West Lafayette, Indiana, May 17, 1998. I speak for all those who can no longer speak for themselves. I speak for those endless railway cars of Jewish slave laborers whose seemingly inexhaustible supply in Nazi Germany made them less than slaves. I speak for those starved and brutalized victims of unspeakable horrors inflicted by a “respectable” and venerated German corporation during World War II. I speak for the speechless victims of Daimler-Benz.
Today the entire business world is aglow about a “marriage made in heaven,” the mega-merger of Chrysler with Daimler-Benz. Lost in this grand celebration of new fortunes to be made is the extraordinary history of one corporate partner. During the War, hundreds of thousands of Jews were coerced into forced labor by many major German industrial firms under conditions which the judges at Nuremberg said “made labor and death almost synonymous.”
In actuality, the victims were barely bits of sandpaper, rubbed a few times by their masters, judged useless and then burned – literally – with the garbage. Daimler-Benz was one of these firms.
Together with other privileged German corporations, Daimler-Benz traded and transhipped Jewish forced laborers with nary a hint that they were dealing in human beings. Purchased from the SS, with the understanding that they should not be kept alive for too long (so as not to slow down the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”), the bewildered and tortured slaves were often housed in tiny animal kennels or underground chambers before “selection” for the gas chamber. After the War, when some very small number of Jewish claimants called upon Daimler-Benz and other criminally-responsible German firms to make some sort of restitution, the victims and their survivors were cruelly rebuffed.
Only last November, a German court upheld its government’s policy of rejecting compensation claims by Nazi-era slave laborers. The judges based their decision in part on the fact that the pertinent German companies had already paid the Nazi SS for the forced laborers they had “employed” and that therefore no “further compensation” to Jewish victims was owed by the companies.
Most of these companies, of course, including Daimler-Benz, are still in business and are doing better than ever. Not one of these companies, including Daimler-Benz, has ever made more than a token payment to their former Jewish slaves. Today, one of these companies, Daimler-Benz, has even become a new and important giant in American industry, darkening both Wall Street and Main Street in ways that are largely without precedent.
During the War, Daimler-Benz did pay salaries for their slaves, but the payments were made directly to the SS, which naturally kept the money. The ties between the German industrialists at Benz and other concerns were more intimate than is generally realized. The industrialists were all heavy contributors to Himmler’s personal fund. For a Christmas celebration in 1943, Himmler invited these magnates to his own headquarters. An SS film on eradicating Jewish “vermin” was screened, and the distinguished group was entertained by a male chorus of SS men.
How did the victorious Allies mete out justice to the German industrialist murderers? No corporate director or manager was compelled to stand before the International Military Tribunal. In subsequent trials against certain leading directors, several defendants were found guilty of crimes against humanity for exploiting Jewish slave labor. Although many were sentenced to long prison terms, by January 1951 not a single corporate criminal was still in jail.
An act of “clemency” by John J. McCloy, United States High Commissioner, gave all of these Germans their complete freedom. A mere half-dozen years after the War, all of the criminal German business leaders were free to regain huge personal fortunes. The Jewish slaves who had endured the unendurable were left only with abject poverty, crippling illness, limitless pain, and incessant nightmares.
So the Nazi-era crimes of Daimler-Benz have been forgotten or forgiven on Wall Street and Main Street. After all, there is a lot of money to be made in this merger, and no reasonable investor wants to be limited by what is past. Yet, memory, not forgetfulness, is indispensable to justice, and justice is what America is supposedly about.
At a minimum, therefore, if only not to degrade further the memory of Daimler-Benz’s murdered Jewish slaves – the past must be recalled. For Daimler-Benz, the past is irremediably part of its present, silent but heavy.
Rene Louis Beres
West Lafayette, Indiana
Louis Rene Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Professor of Political Science and International Law at Purdue University. He is the author of many books and articles dealing with Israeli security matters. His Austrian-Jewish grandparents were murdered at the SS-killing grounds in Riga, Latvia.