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Wollheim v. I.G. Farben

 a  Senior engineer Max Faust, for example, testified as follows: “If we’re talking about responsibility for the employment of prisoners, then I have to make it clear that Farben was not responsible for the housing, food, clothing, in short for the determination of the personal affairs of an individual prisoner; in fact that was exclusively the business of the SS.” 

(Max Faust, hearing of witness, December 4, 1952. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. IG Farben), Vol. I, pp. 164R–171R, here p. 165.)


Instead, he said, Farben tried to offer help: “As to the treatment of the prisoners, I would like to add that I must describe all the claims as exaggerated beyond all measure. I fear that the plaintiff in a great many instances had no idea at all who was involved [...] So it cannot be true that the Farben personnel, of all people, stood out for their exceptional brutality. [...] During the entire construction period, Mr. Dürrfeld in particular repeatedly showed the greatest concern for the physical well-being of the workers employed at the construction site, including the prisoners [...].”

(Max Faust, hearing of witness, December 4, 1952. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. IG Farben), Vol. I, pp. 164R–171R, here pp. 167R–170. (Transl. KL))

 b  In the opinion, the court also evaluated the defense witnesses from I.G. Farben, who had made a negative impression: “The court also does not wish to conceal that the witnesses for the accused who were examined first […] did not make a good impression on it, generally speaking. It was these witnesses who sought to deny everything, to use ignorance or lack of authority as excuses, or to make irrelevant theoretical remarks, or to retreat—in the face of the misfortune and death of many thousands of people, of their employees—to ugly pretexts, such as ‘that was not my department,’ or even to employ calculations that were incompr ehensible, inhumane in any event, and also factually incorrect [...] Besides, whatever the truth may be regarding the ignorance of the defendants: In any event, from the abovementioned statements of the witnesses for the accused, the court infers an appalling indifference on the part of the accused and its people to the plaintiff and the Jewish prisoners, an indifference that is comprehensible only if one assumes, with the plaintiff, that the defendant and its people at that time really did not consider the plaintiff and the Jewish prisoners to be full-fledged human beings, toward whom a duty of care existed.” 
(Verdict in the Wollheim suit, June 10, 1953. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. IG Farben), Vol.. III, pp. 446–488, here pp. 480–481. (Transl. KL))
 c  Otto Küster, in his “Summation for Humanity,” said: “The defendant has said and written much, all too much, in an effort to shake off its responsibility for what was suffered at IG Auschwitz. It has, as is usually the case when someone espouses a cause that is basically indefensible, after long, painstaking deliberations, finally stated appalling allegations. It has said, for example, that the enslavement of the plaintiff is a case ‘of general and equal inclusion for the performance of services in the public interest’ (II 111). [...B]ut this sense of one’s own innocence does not alter the fact that the most appalling injustice was done in the name of the German people, and in the case of this defendant does not alter the fact that an IG plant bore the name of the place that—unless history as we now know it comes to an end—will continue to be known for centuries as the site of hell on earth.”
(Otto Küster, summation, March 1, 1955. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. IG Farben), Exhibits, Vol. II, 26 pp.,  here pp. 25–26. (Transl. KL))

A notice to creditors placed by the Tripartite I.G. Farben Control Group (TRIFCOG) in the daily press in 1950 gave Norbert Wollheim reason to ask Frankfurt lawyer Henry Ormond what chance of success he, a former forced laborer for I.G. Farben, would have in a civil lawsuit against I.G. Farben in Liquidation.


After the Allied authorities in charge had granted permission for the complaint of unjustified enrichment by withholding wages, the suit was filed with the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court (LG, Landgericht) in November 1951. Norbert Wollheim and Henry Ormond had asserted a claim in the amount of 10,000 DM. This was a sum based on procedural formalities, rather than one representing appropriate compensation for the injustice suffered and the existing damages.


The proceedings caused a considerable public sensation. The “Wollheim suit” was quickly perceived as a test case, in which the matter at issue was the responsibility of firms and managers for crimes and violations of human rights during the Nazi regime. Wollheim and his attorney saw themselves as proxies for the many prisoners in the Buna/Monowitz concentration camp who were exploited by I.G. Farben. Similarly, the defendants on the other side developed a sense of having to act for all German firms in staving off the claims of former forced laborers and concentration camp inmates and denying all responsibility.


The defense attorneys for I.G. Farben i.L. consequently insisted for a long time on rejecting any and all responsibility for the fate of the enslaved prisoners in the firm’s I.G. Auschwitz plant.  a  The arguments of the defense repeated the formulas familiar from the Nuremberg trials of war criminals: The economic system acted only as an agent of the Nazi regime and not of its own volition. The state, therefore, bore sole responsibility. Only the SS guards were responsible for the treatment of the concentration camp prisoners. And finally, the prisoners were willing to work for I.G. Farben, because things would have been worse for them in the Auschwitz main camp. In addition, they claimed, prisoners working for I.G. Farben were given the nutritious “Buna soup.”


The accounts given by the witnesses under examination by the Regional Court could not have been more contradictory: some described a hell on earth, while in the words of the others  Buna/Monowitz appeared to be more of a rest-and-recreation camp.


On first instance, the verdict of the Frankfurt am Main Regional Court on June 10, 1953, found in favor of Norbert Wollheim on all points and sentenced I.G. Farben to payment of 10,000 DM. In explaining the reasons for its decision, the court also gave weight to the “appalling indifference of the accused”[1] toward their victims, as expressed in the courtroom by the defense witnesses for I.G. Farben.  b 


I.G. Farben i.L. appealed this decision. Two conciliation hearings involving the plaintiff and the defendants in July and October 1954 ended in failure. After the victory in the court of first instance, Norbert Wollheim and his attorney, Henry Ormond, had turned to Nahum Goldmann and the Claims Conference, as they were well aware of the difficulties that still lay ahead. In the meantime, a great many additional survivors had contacted Ormond and other law offices, also wishing to bring an action against I.G. Farben. On the part of the Claims Conference, there was lively interest in the outcome of this test case. In 1955, the hearing of the complaint took place before the Frankfurt am Main Higher Regional Court (OLG, Oberlandesgericht). The defense was represented by a multitude of well-known attorneys who had appeared previously as defense lawyers in the Nuremberg War Crime Trials. Norbert Wollheim, too, was represented by additional lawyers, such as Otto Küster, who lamented in his summation on March 1, 1955, that I.G. Farben i.L.  had failed to realize that the most appalling injustice had been committed in the name of Germany and with the participation of industry.  c 


Nonetheless, the opposing parties continued to negotiate outside the courtroom: for the representatives of I.G. Farben i.L., the principal concern was to prevent the setting of a precedent. In February 1957, an agreement out of court was finally reached: I.G. Farben i.L. undertook to pay 30 million DM to the survivors of I.G. Auschwitz. On April 19, 1957, the Federal German Government enacted an Aufrufgesetz, or “Notice to Creditors’ Act,” in favor of I.G. Farben i.L., to create the necessary “certainty of the law” for I.G. Farben i.L.: that is, to eliminate the threat of subsequent lawsuits. Accordingly, all former forced laborers for I.G. Farben were notified that they had to assert their claims by December 31, 1957, or else they would be invalid.


I.G. Farben i.L. held back 3 million DM of the promised sum; it had been agreed that non-Jewish forced laborers had to report their claims directly to I.G. The remaining 27 million DM went to the entity specially established for the purpose: Compensation Treuhand GmbH, headquartered in Frankfurt am Main. Its task was to disburse the money in payments to those eligible in 42 countries. In addition to the almost 5,900 survivors, who received a payment of 5,000 DM apiece (for fewer than six months of imprisonment, 2,500 DM), more than 1,800 needy surviving dependents received payments from the interest income, amounting to almost 3.5 million DM.


Norbert Wollheim had emigrated to the United States in September 1951, but even after that he continued to play an active part in the proceeedings, as well as in the subsequent distribution of the funds from the settlement with I.G. Farben i.L. He was a member of the New York group of former Buna/Monowitz prisoners who screened applications from the United States to ensure their entitlement on an individual basis.

(PH; transl. KL)


Max Faust, hearing of witness, December 4, 1952. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. I.G. Farben), Vol. I, pp. 164R–172R.

Otto Küster, summation, March 1, 1955. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. I.G. Farben), Exhibits, Vol. II, 26 pp.

Verdict in the Wollheim suit, June 10, 1953. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. I.G. Farben), Vol. III, pp. 446–488.



Benz, Wolfgang: “Der Wollheim-Prozeß. Zwangsarbeit für die I.G. Farben in Auschwitz.” In: Ludolf Herbst / Constantin Goschler, eds.: Wiedergutmachung in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Munich: Oldenbourg, 1989, pp. 303–326.

Ferencz, Benjamin B.: Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation [1979]. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2002.

[1] Verdict in the Wollheim suit, June 10, 1953. HHStAW, Sec. 460, No. 1424 (Wollheim v. I.G. Farben), Vol. III, pp. 446–488, here p. 481. (Translated by KL)