04 May 2015

Monday diatribe: How to buy your way out of genocide accountability

by Marc Masurovsky

Chances are that not a month goes by without us buying a product, investing in a transportation company (railroads and a select group of airlines), buying insurance policies, or for those with more cash buying stocks in firms whose parent companies were around in the 1930s and 1940s. Do we ever ask ourselves how those companies reacted to the coming to power of Fascism in Italy, authoritarian governments in Southeastern Europe, National Socialism in Germany, and pro-Axis governments in Western Europe (France and the so-called neutrals—Spain and Portugal)? We probably don’t ask these questions any more than we ask ourselves where an art object came from which we admire in an art museum, a gallery, or at an auction.

Here's a simple statistic that should be easy to absorb: There were at least 300 American companies with subsidiaries operating in Nazi Germany until Pearl Harbour came and went on December 7, 1941. In other words, for eight years, American businessmen consorted and traded with their German counterparts from the moment that Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, until that fateful morning in the Hawaiian islands which cost more than 3000 American lives and the near-total destruction of the US Pacific fleet.

The Third Reich, the Holocaust and the Second World War would have been greatly hampered and impeded had it not been for the active participation of the private sector—industries, banks, traders, merchants—and professional groups—lawyers, accountants, finance personnel, cultural officials, brokers of all kinds, chemists, doctors, civil servants, and the list goes on.

Persecution, internment, deportation, extermination, are acts which require money and infrastructural support—human, and otherwise.

Since the end of WWII, few companies have been held accountable for “aiding and abetting” acts of persecution, internment, deportation, and extermination, except for the most egregious ones—IG Farben and Krupp being the standouts, as well as leading German bankers who were tried at the International Military Tribunal of Nurnberg and who lived like destitute princes under house arrest at Landsberg Prison until their release was ordered by the Americans.

In Europe only a small number of corporate executives and bankers went to prison or were fined for their wartime role as "collaborators."  None were punished in the United States, Canada, Great Britain or in the so-called neutral countries. And yet… tens of millions of documents are stocked on shelves in archives in the United States and Europe which illustrate and quantify the gory details of how the private sector was allowed to enrich itself off of persecution and genocide. Yes, crime does pay again and again and again.

There were a handful of punishments (if you want to call them that) meted out against companies in the past two decades.

Leading Swiss banks agreed to pay 1.25 billion dollars instead of the ad minima sum of 10 billion dollars that had been requested by the plaintiffs in order to settle class action lawsuits for their "mishandling" of financial assets deposited in their facilities by Jewish owners who fell victim to Nazism. The settlements paved the way for a groundbreaking merger of two of the three defendant Swiss banks.

JP Morgan and Chase National Bank were asked to donate a small sum of money to Holocaust survivors in exchange for authorization to merge into a megabank. They both had tripled their profits in German-occupied France in part through the Aryanization and reselling of Jewish-owned companies and real estate.

Ford Motor Company underwrote the ad-free screening on American television of “Schindler’s List” and contributed a token sum of money to charitable causes dealing with the Holocaust in exchange for being left alone about its role as an employer of Jewish and other slave labor during the Third Reich.

Barclays Bank settled for an absurdly small amount to wriggle its way out of litigation that linked its wartime activities to the fleecing of Jews living in occupied territories.

Slave labor settlements negotiated with Jewish organizations enabled multibillion dollar German companies to contribute sums that would help needy Holocaust survivors in exchange for "Holocaust peace."

The Italian insurer, Generali, was “fined” 100 million dollars out of the billions that it stole from Holocaust victims, the worst settlement on record dealing with Holocaust-era profiteering.

And the list goes on. For every company named above, there are hundreds, no, thousands that went about their business in the postwar era, unmolested, same executives, same corporate offices.

It’s hard to imagine how one can discuss the Holocaust without thinking that the most important financial, commercial and mercantile pump to the international wartime and postwar economic order came from the stolen and recycled wealth and assets of the victims of the New Order, mostly Jewish but also from non-Jews. Jewish assets were restructured, comingled with "non-Jewish" assets, Jewish-owned companies were merged into new holding companies and joint ventures through aryanization schemes that were, in fact, wholesale thefts of corporate assets. No one has been held accountable and especially not the armies of lawyers, accountants, and "notaires" who were indispensable for establishing these new "Aryan" entities and facilitating these thefts.

That stark reality explains why restitution in the postwar years was a dead letter no sooner had the word "restitution" been uttered and printed on official Allied documents.

Reparations became the token expression of what the victorious Allies and postwar governments in Europe refused to do, which was to hold the private sector fully accountable for its complicity in crimes against humanity. Had there been such justice, our ethical and moral fibers might be playing different tunes today and we might all be the better for it.

With so much cynicism about our capacity as a species to tolerate and endure mass murder and wholesale persecution around the globe, it is difficult to react except with the usual disgust at the news that a company like the French Railroad Company (SNCF) implicated in the deportation of Jews from German-occupied France has been trying to convince state governments and Holocaust remembrance institutions in the United States to accept charitable donations in order to help it cleanse its  wartime record... and facilitate its bids for contracts to provide high-speed train technology to the US. The public relations departments are working overtime to spin these fake expressions of contrition and repentance into genuine ethical moments that we are asked to savor.