BONN — FOR 37 years, West Germany has been trying to close down I.G. Farben, once the world's most-powerful chemical company. Formed in 1926 from a merger that included Bayer, BASF, Hoechst, and Agfa, the concern gave massive support to Adolf Hitler's war effort with products devised by its brilliant scientists. They made synthetic oil and rubber, when the real substances could not be imported. It also patented and jointly produced Zyklon B, a gas used by the Nazis to kill millions of Jews.
After World War II, the Allies took control and in 1952 the concern was broken up into its original component parts. A tiny rump company, I.G. Farbenindustrie in Abwicklung (``in liquidation''), remained for the purpose of winding up I.G. Farben's own affairs. Shareholders who were able to exchange their old I.G. Farben shares for shares in the reinstated companies, received shares in the liquidation, too.
Today, that company consists of an entry in bold type in the Frankfurt telephone directory and small offices housing two liquidators, Erst-Joachim Bartels and G"unter Vollmann, and a clerk in a quiet street not far from I.G. Farben's former gigantic headquarters. It has no more factories and the liquidators sold off its last holdings last year. Its capital - it still operates in the old currency - is 1,360 million Reichsmarks or about 110 million deutsche marks ($61 million). It holds valuable securities, odd bits of real estate, and liabilities.
But the efforts of successive liquidators to wind up the firm have been thwarted by seemingly endless claims and court cases.
During Hitler's dictatorship, the company built a synthetic oil and rubber factory - and its own concentration camp, near Auschwitz, where prisoners were forced to work as slaves. An estimated 25,000 people died there. Twenty-three of its top managers were tried at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Eleven were acquitted of charges, and the rest were sentenced to between 18 months and eight years in jail.
Although the company paid DM30 million compensation in a lump sum to Jewish slave workers or their heirs, it is still facing possible claims from about 6,000 non-Jewish victims. It has about 800 pensioners to make arrangements for and it is still fighting to recover seized property abroad, particularly in Vienna and Egypt.
What the liquidators hope will be the last court case against I.G. Farben, a dispute about share rights, should end this year, Dr. Bartels says. ``As things stand, at present it will take another three to five years to wind up the firm,'' he adds.
Meanwhile, the company's 135,000 shareholders are doing very well indeed. Thanks to the liquidators' astute management, I.G Farben shares, quoted on all West German stock exchanges, have increased rapidly in price in recent years - a 100 Reichsmark share is worth DM11 or 12 ($6.10 to $6.60), about four times its value in the 1970s. And when the company is finally wound up the shareholders should find themselves with a nice little lump sum.
But not everyone will be pleased. In the past, there have been demonstrations by former slave workers at the annual meetings: Last year, the son of a woman worker accused shareholders of ``hoping for a dividend which comes from gas chambers and slave labor'' and demanded an end to ``speculation with blood money.'' He was booed and told to be quiet.
Last year, Bartels says, a suggestion that the balance of the company's final accounts should be paid to the victims was put to the shareholders. They voted to keep it for themselves.