It’s nearly 70 years since the end of World War II and much has changed in Germany, but one of the most notable changes there has been resurrection of its Jewish community.
Today, more than 200,000 Jews live in the country that was supposed to be the center of the Thousand-Year Reich. The growth is largely due to an influx of Jewish emigrants from the former Soviet Union, though many Israelis have also moved there. (How religious or affiliated they are is a subject for another column).
Rabbis and cantors are being trained there once again at the Abraham Geiger College in Pottsdam, where Pittsburgh’s Rabbi Walter Jacob is the president.
And thanks to a 2003 act signed by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, Judaism now enjoys the same legal status in Germany as the Roman Catholic and Evangelical Church in Germany.
It is even a crime in Germany to deny the Holocaust. To do so is punishable by up to five years in prison.
Sadly, though, it is still quite legal to play down one’s role or acquiescence in the Holocaust.
Case in point, Bayer — a German-based chemical and pharmaceutical company with U.S. offices in Robinson Township along the Parkway West. The company is perhaps best known for its aspirin, though it is well known for many other products, achievements and scientific breakthroughs.
In fact, you can read about all these wonderful things at bayer.com/en/150-years.aspx. Bayer is celebrating its sesquicentennial all year long with a touring interactive exhibition, an art exhibit in Berlin with works from its own collection (including some by Andy Warhol), volunteer programs, employee celebrations, even a world tour with the Bayer Airship — a la the Goodyear Blimp.
“What started as a small but innovative dyestuffs factory in the Barmen district of Wuppertal is now a global enterprise with more than 110,000 employees,” CEO Dr. Marijn Dekkers writes on this website. “In the past 150 years, Bayer inventions have time and again helped improve people’s quality of life. This great tradition is also our commitment to the future — entirely in line with our mission of Bayer: Science For A Better Life.”
Sadly, you’ll read very little about the company’s role in the Holocaust.
“The unpleasant periods of the company’s history have totally been omitted from the celebrations,” according to a statement from Coalition Against Bayer Dangers, a watchdog organization with a decidedly critical view of the global conglomerate. “Topics such as environmental contamination, pesticide poisoning, worker protests and collaboration with the Third Reich are simply ignored.”
Bayer was part of the IG Farben group, a German company complicit in many Nazi war crimes. According to Corporate Watch, an independent, journalism, research and publishing group that monitors the impact of large corporations, Farben used slave laborers in its operations, some of which were based close to concentration camps. Another Farben subsidiary, Degesch, manufactured Zyklon B, the gas used in the concentration camp gas chambers. Farben also conducted experiments on humans, according to Corporate Watch.
Fritz ter Meer, a former chairman of the board at Bayer, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1947 by a Nurenberg tribunal for his role for enslavement and looting. Among his crimes, was his role in establishing the Monowitz Concentration Camp, a satellite camp of Auschwitz as well as the IG Farben Buna Werke factory at Auschwitz, which conducted human experiments on slave laborers.
During his trial, ter Meer defended himself by saying, “without this they would have been killed anyway.” Bayer named a student support foundation for him after his death in 1967.
This is only a piece of the Bayer’s darker history.
What does Bayer have to say about its silence of these atrocities as its celebrates its landmark anniversary? In fairness, a company spokeswoman has referred us to online sites on Bayer’s history, which do indeed include the Holocaust.
The issue isn’t whether Bayer has acknowledged its past. It has. The issue is, why isn’t Bayer, in such a milestone year of its history, shedding the same light on its human failures as it is its human achievements?
Here’s what Bayer includes about the war years on the history page from its 150th anniversary website:
“In 1936 the National Socialist government began systematically preparing for war. When the Second World War finally broke out in 1939, the locations of the Lower Rhine consortium were among the sites of German industry that were considered ‘vital to the war.’ Production requirements grew steadily, yet more and more employees were drafted into military service. For this reason, foreign and forced laborers from the occupied countries of Europe were brought to work in Leverkusen, Dormagen, Elberfeld and Uerdingen — and throughout the German industry as a whole — to maintain output levels. At times during the war, these laborers accounted for up to one third of the workforce. Concentration camp prisoners were not employed in the Lower Rhine sites.”
But it doesn’t mention Monowitz, Buna Werke or ter Meer.
In fact, a video on the website highlighting the company’s achievements includes a timeline from the past 150 years that skips the war years entirely.
The Holocaust is a seminal moment in the history of mankind. Bayer, and every other German company that succumbed to Nazism, owes it to the next generation to address their darker roles in history as vigorously as their brighter moments.
But there are no Holocaust-related programs scheduled on Bayer’s sesquicentennial calendar, no forums or lectures where historians and scholars can parse this period in the company’s history, so we can all understand it better.
Were Bayer to do this, it would be to the company’s credit. It’s quite a thing when a conglomerate publicly and voluntarily looks at its own role in history for better and worse.
It’s still not too late for Bayer to make its role in the Shoa an equal and significant part of its sesquicentennial activities. No one is begrudging Bayer the right to celebrate its history, but it should mark the entire history.
(Lee Chottiner, executive editor of the Chronicle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)