German Companies Drawing a Veil Over the Nazi Past

The chief historian of German automaker VW has accused subsidiary Audi of failing to address its Nazi past. Audi's not alone: even though a series of big firms released research into their wartime role during the 1990s, scores of others have yet to come clean -- partly because it could be bad for business.
Audi founder Richard Bruhn standing a factory floor.


With screwdrivers and elbow grease, city workers in Ingolstadt removed a haunting reminder of the past on June 30. Only a few kilometers away from the headquarters of luxury automaker Audi, they covered up a street sign bearing the name of company founder Richard Bruhn with red tape and mounted a new one above it: “Karl-Ferdinand-Braun-Strasse,” in honor of the renowned physicist and Nobel Prize winner.

The Bruhnstrasse sign will stay up for just another year, before it likely winds up in a garbage dump. Bruhn used slave labor under the Nazis while he ran Audi’s predecessor, Auto Union, from 1932 to 1945. Seven concentration camps were built specifically for the automobile manufacturing group, and at least 4,500 workers died.

WirtschaftsWoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt, revealed Audi's deep involvement with the Nazi regime six years ago. Since then, Audi has removed Bruhn’s name from a pension fund, changed text about the Nazi era on its website and in the company museum and in 2015 for the first time sent a management board member to an event at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. Most importantly, the company commissioned a study on Auto Union's role during the Nazi era which concluded: "Auto Union allowed itself to become involved in the concentration camp complex to a scandalous extent out of wartime economic interests."

But if Audi chief executive Rupert Stadler hoped that would draw a line under the darkest chapter of his company's history, he was mistaken. A number of historians have criticized the study. The head of Volkswagen’s corporate history department, Mandred Grieger, has been particularly scathing. He said in a book review that the 500-page study had played down the close ties between Auto Union's management and the Nazi elite, and that Audi still hadn't done enough to face up to its past. He accused the study's authors of showing less regret for the victims of Nazi terror than for the "extermination" of Auto Union at the end of World War II.

The 1990s was a high point of research in which a lot of positive things happened. But we are again in reverse gear. Lutz Budrass, Historian


Audi didn't respond to the details of the criticism. "We have taken note of the review," said a source at the company's Ingolstadt headquarters, adding that the study had been very positively received around the world.

Historian Lutz Budrass said companies were increasingly drawing a veil over their activities during the Nazi era in a marked reversal from the 1990s, when lawsuits brought by former slave laborers forced a string of German blue chips to come clean by commissioning extensive research of their activities during the Third Reich. Companies including household appliance maker AEG, VW, industrial group Siemens and Daimler-Benz faced legal action, prompting business leaders and the German government to set up a €10 billion, or $11.14 billion, foundation to pay out compensation.

“The 1990s was a high point of research in which a lot of positive things happened," said Mr. Budrass. “But we are again in reverse gear.”

In an interview with WirtschaftsWoche, he said: "Many companies don't want to tackle a comprehensive confrontation with their past." The ones that bothered confined themselves to stating the number of their victims. "It's a kind of ritual self-flagellation as if to say: forced laborers were used, it was very bad, but all the perpetrators are dead today and we're a modern company now. That's supposed to put a line under the issue."

Asked why that wasn't enough, he said: "It doesn't answer why the companies behaved immorally. There could be parallels with today when companies also behave unethically out of opportunism or the desire for profit."

Mr. Budrass researched 100 well-known companies active during the Third Reich and found that 70 were involved in Nazi crimes. He said no scholarly historical analysis had been conducted for 41 of them.

Historian Johannes Bähr wants to see independent investigations into the Nazi histories of German household and industrial goods maker Henkel, as well as construction firm Bilfinger, potash producer K+S and Wacker Chemie.

Historian Johannes Bähr of Frankfurt University said family-run companies were particularly reluctant to shed light on their history during the Third Reich. He said he suspected that’s because “it has to do with the fathers and grandfathers of today's owners."

Many prefer to avoid the sort of revelations that confronted Maurice Brenninkmeijer, the co-owner of clothes retailer C&A and chairman of family holding Cofra. After he discovered during the preparation for a company anniversary that the Nazi period was a blank spot in C&A's history, he commissioned historian Mark Spoerer to look into it. The study was completed a few weeks ago and the results were "disturbing and shocking" for the family, said Mr. Brenninkmeijer.

The final report found that the German branch of his family tree had profited from Aryanization and exploited Jews from the Lodz Ghetto for labor.

Mr. Brenninkmeijer told the newspaper Die Zeit: “I suspect my relatives were focused exclusively on the business and in doing so lost sight of our values and made ethically wrong decisions. Some testify to so much heartlessness! I wish it would have been different.”

Mr. Bähr, the historian, wants to see independent investigations into the Nazi histories of German household and industrial goods maker Henkel, as well as construction firm Bilfinger, potash producer K+S and Wacker Chemie. He said industrial giant Siemens was "on the way” in conducting research.

Audi needs to do more than rename a street to face up with its past. A major hurdle remains because it has yet to meet surviving forced laborers of Auto Union. Six years ago, the automaker promised to approach victims. "We haven't succeeded yet in establishing personal contact with former forced laborers," said a company spokesman. That's despite the fact that Audi has had some of the names and contact details of former concentration camp prisoners since 2010. One of them, Bohumil Kos from the Czech town of Revnice near Prague, passed away in the last year.

Meanwhile, another Volkswagen brand has taken a step in the right direction. Porsche commissioned a study with emphasis on the Third Reich, arms projects and forced labor, which should be published in 2017.

Company founder Ferdinand Porsche was a confidant of Hitler. He was responsible for the Nazi mega project “KdF-Wagen”, the predecessor to the Volkswagen Beetle. The mass use of slave labor by Volkswagen was intensively investigated in the 1990s. According to chief historian Mr. Grieger, it was a delicate mission for himself and historian Hans Mommsen to conduct research while dealing with a former supervisory board chairman: a grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, Ferdinand Piëch. He clashed with Mr. Mommsen, but the researchers were allowed to do their work.

Porsche's role in the Nazi era had remained largely unresearched -- probably because it's owned by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Ferdinand Porsche. “No one in the VW group dared to push forward with the research” said a company insider. Until now.


This article orignally appeared in WirtschaftsWoche. To contact the author: [email protected]