Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the March 9, 2007 issue of The Jewish Press. In light of last week’s filing of Chapter 11 by Chrysler LLC, we thought it would be appropriate to reprint it.
On its face, it would surely be foolish to blame Daimler-Chrysler’s extraordinary woes on the very dark history of Daimler-Benz. On its face, the combined company’s deep decline is manifestly a function of bad economic judgments. After all, from the very start, the 1998 decision by Germany’s Daimler-Benz to merge with Chrysler simply made no financial sense.
And yet, there are sometimes factors that play an important or even decisive role in explaining all aspects of human life – including the collective “lives” of nations and corporations – that are neither tangible nor measurable. The sad history of this iconic American automobile company may well have been determined, at least in part, by factors that we can’t really identify or clarify in the Management 101 textbooks.
The humiliating fate of the Chrysler Corporation cannot be detached entirely from the sordid history of Daimler-Benz. It might have been different perhaps, if there had ever been some acknowledgement of the German parent company’s enthusiastic wartime use of Jewish slave labor, but no such acknowledgment was ever made. Although not distinctly testable in science, silence can sometimes have genuinely frightful consequences.
Justice must always have a decipherable voice, and there can never be any such voice without memory. At the time of the 1998 merger, no public mention was ever made of Daimler’s Nazi involvement.
It was conveniently assumed by Chrysler’s top executives, that a murderous Daimler-Benz history could be shoved under the rug. And the insistently seductive calls for corporate wealth in America would drown out the increasingly weak cries for justice.
These assumptions were not merely sinister; they were also wrong. What we witness today, in Daimler-Chrysler’s now evident corporate collapse, is the ineradicable stain of unpunished and unapologetic Daimler-Benz wartime crimes against humanity.
Justice always requires a voice. Even today, someone must still speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves. Someone must speak for those endless railway cars of Jewish slave laborers whose seemingly inexhaustible supply in Nazi Germany and occupied lands had actually made them less than slaves. Even today, someone must speak for those starved and brutalized victims dehumanized by a venerated German corporation during World War II.
In 1998, the business world was all 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 buried 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.”
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) 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 the 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 transported Jewish forced laborers with nary a hint that they were dealing in human beings. They were 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.
In his book The Germans (St. Martin’s Press 1989) Financial Times correspondent David Marsh indicates that it was not until June 1988 that Daimler made a DM20 million payment to the U.S. Jewish Claims Conference “to ease consequences still ensuing from those times.”
Marsh notes that by June 1988, the actual victims of Daimler-Benz enslavement were no longer alive.
In 1998, according to Marsh, Daimler-Benz admitted to using 29,500 slaves at the end of 1944. (This was around half of its entire work force.) They sought – via its merger with Chrysler Corporation – to become a new and important giant in American industry.
Although certainly never to be acknowledged by Wall Street analysts, the now-imminent failure of this giant is due in some immeasurable way 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 companies to the SS were more intimate than is generally realized.
The industrialists were all heavy contributors to SS leader 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 an SS all male chorus.
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. Not one.
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 presumably a lot of money to be made in the merger with Chrysler, and no reasonable investor wanted to be limited by what was done and cannot be undone. Yet memory, not forgetfulness, is indispensable to justice. And justice – even on Wall Street – is what America is ultimately all about.
For Daimler-Chrysler, the past is irremediably present, still silent perhaps, but unforgiving, dark and thoroughly inescapable.
Copyright The Jewish Press, March 9, 2007. All rights reserved.
LOUIS RENE BERES, professor of Political Science at Purdue University, was born in Zurich, Switzerland on August 31, 1945. Educated at Princeton (Ph.D. 1971), he is the author of nine major books on international relations and international law. Professor Beres’ Austrian-Jewish grandparents were murdered at the SS-killing grounds in Riga, Latvia.