AFP — German car parts maker Continental revealed Thursday that it played a key role in the Nazi war effort and used thousands of slave laborers during World War II.
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 laborers 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 kilometers (19 to 25 miles) 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 kilometers (1,370 miles) as a result, according to the study.
Company management was actively involved, it said, but at a press conference on Thursday, Erker, who specializes 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 program.
“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 laborers or their families, in which the German government and industry contributed in equal measure to a more than five billion euro fund.