“Bitburg: Tip of the Iceberg.” So reads the headline over Joe Conason’s article in the May 7 Village Voice on White House links to the Right wing’s outer fringe. A close look at the politics behind Ronald Reagan and Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s visit to the Bitburg cemetery uncovers deeper layers of this iceberg – starting with the massive payoffs to members of the Kohl administration from the industrial empire founded by war criminal Friedrich Flick.
To understand Reagan’s decision to pay homage to German war dead, one must look beyond the President’s 1933-1945 blackout to present-day politics. The staunchly conservative Kohl has been the most vocal European supporter of Reagan’s escalation of the Cold War. He has welcomed Pershing missiles to German soil is is now a confirmed “Star Wars” advocate.
In return, Reagan, through appearances with the Chancellor, has been boosting Kohl’s Christian Democratic Party (CDU) in a period of important local elections. This is particularly vital in light of the magazine Der Spiegel’s relentless exposure of payoffs to assorted officials in the Bonn coalition.
The heads began to roll last June. Finance Minister Count Otto Lambsdorff resigned just prior to his official indictment for corruption. His predecessor, Hans Friderichs, who awaits trial for bribery and income tax evasion, resigned in February from the presidency of Germany’s second largest bank. The pockets of the two former finance ministers, according to Der Spiegel, were lined by Flick in return for a huge tax concession following the conglomerate’s sale of a 29 percent interest in Daimler-Benz, manufacturer of Mercedes cars.
In 1975, the Flick Group, which controls an empire whose holdings range from steel and explosives to armored tanks, sold the Daimler-Benz shares to Deutsche Bank, Germany’s largest, for $800 million. For a $175,000 payoff to Friderichs, Flick won a $175 million tax waiver. As Der Spiegel has documented, the payoff was just one part of an on-going corruption scheme that secured Flick a grip on the fiscal policies of the West German government.
While Flick’s beneficiaries have included politicians of every stripe but the left-of-center, ecology-minded Greens, the most scandalous exposés, naturally, have touched those in power. The biggest star to fall so far has
served in the Nazi financial hierarchy. Anong those executives was Hans Martin Schleyer, who in 1976 would use his influence to help arrange Flick stooge Rainer Barzel’s appointment to a parliamentary commission on economic affairs.
Schleyer’s wartime record leaves little to the imagination. He joined the SS in July 1935 aid the Nazi party two years later. He was assigned in 1(88 to direct a Nazi party training school, and sent to Prague in 1941 to man¬ age the Reich Central Office for industry, all of which is reported in Tom Bower’s penetrating study, The Pledge Betrayed.
In January 1944, Schleyer was replied to Berlin to work in the Reich Security Office, the nerve center of the Gestapo and SS which coordinated the extermination operations. Following the war he was interned in a camp with industrialists and bankers, one of whom recruited him in 1951 to work for Daimler-Benz.
Twelve years later Schleyer ordered a lock-out of 420,000 metal workers in Baden-Wurtemburg. He became the symbol of the German establishment. In the fall of 1977, Schleyer, who had become the president of the German federation of employers, was kidnapped.
In a video-taped message from captivity, he stated: “I’ve been locked up for five and a half weeks by these terrorists just because I’ve worked so hard to build a free and democratic society.” Soon thereafter he was murdered. Last month, two members of the Red Army Faction were finally sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Schleyer, as well as a chief federal prosecutor, and the chairman of the bank through which the Flick payoffs were made. One of the two sentenced was the banker’s god-daughter.
While Schleyer’s name was long a feature of German headlines, only recently has Eberhard von Brauchitsch come into the limelight as the manager and political payoff man for the Flick Group. Like Richard Nixon’s tapes, it was his detailed personal notes that became the public record of the corruption of a federal government. It also earned him an indictment last July.
As noted by James Markham of The New York Times, “the Flick case has become both a journalist’s and prosecutor’s dream because of the meticulous notes and memoranda (he) kept.” Von Brauchitsch’s downfall also minor vindication for the Jewish slave laborers to whom he, on behalf of the aging Friedrich Flick, steadfastly refused compensation some fifteen years earlier. As recounted in Benjamin Ferencz’ award-winning book, Less Than Slaves, subsidiaries of Dynamit Noble
consummately evil SS. The question of Army complicity in the Final Solution was settled long ago — in the case of Eber¬ hard von Brauchitsch’s uncle, who in 1938 was appointed commander-in-chief of the Wehrmacht by Reichfuehrer Adolf Hitler.
As made clear in The Pledge Betrayed, documents disclosed only after completion of the Nuremberg trials establish that Field Marshall Walter von Brauchitsch issued an order in July 1941 on the “Treatment of Enemy Civilians and Russian Prisoners of War in Army Group Rear Areas.” According to his guidelines, German soldiers who committed “criminal acts out of indignation at atrocities or the destructive work of the emissaries of the Jewish Bolshevist system are not to be prosecuted.”
The Soviets claimed after the war that three million Russian POWs died after capture, along with hundreds of thousands of Jews and other civilians in German-occupied territory. When Britain and the U.S. bickered for three years over whether or not to prosecute German field marshalls, the Russians demanded that they be extradited to stand trial in Moscow.
Von Brauchitsch had already died of natural causes. The only Wehrmacht leader to stand trial was General Erich von Manstein, who had ordered that “the Jewish Bolshevist system must be exterminated once and for all . . . The soldier must appreciate the necessity for the harsh punishment of Jews, the spiritual bearer of the Soviet terror.”
Von Manstein was tried in Hamburg in the summer of 1949. He was found guilty of neglecting to protect civilian life and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. He was confined in a fortress with his family and a secretary who assisted with his memoirs. Within three years he was released and became a consultant on the rebuilding of the German Army.
The amnesty granted to convicted war criminals in the early ’50s was the big step in the “reconciliation” that reestablished Germany as a world power and American partner in Europe. It allowed the rebirth of wartime industrial giants like Friedrich Flick and ultimately led to “Wassergate.” Helmut Kohl would prefer that the past were forgotten. His friend Ronald Reagan didn’t have to be asked. The rest of us would do well to remember.