As Germans go to the polls tomorrow to choose between Chancellor Helmut Kohl and front-running Gerhard Schroeder, trans-Atlantic jousting over Holocaust reparations will be the last thing on voters' minds. Campaign speeches have focused on the faltering economy, not the $1.25 billion that Swiss banks will hand Holocaust survivors or the $75,000 per slave laborer for which German firms are being sued.
Amnesia regarding 1933-1945 is not new. But in Helmut Kohl's case it's a godsend. For Kohl owes his rise to power to a corporation that refused to compensate its Nazi-era victims, corrupted both Kohl and his party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union, and is now owned by Deutsche Bank, a target of the recent slave laborer lawsuit.
Indeed, Schroeder's silence on a potential source of profound embarrassment to Kohl makes clear just how deeply the guilt denial runs.
It was the holding company known as the Flick Group that bribed two consecutive finance ministers and other members of the CDU, including Helmut Kohl. Its founder, Friedrich Flick, was already a pillar of the German steel industry in the 1930s when he bankrolled Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. He was sentenced at Nuremberg to seven years in prison for using 48,000 slave laborers, 80 percent of whom were worked to death. But John McCloy, US high commissioner for Germany and future head of both the Ford Foundation and Chase Manhattan Bank, granted Flick clemency in 1950. Flick then proceeded to rebuild his empire, buying into hundreds of firms, including major interests in Dynamit Nobel and Daimler-Benz. Flick became the fifth- richest man in the world before dying in 1972 at 90, leaving $1 billion to his playboy son while stubbornly refusing to hand his former slave laborers a pfennig.
Several years prior to his death, the Conference of Jewish Materials Claims had approached the Flick Group on behalf of 1,300 claimants, seeking $1.5 million from Flick's subsidiary Dynamit Nobel, which then claimed annual sales of $250 million. Former high commissioner McCloy, perhaps out of guilt, agreed to represent the Claims Conference. But managing director Eberhard von Brauchitsch, representing Flick, refused to give an inch.
Ironically, the meticulous handwritten notes of the same von Brauchitsch, two decades later, convinced prosecutors to indict finance ministers Hans Friderich and Count Otto Lambsdorff, both of the CDU, for bribery. Flick had paid the two off for waiving $175 million in taxes the conglomerate should have been assessed following its sale of Daimler-Benz shares to Deutsche Bank.
In his diary, Von Brauchitsch also wrote: "I intend to fit out Herr Kohl exactly as we did the other gentlemen." In fact, as part of an earlier deal, Von Brauchitsch had instructed the CDU to promote Kohl from regional governor to head of the party. In 1982 he successfully ran for chancellor. Kohl admitted to Bundestag investigators that he had accepted secret Flick payments totaling $53,000 but insisted he had deposited the money in the CDU treasury. No judicial action was taken against Kohl despite his legal obligation to report such gifts.
The Flick Group also escaped unscathed. In 1986, Deutsche Bank purchased it for $2 billion. Though soon thereafter the bank agreed to pay surviving slave laborers a total of $2 million. Today it is among the companies being sued for $75,000 for each laborer.
During this summer's election campaign, Kohl successfully forced his opponent, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder, to explain why Lower Saxony, the state he has governed for eight years, has the highest unemployment rate in Western Germany. Changing the subject while outflanking Kohl on the right, Schroeder -- who sits on the supervisory board of Volkswagen, another target of the slave laborer lawsuit -- began criticizing Kohl's support for a plan to build a Holocaust memorial in Berlin.
So whatever the result of tomorrow's election, don't expect the amnesia to end soon.
Jerry H. Meldon is chairman of the Chemical Engineering Department at Tufts University.