October 29, 2003
Holocaust Legacy: Germans and
Jews Debate Redemption
By RICHARD BERNSTEIN
BERLIN, Oct. 28, 2003. -- It might seem obvious, at
first glance anyway, that a German affiliate of a company
that once supplied poison gas to the Nazis should not be
a subcontractor for the very memorial now being
constructed in Berlin to the Nazis' many millions of
That, at any rate, is what the Memorial Foundation for
the Murdered Jews of Europe, which has overall
responsibility for the memorial, decided in the case of
the chemical company Degussa, which was to have provided
the anti-graffiti material being used to protect the
2,700 concrete steles that are to be placed into the
After what was described as a long and agonizing
meeting, the 23-member board of directors of the Memorial
Foundation decided last week not to use the Degussa
anti-graffiti product. They did so because a company
affiliated with Degussa called Degesch was identified as
a supplier of Zyklon B gas pellets, which were used in
the death camps to murder Nazi victims.
"The problem we discussed is very complicated," Lea
Rosh, a member of the board, told a German newspaper on
Sunday. "We asked ourselves: Where should one draw the
line? And we came to the conclusion that the line is very
clearly Zyklon B."
But in the days since then, the decision on Degussa has
provoked a debate in Germany on exactly the issue of
line-drawing. It happens that Degussa, a company based in
Düsseldorf that is the world's largest maker of
specialty chemicals, employing some 48,000 people
worldwide, has had an exemplary record in examining its
wartime past and making restitution to victims of the
Holocaust Memorial, foreground, is under
construction in Berlin. Behind it are the
tops of the Reichstag and the Brandenburg
Most important in this regard, Degussa was one of the
17 German companies that created the Foundation for
Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future, which raised
millions of dollars for a special fund to be distributed
to victims of concentration camp and slave labor during
the Nazi period.
So the issue quickly seemed less than clear, and many
questions have been raised: Did the Memorial Foundation
board act correctly in singling out Degussa? At what
point, especially 60 years later, has a company earned
exoneration for its past behavior? Why should Degussa be
singled out when so many other German companies --
Daimler-Benz (now DaimlerChrysler), for instance, Siemens
or even an American company, I.B.M. -- also collaborated
with the Nazis?
"I'm really astonished, because Degussa was very
strongly involved in the slave labor initiative, in
starting it, in leading the negotiations with the Jewish
side and groups in Eastern Europe," said Wolfgang G.
Gibowski, a spokesman for the Foundation for Remembrance,
Responsibility and the Future. "The Degussa of today is
not the Degussa of 60 or 70 years ago."
"Where do you begin and where do you stop with these
arguments?" Mr. Gibowski continued, arguing that
practically every German company in existence at the time
collaborated with the Nazis. "Where do you get the sand
to produce those monuments? Do you get it from Israel and
America or Germany? Where do you get the cement, the
trucks? What kind of buses do you use to take visitors
there in the future?"
The debate over the role of Degussa is the latest
issue to bedevil the Holocaust Memorial project, which,
after many years of discussion, was approved by the
German parliament in 1999. Even after that, there were
fierce arguments about the memorial's location, cost,
design and even the materials used in its
Work on the project, designed by the American
architect Peter Eisenman, finally began this year in a
large open field in central Berlin, a few hundred yards
from the Brandenburg Gate and adjacent to the site of the
future American Embassy. So far, about 25 of the 2,700
memorial steles have been installed, and work is expected
to be finished in 2005.
Some have questioned why Memorial Foundation board
members raised no objections to Degussa's participation
earlier, even though its role was well known to them. In
fact, Degussa itself is not even directly involved; its
product, reputedly the best anti-graffiti material on the
market, was to have been supplied by another
According to some people familiar with the board's
decision, objections were first raised by Holocaust
survivors. One of them, whose parents were murdered at
Auschwitz, told board members that she would not be able
to visit the memorial herself if the distributor of
Zyklon B was allowed to supply the material.
"We all know that it's a very sensitive issue,"
Sibylle Quack, a spokeswoman for the Memorial Foundation,
said in a telephone interview. "On one hand you have
survivors of the Holocaust who can't stand a firm like
Degussa being involved in the memorial, and on the other
hand you will hardly find firms in Germany that were not
involved with the Nazis.
"But more than 40 percent of Degesch was owned by
Degussa, and Degesch distributed Zyklon B," Ms. Quack
continued, "so this is a very important symbolic issue.
Zyklon B symbolizes the murder."
In many ways, two principles oppose each other in this
emerging debate: one is the principle of a sort of
forgiveness for a company that has taken real action to
atone for its past. The people who work at Degussa are
not the same people who worked for it 60 years ago.
According to this principle, it is wrong to penalize them
for something that they had nothing to do with.
The company itself seemed to embrace this point. In a
statement issued on Tuesday, Degussa said that it
"regrets" the Memorial Foundation's decision "but
respects it." But the company also said it would be
difficult to explain the decision to its employees, given
its record of the recent past.
In an editorial to be published Thursday, Michael
Naumann, co-editor of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit,
expressed irritation at people who insist on a sort of
eternal and insurmountable German guilt.
"After four decades of intensive research, after many
Holocaust movies and books, nobody can accuse the Germans
of remaining oblivious to their history," Mr. Naumann
writes. "Some of the accusers and those who would educate
us about history have turned into impersonators of their
own righteousness. They have usurped the role of
The competing principle is that, whatever the abstract
rights and wrongs of the decision involving Degussa, the
most important element in the picture is the feelings of
the Holocaust survivors themselves.
"You can't say anything against this argument, in my
opinion," Klaus Hillenbrand, editor of the newspaper
tageszeitung, said. "You can't argue to the survivors
that Degussa has become a very fine company, so you have
to change your view of this case.
"It's a personal question," Mr. Hillenbrand said. "If
there are survivors of the Holocaust who feel this way,
you just have to accept it."