There can be no justice without memory. In 1998, Chrysler entered into an ambitious merger agreement with Germany’s Daimler-Benz. Since that time, its economic well-being has generally and persistently deteriorated. Most recently, Chrysler’s woes of falling stock prices and shrinking cash reserves have been aggravated by widening product deficiencies and burgeoning vehicle recalls.
For financial and industry analysts, there is nothing mysterious here. In their assessments, they continue to find appropriately scientific reasons to explain this unpredicted case of corporate misfortune. But not every truth can be found in science, and there are also less tangible reasons to be considered. These reasons have to do with Daimler-Benz’s horribly tainted past, and with the unrelenting destiny of all those who would refuse to acknowledge this past or to honor its many victims.
At the time of the merger six years ago, no public mention was ever made of Daimler’s Nazi involvement. Rather, it was assumed by Chrysler’s top executives that a murderous Daimler history could simply be shoved under the rug, and that expressly seductive calls for enrichment in America would easily drown out the increasingly weak cries for memory and justice. These assumptions were not merely sinister; they were also all wrong. What we witness today, in Daimler-Chrysler’s devastating economic decline, is the ineradicable stain of unpunished and unapologetic Daimler-Benz crimes against humanity.
One must speak today for all those who can no longer speak for themselves. One must speak for those endless railway cars of Jewish slave laborers whose seemingly inexhaustible supply in Nazi Germany and occupied lands made them less than slaves. Someone must speak for those starved and brutalized victims of unspeakable horrors inflicted by a “respectable” and venerated German corporation during World War II. So I speak today for the speechless victims of Daimler-Benz.
Six years ago, the entire business world was aglow about a “marriage made in heaven,” the mega-merger of Chrysler with Daimler-Benz. Lost in this grand celebration of new fortunes to be made was the extraordinary history of one corporate partner. During the War, hundreds of thousands of Jews were coerced into forced labor by many major German industrial firms under conditions which the judges at Nuremberg said “made labor and death almost synonymous.” In actuality, the victims were barely bits of sandpaper, rubbed a few times by their masters, judged useless and then burned – literally – with the garbage. Daimler-Benz was one of these firms.
Where did Daimler-Benz operate in the vast complex of slave enterprises? As documented authoritatively in The International Encyclopedia of the Holocaust (pp. 1037-1039), when Natzweiler-Struthof, a concentration camp established by Albert Speer because of nearby granite deposits, was expanded in 1944, Daimler-Benz moved some of its work from Berlin-area to the new satellite camp at Neckarelz. Here, the company used several thousand slaves in a joint project with Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) and the Ministry of Armaments. The Natzweiler main camp, although small, had its own gas chamber.
Together with other privileged German corporations, Daimler-Benz traded and transhipped Jewish forced laborers with nary a hint that they were dealing in human beings. Purchased from the SS, with the understanding that they should not be kept alive for too long (so as not to slow down the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”), the bewildered and tortured slaves were often housed in tiny animal kennels or underground chambers before “selection” for the gas chamber.
After the War, when some very small number of Jewish claimants called upon Daimler-Benz and other criminally-responsible German firms to make some sort of restitution, the victims and their survivors were cruelly rebuffed. On November 5, 1997, a German court upheld its government’s policy of rejecting compensation claims by Nazi-era slave laborers. The judges based their decision in part on the fact that the pertinent German companies had already paid the Nazi SS for the forced laborers they had “employed” and that therefore no “further compensation” to Jewish victims was owed by the companies.
Most of these companies, of course, including Daimler-Benz, remained in business. Not one of these companies, including Daimler-Benz, ever made more than a token payment to their former Jewish slaves or to associated claimants. As indicated by Financial Times correspondent David Marsh, in his book The Germans (St. Martin’s Press, 1989) it was not until June 1988 – when the actual victims of Daimler-Benz enslavement were no longer alive – that Daimler made a DM20 million payment to the U.S. Jewish Claims Conference “to ease consequences still ensuing from those times.”
Six years ago, Daimler-Benz which, by its own admission – according to Marsh – used 29,500 slaves at the end of 1944 (around half of its entire work force) became – via its merger with Chrysler Corporation – a new and important giant in American industry. Although certainly never to be acknowledged by Wall Street analysts, the resultant failure of this giant is due in no small measure to the infamously unclean side of Daimler-Benz.
During the War, Daimler-Benz did pay salaries for their slaves, but the payments were made directly to the SS, which naturally kept the money. The ties between the German industrialists at Benz and other concerns to the SS were more intimate than is generally realized. The industrialists were all heavy contributors to Himmler’s personal fund. For a Christmas celebration in 1943, Himmler invited these magnates to his own headquarters. An SS film on eradicating Jewish “vermin” was screened, and the distinguished group was entertained by a male chorus of SS men.
How did the victorious allies mete out justice to the German industrialist murderers? No corporate director or manager was compelled to stand before the International Military Tribunal. In subsequent trials against certain leading directors, several defendants were found guilty of crimes against humanity for exploiting Jewish slave labor. Although many were sentenced to long prison terms, by January 1951 not a single corporate criminal was still in jail. An act of “clemency” by John J. McCloy, United States High Commissioner, gave all of these Germans their complete freedom. A mere half-dozen years after the War, all of the criminal German business leaders were free to regain huge personal fortunes. The Jewish slaves who had endured the unendurable were left only with abject poverty, crippling illness, limitless pain, and incessant nightmares.
So the Nazi-era crimes of Daimler-Benz had been forgotten or forgiven on Wall Street. After all, there was apparently a lot of money to be made in the merger with Chrysler, and no reasonable investor wanted to be limited by what is done and cannot be undone. Yet, memory, not forgetfulness, is indispensable to justice, and justice – even on Wall Street – is what America is all about. For Daimler-Benz, and now for Daimler-Chrysler, the past is irremediably present, silent perhaps, but unforgiving, dark and inescapable.
Copyright © The Jewish Press 2004. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES, professor of political science at Purdue University, was educated at Princeton (Ph.D., 1971) and is the author of ten major books on international relations and international law. His Austrian-Jewish grandparents were murdered at the SS-killing grounds in Riga, Latvia.