True story – I was watching the news coverage of the Malaysian flight 370 disappearance on CNN. There was an ad for Siemens immediately followed by an ad for some product by Bayer. When the news show came back on, they were talking about how some families had already received insurance payments from Allianz Insurance. I started thinking – all these huge corporations helping regular people with their problems in so many ways: engineering expertise making society function more efficiently; resolving medical issues so that folks can live happier, healthier lives; financial service giants looking after the interests of families that have gone through a tragedy. Isn’t this great? Big business at its best. Commerce at the service of society!
But wait…before I get all sentimental about this confluence of corporate citizenship contributing to the common good, permit me to point out something else that all these corporate giants have in common: As it turns out, all three of these companies were in close cahoots with the Nazis during WWII and therefore directly complicit in making the Holocaust a reality.
Take the Siemens Company, for example. Siemens used slave laborers from the concentration camps during the Holocaust and had them help construct the gas chambers that would kill them and their families. In 2001, Bosch Siemens Hausgeraete (BSH), the firm’s consumer products joint venture, filed two applications with the US Patent & Trademark Office for the Zyklon name across a range of home products, including gas ovens. When Jewish organizations took a fit, Siemens issued this apology to BBC News Online :
“We are very sorry if this trademark application has caused any offence,” Bosch Siemens spokeswoman Eva Delabre stated. Oh really? Well I guess that’s it then. It was just an understandable oversight. Just like the little matter of enslaving Jewish prisoners, I reckon. A typical PR misstep.
Bayer used to be a division of I.G. Farben, which essentially served as the industrial arm of the Nazi regime, and which was broken up after the war. By the way, I.G. Farben was the company that manufactured the Zylon B gas which was used in the gas chambers. In fact, IG Farben was the only German company in the Third Reich that ran its own concentration camp. At least 30.000 slave workers died in this camp; a lot more were deported to the gas chambers.
According to Allianz’s own web site, from 1933 on Jewish employees were dismissed, partly as a result of government pressure, partly as a result of Nazi forces within the company. Company management followed a policy of opportunism whereby most of the Allianz leadership accommodated the Nazis and thereby helped to legitimize the regime. Kurt Schmitt, one of the leaders of the company, publicly called for “positive collaboration” with the new political order, making this company policy.
Likewise, Eduard Hilgard, the general director of Allianz , took a “pragmatic” approach to the changing political conditions, becoming the leader of the Reich Group for Insurance as part of a larger effort to introduce the Nazi leadership principle into the economy. He served in this role throughout the regime’s existence. In the process of navigating the complex features of governance, he claimed, he became deeply involved in the immoral actions of the Nazi regime. Check out these articles from the Allianz web site:
This is all a matter of public record, which each of these companies have acknowledged in one way or another. During and after the war, they each continued as successful companies with a huge multi-national presence. So should their nefarious histories still matter? Is there some kind of unspoken statute of limitations on holding a corporate entity answerable for their past actions? From a strictly legal standpoint, there were claims made by individuals against these companies; but these mostly got tangled up in an endless legal morass, with no clear way of allocating legal responsibility.
The moral issue is both clearer and murkier, depending on your perspective. I personally try to avoid products made by certain companies that I directly associate with the Nazis, even though most of my Jewish friends think that I and being foolish, impractical and petty.
A few weeks ago, I went to a local department store in search of a black suit for an upcoming family wedding. The saleslady started showing me some suits and then ran off to bring me the “caviar” of suits, from Hugo Boss. My immediate reaction was, “No thanks, I’m not interested in Hugo Boss”. Great, I thought, here I am, taking a stand. The saleslady most likely interpreted this as an indication of my limited budget, and not as some kind of political statement. I wasn’t going to go into all the gory details of my own little vendetta, and I pretty sure she wouldn’t have cared about my grievances anyways.
Bottom line: I will be attending a fancy back-tie event in my generic brand black suit, while most of the other guests will be parading around in their fancy Boss garments. I won’t look as snazzy as the other guys, but I will be in a morally superior space.
I realize that my own personal boycott of companies such as Ford, Porsche / Volkswagen and Bayer, does not amount to much at all. My personal choices as a consumer will have zero impact on their bottom line. Even in my most feverish revenge fantasies, I can’t conjure up the image of corporate bean-counters fretting over the lost sales in my little part of the world, resulting from my own unresolved issues.
But in the end, we all have to answer to ourselves.