Many German corporations benefited enormously from supporting and advancing Nazi persecution, particularly through the use of abusive forced labor often entailing torture and frequently leading to injury, illness, and premature death during World War 2 and the Holocaust.
While some German corporations have acknowledged their crimes fully and sought to direct funds towards public education about Nazi persecution and corporate complicity and participation in it, and support programs advancing human rights and commemoration of human rights violations during the Nazi era, many have not, or have done so in very superficial ways that do little to advance truth, justice, memory, and human rights.
Some of the German corporations who have refused to engage with their historical legacies honestly and fully and to address them in a reparative way are indeed amongst the very largest and most successful German companies, including Volkswagen, Porsche, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW.
A new book by the Dutch journalist, David de Jong, ‘Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties’ illustrates this ongoing injustice.
Justice delayed is justice denied and there is no doubt that the resistance of many German corporations to confront their Nazi past honestly and fully for over 70 years reflects a form of Holocaust denial/repression of memory that is rarely discussed and acknowledged. It differs markedly and unfavorably in comparison to the German government and German civil society’s many and substantive forms of engagement with moral and social responsibility for Holocaust era crimes.
The refusal of many German corporations to acknowledge their role in Nazi persecution is not a denial of the broad facts of the Holocaust. Rather, it is a passive denial of the central role corporate leaders and their corporations played in Nazi persecution of Jews, Roma, Slavic peoples and other minority groups. It is Holocaust denial through silence, evasion, and repression of the acknowledging the truth of the historical record and its consequences for millions of people.
Nothing can undo the pain, violence, trauma, and death that German corporations caused by supporting Nazi policies and programs and participating in and benefiting from them, particularly in their use of slave and other forms of exploitative and cruel labor.
Still, there are many meaningful and consequential things that German corporations can do today to acknowledge their past, advance reparative justice for victim-survivors, and support democratic values and human rights predicated on respect for equality, human dignity, and individual freedom.
There are still living survivors, many in their late 80s and 90s, who would benefit from acknowledgment of their suffering and abuse at the hands of German corporations both in financial assistance to help them in the last years of their lives when healthcare and social care costs are particularly high, and in the form of apology that is accompanied by substantive additional commitments including:
• Dedicated funds to support educational programs and media outreach about the role of German corporations in the Holocaust and Nazi persecution more broadly
• Holocaust and human rights education and promotion of democratic values
• Programs to advance the rights and welfare of minorities and combat discrimination and hatred
• Memorials to victim-survivors and victims who did not survive labor exploitation and slavery. These can include memorials at the factories and corporate headquarters of German corporations and decentralized ones in the forms of stolpersteine (memorial brass plaques) at the last places of residence of forced laborers.
German civil society has placed insufficient pressure on German corporations to confront their willful silence regarding their role in the Holocaust and Nazi persecution, which is one of the reasons why corporations like Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Porsche, and BMW have maintained policies of impunity regarding their Nazi pasts because there have been few negative consequences for them politically, socially, and economically in Germany and globally.
That needs to finally change and without further delay in acknowledgment of historical truth with the aim of advancing justice, human rights, commemoration of victim-survivors and honoring their resilience and strength, and the strengthening of democratic values and respect for human dignity and human diversity.
The following link from the Landecker Foundation provides an example of long overdue but finally good corporate citizenship addressing Nazi legacies and showing real commitment to honest engagement with German corporate Nazi pasts. The JAB corporation has made a major commitment to the advancement of human rights and democratic values and to transmitting the memory of Nazi era crimes, including those of their own company. JAB corporation owns brands such as Panera, Caribou Coffee, Einstein’s Bagels, Brueggers, Pret a Manger, Peet’s Coffee, and Krispy Kreme.
JAB’s long-term commitment of funding and their extensive programs being implemented by the Alfred Landecker Foundation which they have founded and funded are not merely symbolic; they are significant and substantive and reflect many of the commitments this article calls for German corporations to make.
The following links provide general commentary on the role of German corporations in Nazi persecution and additional information about the JAB corporation and its history and efforts to address that history in a reparative way.