ton "Blitz" trucks made by GM in the invasion of Poland
and other countries.
As the D-Day celebrations show, the number of people who
actually lived through the war years has dwindled. So why keep
digging? Black, for one, says the point of continuing historical
inquiry is not to get reparations or take revenge, but rather to
ask the question: What can we learn?
As the Googles and Apples of the world consider whether to
operate in countries with unsavory political regimes, the
lessons of corporate complicity in the Third Reich are powerful