70 years after D-Day, some companies still struggle with their dark WWII history

By Peter Gumbel
June 5, 2014

dday777

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, by far.

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.

arbeit777Rudolf 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 cautionary tales.

PHOTOS: U.S. reinforcements land on Omaha beach during the Normandy D-Day landings near Vierville sur Mer, France, on June 6, 1944. REUTERS/Cpt Herman Wall/US National Archives/Handout via Reuters

Visitors walk past the main gate with the sign “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) at the former concentration camp in Dachau near Munich January 25, 2014. REUTERS/Michael Dalder 

17 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

It’s good to expose the roles of corporations in WW2 atrocities. It’s odd however that such an article can ignore IG Farben altogether along with its associations with DuPont and Standard Oil in the USA.

Posted by TocoToucan | Report as abusive

Even the expression “Arbeit macht frei” is attributed to Fritz Ter Meer, board member of IG Farben & chairman of Bayer. He is responsible for many of the atrocities of Auchwitz, yet apparently Bayer are unrepentant for his crimes.

Posted by TocoToucan | Report as abusive

It would be useful to look at the role played by British and US companies as well. Far too little is known about the relationship between the Nazi party and (say) the Ford Motor Company. It was believed in the early Thirties that Henry Ford (among others) helped finance Hitler. If he did not then he was a rarity: many other major concerns contributed to the Nazi party, mostly after it had won power.

Posted by Farrell-Vinay | Report as abusive

The board members and CEOs were and still are very much admirerers of the fascist leaders. To own and dictate without democratic influence, to own and not be responsible to anyone but yourself is their utopia. They want the right to own everyone and everything and to force their will on everyone. It’s the dream they are still trying to achieve, and have largely through mass brainwashing. Wars are for profits and that is why we have wars. Drugs are for profits and that is why we have drugs. Ask the CIA who their bosses are. It’s not congress, that’s for sure. Most of you think congress and the president want plausible deniability so that they don’t face the political consequences of their foreknowledge of illegal events. Actually they don’t want you to know that they are not the leaders, they are the minions of our true leaders and owners.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Paragraph 3, the URL points to Apple.com, not to the detailed report about Audi AG, Auto Union AG.

Posted by blogoleum | Report as abusive

The is quite clear that murder requires more than fines. Any afirmative action set up an aristocracy. Equality means that each generation must stand on it’s own and there high estate taxes and public education for that.

The guilty should have been killed when they where alive. A very few where. There is no way to right murder.

Posted by SamuelReich | Report as abusive

No mention of US firms?
This is almost as good as yesterday’s Reuters “news” story about the Russians role in winning WWII – that made no mention of Stalingrad!
This amateur rah-rah America propaganda belongs in first-grade storybooks for boys, not in a major international news outlet.
I mean, it is laughable!

Posted by troutcor | Report as abusive

Actually I am surprised that BASF wasn’t mentioned. They are the ones who produces Zyklon-B that was used in the gas chambers.

Posted by wyldbill | Report as abusive

A simple reason companies finance their own history is its been long enough ago not to damage their brand or deal with survivor repercussions. I work for a US company which had some serious racial and segregation issues in the 1960′s. I worked in a company where the company historian floated some idea’s about exposing and researching some factory practices from 1940′s to 1960′s. The entire management agreed that it was a good idea to do the research but felt that there were too many people still in the company and workers alive – to where our effort to be good corporate citizens would backfire with negative repercussions. We agreed that its probably a project for 20 years down the road. I think we have reached that point with WWII.

Posted by John2244 | Report as abusive

Another omission was the Bush family’s involvement with the Hitler and company.

Posted by kanawah | Report as abusive

The article also left out Nestlé. Nestlé, is a Swiss company, which was supposed to be neutral. However I believe that it has been documented that Nestlé provided support, supplies and equipment to the Third Reich.

Posted by Gyms | Report as abusive

And how about IBM who designed the punch card system to keep track of populations of the concentration camps. Or the rest of the american and western european companies that took part in misery profit making. Or Caterpiller who up until today design special bulldozers for the Isreali army to demolish Palestinean homes. War profiteering vis a vie fascism still goes on to this day. I’m glad we have closure over past events, how about concetrating on today’s autrocities instead.

Posted by MohanadHaroun | Report as abusive

We should not bring up things from WWII that were moral issues then or now. Just things that were illegal then.
Otherwise you are unfairly judging people with hindsight.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Look up Bayer’s history. They’ve made more than aspirin.

Posted by my2sons | Report as abusive

“But while President Bush publicly embraced the community of holocaust survivors in Washington last spring, he and his family have been keeping a secret from them for over 50 years about Prescott Bush, the president’s grandfather. According to classified documents from Dutch intelligence and US government archives, President George W. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush made considerable profits off Auschwitz slave labor. In fact, President Bush himself is an heir to these profits from the holocaust which were placed in a blind trust in 1980 by his father, former president George Herbert Walker Bush.
Throughout the Bush family’s decades of public life, the American press has gone out of its way to overlook one historical fact – that through Union Banking Corporation (UBC), Prescott Bush, and his father-in-law, George Herbert Walker, along with German industrialist Fritz Thyssen, financed Adolf Hitler before and during World War II. It was first reported in 1994 by John Loftus and Mark Aarons in The Secret War Against the Jews: How Western Espionage Betrayed the Jewish People.”
source – http://newsmine.org/content.php?ol=cabal -elite/families/bush-dynasty/bush-family -holocaust.txt

Posted by Tiu | Report as abusive

@tiu – thank you for sharing this link! I (and 99% of America) had no idea …….

Posted by euro-yank | Report as abusive

And so I guess I should send money to northern Ireland in reparation for what my Viking ancestors did to that portion of the world? Give me a break. I’m responsible for my actions and no one else’s, not my father’s, not my grandfather’s. This politically correct “let’s all apologize and feel better” drivel is disgusting.

Posted by TOTL | Report as abusive