Germany is closing one of the last chapters of its Nazi past this week. The establishment of a 10 billion deutsche-mark fund (520 billion yen) to compensate those who were slave laborers during World War II will, in the words of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, set down “a durable marker of historic and moral responsibility.” It is a long-overdue gesture and one that Japan should note. The campaign to win compensation for the injustices committed during that war will soon focus on this country.
There are more than 1 million survivors of Nazi enslavement or forced labor. Most of the 240,000 surviving slave laborers, who were held in concentration camps, are Jewish; many of them have already received some payment from the German government for the sufferings inflicted upon them by the Nazis. Another 750,000 to 1 million former forced laborers, who were in detention camps, are Central and Eastern Europeans who are not Jewish. Although the German government already paid out about $60 billion in compensation for Nazi crimes, payments made to the East European victims were kept by the communist governments during the postwar era. It is estimated that 80 percent of the payouts from the new fund will go to non-Jewish people. Indeed, the new fund is historic because it recognizes and compensates those victims for the first time.
The fund, to be called “Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future,” was set up after two years of difficult negotiations. Each former slave laborer will receive DM15,000; each forced laborer will be paid DM5,000. The cost of the fund will be split between the German government and German industry. Mr. Schroeder said the government will provide its DM5 billion immediately so that the payouts could begin this year.
On the other side of the ledger, 3,127 German businesses have pledged DM3.2 billion, falling short of the agreed contribution. Several hundred companies have refused to take part, although there is hope that they will join later, when the victims withdraw lawsuits as called for in the agreement. Mr. Schroeder has said that even firms founded after World War II should join in, noting that “it lies in all our interests.”
He is right. One does not have to believe in collective guilt to accept that all Germans can participate in this effort. Compensating the victims of the Nazi era is the right thing to do, especially as the number of survivors dwindles. As Mr. Schroeder explained, there is “a moral imperative” to provide the money quickly and give at least some token recompense.
Mr. Schroeder deserves much credit for this deal. His predecessor, Mr. Helmut Kohl, was considerably less enthusiastic. Mr. Schroeder, by contrast, pledged to solve this problem shortly after taking office in 1998, and pushed negotiators during the contentious talks.
The other spur was the threat of class-action lawsuits against German firms. Lawyers working in the United States on behalf of the victims launched an offensive against all companies that they could identify as having profited from crimes committed during World War II. The campaign began in the mid-1990s, when the World Jewish Congress took on Swiss banks for their role in laundering Nazi gold and refusing to release funds from the accounts of Holocaust victims. U.S. politicians were willing to help by banning those companies from doing business in lucrative markets.
The German decision to settle means that the activists are now turning their attention elsewhere. They say their next target will be Austria, a country that prefers to see itself as the Third Reich’s first victim rather than as its accomplice.
While the Jewish groups are unlikely to focus on Japan during their campaign — this country had no stomach for persecuting Jews during the war — efforts to seek justice for wartime labor practices will intensify. Thirty lawsuits have been filed in California courts by former U.S. prisoners of war seeking compensation for forced labor performed for Japanese companies. Other states are considering similar legislation to enable the lawsuits. Both the U.S. and Japanese governments are critical of the cases, and they may have been pre-empted by the terms of the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty.
That may be irrelevant. The cases may not be valid in a court of law, but the court of public opinion is another matter. Japanese companies once benefited from forced labor, and their attempts to hide behind legal shields have little or no bearing in an age of international business and increasing consumer activism. As Mr. Schroeder explained, it is in the interests of every German to draw a line under the activities of a half century ago; the logic is equally compelling for Japan.
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