Role of German & American Companies in Holocaust Discussed at Oregon State University

Role of German & American Companies in Holocaust Discussed at Oregon State University

“ ... 'The cost of poison gas at Auschwitz ... came to about a penny a corpse. ...”

Photo: Northwestern University scholar Peter Hayes, facing, takes a minute to talk with Oregon State University senior Ken Jacobsen before speaking to the crowd at LaSells Stewart Center Wednesday night. (Amanda Cowan | Corvallis Gazette-Times)

For details on Peter Hayes' research on corporate Holocaust-profiteering, see "Degussa in the National Socialist Era"

April 11, 2013

Corporate executives in Nazi Germany did not fire Jewish workers, engineer takeovers of Jewish-owned firms or employ Jewish slave labor because they were antisemitic. They did it “for the good of the firm.”

Northwestern University professor Peter Hayes has made an in-depth study of the relationships between German business interests and Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, taking advantage of corporate archives that came to light in the 1990s through a series of lawsuits filed in U.S. courts against American subsidiaries of German firms.

On Wednesday, more than 100 people filled an auditorium at Oregon State University’s LaSells Stewart Center to hear him lecture on how corporate self-interest adapted to, and ultimately supported, Hitler’s genocidal policies.

His talk, titled “From Aryanization to Auschwitz: German Corporate Complicity in the Holocaust,” was part of OSU’s 27th annual Holocaust Memorial Week.

Hayes called out a Who’s Who of German companies that cooperated with the Nazis, including IG Farben, Bayer, Daimler-Benz, Krupp, Hugo Boss, Allianz and Degussa. German subsidiaries of American firms such as Ford and General Motors also came in for blame.

Degussa, a chemical processor, developed an especially gruesome business relationship with Hitler’s regime. It reprocessed precious metals seized from Jewish prisoners, including the gold and silver fillings pried from the mouths of concentration camp inmates. It also supplied the camps with Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide used to murder more than 1 million Jews.

But Hayes emphasized that business dealings such as these, for the most part, were not driven by naked greed or a deep antipathy toward the Jewish people. Instead, they were arrived at through a series of moral compromises after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

“The regime was adept at putting commercial pressure on commercial enterprises to do ideological things,” he said.

Companies went along to ensure their long-term survival rather than short-term profit, Hayes argued. Forced labor by concentration camp inmates was crucial during the wartime labor shortage, for instance, but it wasn’t cheap — the Nazis charged high rates for their services.

Zyklon B provides an even more chilling example. According to Hayes, Degussa’s total revenue from four years of supplying the lethal gas to the Auschwitz death camp was $168,000 in inflation-adjusted U.S. currency.

“The cost of poison gas at Auschwitz,” Hayes calculated, “came to about a penny a corpse.”

In all of his research, Hayes concluded, he was struck repeatedly by the ability of corporate executives to justify even their most despicable actions.

“The human capacity for rationalization and self-legitimation,” he said, “is almost limitless.”

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