|Big Business and the Holocaust
By Karen Friedman
The Holocaust casts a long shadow. This human calamity continues to exert an impact on the lives of individuals as well as groups of people. Issues surrounding enormous losses have raised questions concerning the liability of the perpetrators. Clearly, the need to settle debts for all that was stolen and lost is an issue that has become a major concern today. Still, one must never lose sight of the fact that Jewish -- and other -- victims of Nazi persecution can never be truly compensated for what they endured.
Many of the articles in this issue (and past issues) of Dimensions deal with the moral responsibility of those who facilitated the machinery of mass murder. Within the realm of perpetrators, the SS did not stand alone: German industry and business also helped make the Holocaust a reality.
Systematic mass murder was, on one level, a highly complicated and profitable corporate venture. The individuals who worked for the businesses that sustained the Holocaust were not uniformed thugs or hoodlums; they were highly trained, efficient and professional people. Our articles look at what German businessmen did 50 and 60 years ago and what a new generation of business leaders is doing now to confront their companies' histories. After decades of attempting to deflect attention from corporate complicity with the Nazi government and the SS, German companies are finally beginning to acknowledge past misconduct. Some businesses have even taken it upon themselves to hire scholars to investigate their prewar and wartime history.
Many of the facts that are now being disclosed are shocking. For example, of the 35,000 slave laborers who worked for I.G. Farben (pharmaceuticals and chemicals) at Auschwitz, over 25,000 died there. The life expectancy of the average slave laborer was estimated to be three-and-a-half months.
Although many leaders of German industry and business supported Nazi racial and military policies, their behavior during the Nazi era was largely governed by greed and opportunism. After the war, a number of German industrialists became defendants in court when the Allies prosecuted them for such crimes as exploiting forced and slave labor, the expropriation of Jewish property, and financially supporting the SS. A number of the defendants were convicted of various charges, but in 1951 those still in prison were released, and many reentered the German corporate world.
In recent years, class action lawsuits seeking monetary damages have been filed by former forced and slave laborers against the companies that abused them during the war. Forced laborers included hundreds of thousands of Slavs and Poles who were compelled to work for German companies under deplorable conditions. Slave laborers, who were mostly Jews, were brutally abused in concentration and death camps.
The moral issues raised by these cases will continue to be discussed and analyzed long after the relevant legal proceedings have been resolved. For teachers, classroom scrutiny of the relationship between business and industry and the Nazi regime provides a way to encourage students to reflect on distinctly unsettling conduct and beliefs.
In our proposed lesson, students will examine how viewpoints greatly affect notions about guilt. Students will also be able to explore the historical implications of past decisions and events.
Students will have an opportunity to consider several perspectives on a topic and determine which, if any, perspective matches their own.
Materials: This issue of Dimensions.
Time: Approximately two to three class periods.
Techniques and Skills: Writing skills, critical thinking, small- and large-group discussion skills.
1 Divide class into pairs or threes. Assign each pair/group an article from this issue of Dimensions. Explain that each of the articles represents a specific viewpoint on this issue's theme. Have students select a recorder. The recorder will summarize the author's position in one or two paragraphs.
2 Have two groups meet with each other and compare summaries. Pick a reporter to relate findings to the whole class.
3. After each reporter presents his or her report to the class, highlight important points on the board. Discuss the following:
4. Have each student offer an opinion about the participation of German companies in the Holocaust. Have the students justify their opinions in three or four sentences.
Further Readings on this Subject
Ferencz, Benjamin. Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation (Cambridge University Press, 1979.)
Turner, Henry A. German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler (Oxford University Press, 1985.)
Hayes, Peter. Industry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (Cambridge University Press, 1987.)
This article orignially appeared in Dimensions, Vol. 13, No. 2.