How German car-parts maker Continental is confronting its Nazi past

German car-parts maker Continental revealed Thursday that it played a key role in the Nazi war effort and used thousands of slave labourers during World War II.

How German car-parts maker Continental is confronting its Nazi past
Construction at Continental's new headquarters in Hanover. Photo: DPA

Continental was the world's biggest producer of rubber materials at the time, supplying the Nazi war machine as the horrors of the Holocaust unfolded.

Historian Paul Erker, tasked by the company with researching its relationship with the Nazis, said it ended up as a “pillar of the National Socialist armaments and war economy”.

Continental is the latest German company to shed light on its Nazi past as they continue to confront their role in the country's darkest period.

The company used about 10,000 forced labourers in its factories during the war, Erker's 800-page report said, including concentration camp prisoners, in what he called “inhumane” conditions.

The study shows that “Continental was an important part of Hitler's war machine,” the company's chief executive Elmar Degenhart said.

One of Continental's major products in the 1930s and 40s was shoe soles,
making it a vital supplier to the army.

It tested them at Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin where
prisoners were forced to march 30 to 40 kilometres a day around the central courtyard with its looming gallows.

Any who weakened and fell to the ground were executed by the SS guards,
Erker said.

Continental even ordered forced test marches on snow and ice, with some of the prisoners trudging up to 2,200 kilometres as a result, according to the study.

READ ALSO: Germany has 'ever lasting responsibility' to combat anti-Semitism

Company management was actively involved, it said, but at a press conference on Thursday Erker, who specialises in corporate history during the Third Reich, said very few of them were arrested in the aftermath of the war.

CEO Degenhart said: “We commissioned the study in order to gain even more
clarity than before about this darkest chapter in our company history.”

The company presented the report as a stark lesson, commenting that the
corporate culture of Continental, founded in 1871 in Hanover, was gradually “deformed” as it developed from a consumer and leisure focused company into an armaments business.

“This shows that corporate cultures can quickly crumble under the pressure of political regimes and opposing social influences,” said Ariane Reinhart, a Continental human resources executive.

Continental said it would integrate learning from its history into its
training programme.

“For us, the unsparing examination of our past is the starting point for stimulating a debate on the overall social responsibility of companies and for seriously considering it internally as part of our corporate strategy,” Degenhart added.

'Facing up' to past

Germany's struggle to come to terms with the past, known as “Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung”, is evident across society.

For example, car giant Volkswagen, founded in 1937 as a state-owned company
under Nazi control, won plaudits for hiring an in-house historian to confront
its relationship to historic atrocities and more recently, owning up to its collaboration with Brazil's dictatorship.

Other companies that participated in or profited from the Nazi system include heavyweight multinationals such as BMW, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, Mercedes-Benz, ThyssenKrupp and IG Farben, the manufacturer of the Zyklon B gas used to kill so many in the extermination camps, which was later broken up into chemical firms Bayer and BASF.

A foundation was set up in 2000 to pay compensation to former Nazi forced
labourers or their families, in which the German government and industry
contributed in equal measure to a more than five billion euro fund.

By Ed Frankl

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German justice contaminated by Nazis in post-war years

Germany's justice system was still filled with former Nazis well into the 1970s, as the Cold War coloured efforts to root out fascists, according a damning official inquiry presented Thursday.

Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report
Professors Friedrich Kießling and Christoph Safferling present their report "State Security in the Cold War". Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Uwe Anspach

In the 600-page collection of findings entitled “State Security in the Cold War”, historian Friedrich Kiessling and legal scholar Christoph Safferling focused on the period from the early 1950s until 1974.

Their research found that between 1953 and 1959, around three in four top officials at the federal prosecutor’s office, which commissioned the report, had belonged to the Nazi party.

More than 80 percent had worked in Adolf Hitler’s justice apparatus, and it would take until 1972 before they were no longer in the majority.

“On the face of it they were highly competent lawyers… but that came against the backdrop of the death sentences and race laws in which they were involved,” said Margaretha Sudhof, state secretary at the justice ministry, unveiling the report.

“These are disturbing contradictions to which our country has long remained blind.”

‘Combat mission’

It was not until 1992, two years after Germany’s national reunification, that the last prosecutor with a fascist background left the office.

“There was no break, let alone a conscious break, with the Nazi past” at the federal prosecutor’s office, the authors concluded, stressing “the great and long continuity” of the functions held and “the high number” of officials involved in Hitler’s regime.

Chief federal prosecutor Peter Frank commissioned the study in 2017. The federal prosecutor’s office is one of Germany’s most powerful institutions, handling the most serious national security cases including those involving terrorism and espionage.

With more than 100 prosecutors, it is “the central actor in the fight against terror,” the report authors said, underlining its growing role in the decades since the September 11th, 2001 attacks in the United States.

The researchers were given unfettered access to hundreds of files labelled classified after the war, and found that rooting out alleged communists was often prioritised over other threats, including from the far right.

“In the 1950s the federal prosecutor’s office had a combat mission – not a legal but a political one: to pursue all the communists in the country,” the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung said in a summary of the report.

‘Recycling’ Nazis

The fact that West Germany widely used former officials from the Nazi regime in its post-war administration had long been known.

For example, Hans Globke served as chief of staff and a trusted confidant to former conservative West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer between 1953 and 1963 and was responsible for recruitment to top posts.

However, Globke had also been a senior civil servant in the Nazi-era interior ministry and was involved in the drafting of the 1935 Nuremberg race laws that imposed the first dramatic restrictions on Jews.

In recent years, systematic digging into the past of key ministries and institutions has unearthed a troubling and previously hidden degree of “recycling” of Third Reich officials in the post-war decades.

A 2016 government report revealed that in 1957, more than a decade after the war ended, around 77 percent of senior officials at the justice ministry had been members of the Nazi party. That study, also carried out by Safferling, revealed that the number of former Nazis at the ministry did not decline after the fall of the regime but actually grew in the 1950s.

Part of the justification was cynical pragmatism: the new republic needed experienced civil servants to establish the West German justice system. Furthermore, the priorities of the Allies who won the war and “liberated” the country from the Nazis were quickly turned upside down in the Cold War context.

After seeking to de-Nazify West Germany after 1945, the aim quickly shifted to building a capitalist bulwark against the communist threat. That approach often meant turning a blind eye to Germans’ previous involvement in the Third Reich.

In recent years, Germany has embarked on a twilight attempt to provide justice for concentration camp victims, placing several former guards in their 90s on trial for wartime crimes.