Opinion

The Great Debate

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

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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.

Why the far-right fears change in Chattanooga

On Wednesday through Friday, 1500 autoworkers at Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee will vote on whether to join the United Auto Workers union in a landmark National Labor Relations Board election. Like other U.S. outposts of foreign auto companies, the facility, which opened in 2011, has never had a union.

A vote for unionization at Volkswagen would be a historic victory — not only for the UAW, but for the entire labor movement. It would provide unions with a key victory in the South, even in the face of a lavishly-funded external anti-union campaign, and may lead to transformative changes in labor-management relations, especially among European-owned firms.

If the Chattanooga workers vote to unionize, they will provide another example that when companies remain neutral in union elections, employees usually choose unions. Instead of pressuring the employees to vote against the UAW, Volkswagen management has let workers make the choice on their own. This is exactly what should happen in union elections, but rarely does. Volkswagen would probably have recognized the union on the basis of documented interest among workers, but Republican politicians and anti-union groups such as the National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC) demanded that the company hold an NLRB election. Ironically, the NRTWC has insisted that Volkswagen provide employees who oppose the UAW with an opportunity to make their case to the workforce, something that pro-union workers never enjoy during standard U.S. anti-union campaigns.

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