Bayer, Volkswagen, Daimler-Benz, and Siemens are recognized worldwide for pharmaceutical products, cars, and electronics. Not as widely known, however, are the contributions of these and other German companies to the Nazi war effort and the pains they took to reshape their image after World War II.
In a new book, S. Jonathan Wiesen, an assistant professor of history at SIUC, examines how West German business leaders remade and marketed their public image between 1945 and 1955. The University of North Carolina Press published the 352-page book, West German Industry and the Challenge of the Nazi Past, 1945-1955, last October.
Wiesen spent nearly two years in Germany conducting research and interviews. Responses to his request for access to corporate archives varied among the companies he was examining.
"Bayer was one of the more disturbing cases of exploitation," Wiesen says, noting the firm was part of an industrial conglomerate that operated a plant at the Auschwitz concentration camp. "They worked Jewish and Polish inmates to death making synthetic rubber. But Bayer was a bit more used to scrutiny. They were remarkable—they not only let me copy materials, they paid for the copies. They were very friendly."
Siemens was more wary, although it ended up allowing Wiesen access to records. However, he wasn't allowed to copy anything and had to quickly scribble notes.
"I wanted to get this out as quickly as possible because things are moving rapidly as to how German companies are dealing with their past," Wiesen says.
"There have been a lot of developments with companies acknowledging their own role in Nazi atrocities, such as slave labor and the manufacture of armaments. For years they didn't want to address that theme except to say they were forced to be a part of it. The book looks at their strategy of presenting themselves as victims."
One of those developments was the creation in 1999 of a $1.7 billion fund known as the German Companies Foundation Initiative: Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future.
"The fund was a long-awaited acknowledgment that Germany's companies and its government bore a responsibility to address the role of industry in the crimes of National Socialism," Wiesen writes in his book. "More specifically, the fund was to provide financial compensation to aging forced and slave laborers who had been compelled to work in German factories, in concentration and death camps, and on German farms during World War II."
However, Wiesen noted that German chancellor Gerhard Schroder's announcement of the fund was a "pragmatic response to survivors' legal actions against Germany's major firms." The intent of the fund was to counter lawsuits.
Schroder's sentiments, Wiesen writes, were "the culmination of a sometimes vigilant, sometimes self-pitying, fifty-year effort by West Germany to contain the legacy of corporate complicity in Nazi crimes--from the use of forced and slave labor, to the 'Aryanization' of Jewish property, to war profiteering."
Wiesen has been at SIUC since 1998. He received his bachelor's degree from the University of California at Berkeley, where he majored in history with a minor in philosophy. He received his doctorate from Brown University in Providence, R.I., in 1997. The book is based on his dissertation.
Wiesen became interested in German history during his undergraduate days at Berkeley and decided to study it in graduate school. He wanted to find a topic that would allow him to wrestle with some of the moral questions posed by 20th-century German history, particularly the Holocaust.
"I was interested in questions about how or if Germany had 'come to terms' with its past," he says. "It seemed to me that big business was an important, if underexplored, area in this field of inquiry.
"Studies about the memory of perpetrators, or German society at large, had been done, but it seemed to me that business leaders, who constantly make ethical choices in order to keep their businesses profitable, could offer an important case study in memory."
Normal public relations practices became far more urgent after companies were linked to National Socialism.
"I want to show how PR after Nazism both reflects everyday business practices but also has an urgency unique to modern German history, given Nazism and the Holocaust," Wiesen says. "Also, I want to show how the issue of German corporate guilt is not new to the 1990s."
Noting that business history is "much, much more than economic history," he adds, "The study of business mentalities sheds light on a host of different aspects about society: high and pop culture, ideological structures, views of capitalism, labor and mass culture."
Wiesen's book is geared for multiple audiences,
including scholars in his field and students in upper-division courses
where national memory is being studied.
—Tom Woolf, Media & Communication Resources
For more information, contact Dr. Jonathan Wiesen, Dept. of History, (618) 453-7873.