PARIS – As the world marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day last 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 II. 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.
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 II 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.
Peter Gumbel is an award-winning journalist and author who has lived in Paris since 2002. The opinions expressed are his own.