Can German firms atone for past?

A firm that once supplied the Nazis was barred last week from the Holocaust memorial project.

Controversy over a supplier involved in building Germany's national Holocaust memorial has ignited the latest agonizing debate over the grip of history.

The board overseeing the monument's creation has barred the use of an anti-graffiti coating made by Degussa AG, a chemical giant whose subsidiary Degesch supplied the Nazis with Zyklon B cyanide tablets used to carry out the organized murder of Jews in death camps.

"There are three expressions which are, for every Jew, incontrovertibly associated with the Holocaust. Zyklon B is one of those," said Alexander Brenner, the chairman of the Jewish community in Berlin and a member of the monument's board, which temporarily halted construction over the Degussa issue last week. Some Jews had vowed to boycott the memorial if Degussa took part.

But newspapers across the country and a number of politicians have raised questions over whether the treatment of the company is fair. The company's exclusion is reopening the issue of whether succeeding generations of Germans can ever be free of the sins of the past - and whether efforts to atone can offer any measure of exoneration.

During the last decade, Degussa has become one of industrial Germany's leaders in atonement. It is one of the 17 founding members of the Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility, and the Future - a group which put together $4.4 billion for distribution to victims of Nazi concentration camps and to former slave laborers. The company itself gave tens of millions to the fund and has consistently taken a leadership role in raising additional money.

"I find the decision simply astonishing," says Wolfgang Gibowski, spokesman for Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future.

"What can a company do today when their predecessors took part in an evil system 60 years ago? What can they do?" says Mr. Gibowski. "You can only own up to your own guilt about the part you played or your company played and then show a sense of responsibility. I think Degussa has done that."

Many voices in Germany, following decades of openly confronting the country's World War II past, are tending toward this view. They argue that almost every German company that is active today and existed in the 1930s and 40s - and thus many of the companies working on the Holocaust monument - collaborated with the Nazis either willingly or under duress.

Some are also questioning the timing of the decision, saying that the directors of the monument knew all along that Degussa was on the list of suppliers.

"I don't know why it has become such a problem now," says Marc Singer, an accountant involved with distributing funds to victims of Nazi violence. "It has been known since the end of the war that a subsidiary of Degussa manufactured Zyklon B. They should have cleared that up beforehand."

But others are reminding Germans of their moral obligation to show sensitivity toward the victims of the Holocaust and their families. While it's nice that German companies feel a sense of responsibility for their past, they can't make it go away, these observers say.

"Companies whose names, just their names, contain a direct symbol of Auschwitz - they don't fit with such a memorial," says Peter Reichel, professor of political science at Hamburg University and author of the book "Politics with Memory," which discusses World War II memorials in Germany.

"Morally, you just can't include them - just as you wouldn't go to a funeral scantily clad. And I don't think this is just political correctness," says Prof. Reichel. "There has to be an awareness of what is acceptable and what isn't acceptable."

But others wonder if this means that a company can never make amends for the past.

"One has to answer the question, 'Where does it stop?'" says Gibowski. "We aren't talking about the same people or even the same company. What we are talking about is only a name."

Degussa itself seems to be trying to stay out of the fray.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the Dusseldorf-based company said that while it regrets the board's decision, it also respects it.

The current debate is not the first involving the $22 million project, which is under construction near the Brandenburg Gate.

When the Berlin Holocaust monument was initially proposed in the middle of the 1990s, controversy immediately emerged as to whether Berlin really needed to set aside a site the size of three football fields in the center of the city to assuage its guilt, and even if such a move was appropriate.

In light of the current debate, some of that acrimony has been reawakened, with some urging that the monument project be abandoned altogether.

That, however, is not likely to happen.

Germany's parliament dampened the public debate in 1999 with its decision to go ahead with the monument, which is set to be completed by May 8, 2005, the 60th anniversary of Germany's surrender.

Many firms in German industry have been accused of direct involvement in the wartime crimes of the Nazi era.

Several companies, including such giants as Siemens, Bertelsmann, Volkswagen - and Degussa - have taken the step of hiring independent historians to research their companies' histories under the Nazis and publish an account of it.

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