Corporate Responsibility

800px-Memorial_to_the_murdered_Jews_of_Europe

Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Last year while helping to put together a travel guide on Berlin I wrote a review about this memorial.  It’s a clever little space occupying a dark corner of the tourist trail only a short stroll from the Brandenburg Gate.  Undulating pathways rise and fall through the 2711 concrete blocks; but gradually towards the centre the path slopes lower and the blocks begin to rise above you.  It gets dark.  The width of the pathway has been designed to only allow for one person to walk down at a time and you quickly find yourself alone.  Your friends become lost amongst the blocks as they take their own path, and you catch glimpses of the others as you make your own way to the other side.  The design is simple and effective, it works on both a visual and emotional level and certainly made me think – I thought it was a worthy memorial.  However, as I began to conduct some research for my review I discovered a mammoth controversy surrounding the project.  A company called Degussa was involved in the estimated 25 million euro construction process, providing the anti-graffitti for the ‘stelae’ concrete blocks.  It just so happened that the collection of companies that Degussa belonged to (under the wartime umbrella of the behemoth IG Farben) had been responsible for the production of Zyklon B – the pesticide used in the gas chambers.  All work on the memorial ceased while a decision was being made on Degussa’s involvement.  Despite much criticism from the Jewish community and journalist Henryk M. Broder commenting that “the Jews don’t need this memorial, and they are not prepared to declare a pig sty kosher” the board of directors decided to continue building with material from Degussa.  The argument for this was that it would have been ‘impossible’  to exclude companies who had collaborated with the Nazi’s as German politician Wolfgang Thierse stated, “the past intrudes into our society”.  No doubt financial constraints also influenced decisions.

The controversy surrounding the Holocaust memorial (as it is often referred to) left a bitter taste in my mouth.  In no city that I have ever visited has the past ever intruded so much as it does in Berlin.  No matter where you go the war and the wall have a way of creeping into your conscience; history is everywhere.  I read some arguments suggesting that it was fitting that Degussa should take part in building a memorial as acknowledgment of their past and reparations for their part in the Holocaust.  But hold on just a minute; Degussa got paid for their construction work, they didn’t offer it as a too-little-too-late goodwill gesture.  Nor did they bid for the contract with the aim to make amends, I’m sure they hoped that in the mess of subsidiary companies, and merged companies, and disbanded companies – plus several decades – their connection to the gas chambers might be overlooked.

At the moment I am working for a German chemical company which was one of the collection of companies which merged in 1925 to form IG Farben, which collaborated closely with the Nazi’s before being disbanded for war crimes in 1945.  IG Farben held the patent for Zyklon B.  It used slave labour from concentration camps  in the manufacture of materials for the armed forces, most notably the Buna synthetic rubber factory at Auschwitz.  A number of employees were prosecuted for war crimes.  Understandably IG Farben was not allowed to continue to exist after the war, however, the original founding companies were quickly reestablished under their old names and continue to exist to this day.  And I am working for one of them.

It surprised me to learn that actually quite a lot of well known companies have a brush with the Nazi’s, although come to think of it – if a German company pre-dates 1939 it’s likely that they’ve had a tryst with party one way or another.  Kodak used labour from camps, so did Volkswagon and Siemens.  Hugo Boss got a contract to produce SS uniforms, and the parent company of Random House, Bertelsmann A.G, published Nazi propaganda.  So cameras, cars, clothes.  But I’m part of the company that has Zyklon B languishing in its back catalogues, no matter how much they try to sever the tie from IG Farben.  Over the past few months that I have been working there this subject has been on my mind quite a bit, which has prompted me to dig deeper.  Surely, I thought, this company must have issued a formal acknowledgement and corporate apology for its prominent role in mass murder – and in order to satisfy my uneasy mind it was necessary for me find this apology.  But no such apology exists.

On the company website there is a detailed run down of the long history of the company, from it being founded pre WWI to the IG Farben merger and the reestablishment of the company after the war – and up to the present day.  There was a little bit of information about use of slave labour at the Buna factory, but absolutely no mention of Zyklon B, let alone anything resembling an apology.  The company has skipped over this, expunged it from the records – and they are not alone.  Several other ex-IG Farben companies, and these are very big multi-nantional companies with turnovers running into several billion euros, have also not apologised for their collaboration with the Nazi’s.  I find this deeply disappointing, and I have lost a lot of respect for the company I am working for as a result.  I appreciate that the Holocaust is a period in history which they would rather gloss over as obviously it is a terrible business association, but an apology would gain my respect, and an apology is what I would expect from any company after involvement in something so awful.  The company I am working for has a set of ethical guidelines outlining a long list of things it will not take part in today – however, without an apology for the past these guidelines are a mockery.  How can we be sure that they won’t participate in chemical warfare the next time around?  In my opinion these companies should not have been allowed to reestablish themselves under their old names as if the Holocaust had not happened.  With German infrastructure so delicate after the war it would have been cruel to completely bulldoze what was left of these chemical/construction/medical companies as they were much needed to rebuild the country.  However, I do think they should have been forced to properly rename and reform as entirely new companies, with no link to the past.

At the opening of Berlin’s memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, Holocaust survivor Sabina Wolanski emphasised that the children of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not responsible for the acts of their parents.  While the employees of today are not responsible for the acts of the past, the companies still are.  It is not too late to apologise, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one waiting.

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