The German Economy Foundation Initiative
“In the decision not to provide any individual payments, at the forefront was the thought that without new red tape it would scarcely be possible to establish the fact of the forced labor beyond a doubt. Such red tape would have led to lengthy proceedings and above all to fresh injustice, which would have opened rather than healed old wounds. Moreover, a decision in favor of individual payments would have favored those who have regained their mental and physical strength over the years and may conceivably be living in good circumstances.”
This ad was signed by the American Jewish Congress and the Polish American Congress, and also by the Bundesverband Beratung und Information für NS-Verfolgte (German Federal Association Advice and Information for Victims of the Nazis).
In the 1990s, German companies were at the center of worldwide public attention: Holocaust survivors filed class actions in U.S. courts against Allianz AG for failure to pay out insurance policies, and against Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank for dealing in looted Nazi gold. Class actions also involved numerous German industrial concerns that had profited from the exploitation of forced labor during World War II. Broad coverage in the U.S. media ensured that the mergers of Deutsche Bank and Bankers Trust and of Daimler-Benz and Chrysler ultimately threatened to fall through because of opposition from U.S. stockholders. Former forced laborers had tried even earlier to obtain an old-age pension from their German “employers,” or a settlement to compensate for the withheld wages and damage to their health. As a rule, they had been refused.
Against the backdrop of class actions and calls for boycotts of German companies in the United States, Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) sought to make contact with industry even before assuming the duties of office in Germany’s red-green coalition government in October 1998. On February 12, 1999, emissaries of the federal government met for the first time with representatives of 12 large German firms: Allianz, Bayer, BASF, Hoechst, Degussa-Hüls, BMW, DaimlerChrysler, VW, Dresdner Bank, Deutsche Bank, Thyssen Krupp, and Siemens. A joint communiqué issued afterward said that the meeting had served the purpose of “meeting complaints, especially class actions in the United States, head on and putting an end to campaigns against the reputation of our country and its economy.” Plans called for setting up a “Foundation Initiative of German Enterprises,” a compensation fund for former forced laborers, especially those from Eastern Europe, with an endowment of 2 to 3 billion DM; in return, the U.S. Government, represented by Under Secretary of State for Economic, Business, and Agricultural Affairs Stuart Eizenstat, was supposed to guarantee that no more complaints against German companies would be accepted by U.S. courts (“legal certainty”). The German Association for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses (Bundesverband der mittelständischen Wirtschaft) refused to allow any participation by its member firms, saying that forced labor in the Nazi era had been purely a “concern of big industry.” Forced laborers who had worked in the agricultural sector, too, were to go away empty-handed.
In the German press, there were intense polemical attacks on the claims of the former slave laborers, with anti-Semitic phrases making a fairly frequent appearance. Spiegel publisher Rudolf Augstein spoke openly of the “power” of “world Jewry,” which was making use of several “sharks in lawyers’ clothing.” In particular, the accusation that the attorneys of the Nazis’ victims enriched themselves at their clients’ expense persists to this very day.
In early October 1999, high-profile protests by the participating associations of victims accelerated the negotiations, which had been proceeding doggedly thus far. Subsequently, the federal government and German industry felt compelled to sweeten the offer. Now the amount to be paid out was upped to 6 billion DM: a sum that met with a very high-visibility rejection on the part of the victims’ associations in the United States and the lawyers representing them.
After further controversy, the German government and the economic sector offered in November 1999 to pay 8 billion DM. When this offer, too, was turned down by the victims’ attorneys as “completely unacceptable,” Wolfgang Gibowski, the spokesman of the “German Economy Foundation Initiative,” stated that to the “other side” it must “be clear that the negotiations are now at the touch-and-go point” and ruled out further talks with the lawyers: “There’s nothing more to be negotiated here, the eight billion will not be increased.” Between the federal government and German industry, he added, there was “not a millimeter of difference” on this question.
In this situation, the German government, headed by Gerhard Schröder, also came under domestic pressure; the criticism was sparked primarily by the German economy’s reluctance to pay. On December 8, 1999, die tageszeitung published a list from the American Jewish Committee containing the names of 267 German enterprises that had refused to pay money into the projected compensation fund. Linked with the publication was an indirect appeal to “all those among us who are ashamed at the sight of the holdouts” to ask themselves “whether they were still willing to buy products from firms that abide by their ‘No!’ on the foundation initiative.” A few days later, the governments of the United States and the FRG agreed, in direct consultations, on the payment of 10 billion DM to former forced laborers: a sum that the American Jewish Committee had suggested as early as November. The money was to be paid half by the government and half by the economy and placed in a Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future.” As Gibowski put it, the agreement reached would result in “clear legal certainty” for German enterprises, safeguarding them against the filing of complaints in the United States. The president of the Federation of German Industry (BDI, Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie), Hans-Olaf Henkel, called on the economic sector “to participate now in the foundation initiative.”
(GK/PEH; transl. KL)