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Degussa to Continue Work on Holocaust Memorial

November 14, 2003

The foundation in charge of Berlin's Holocaust memorial decided on Thursday to allow chemicals maker Degussa to participate in building the monument. The firm had a unit that produced poison gas for Nazi death camps.

Work on the Holocaust memorial in Berlin was halted in late October.Image: AP

Despite Degussa's involvement with the Nazis in the 1940s, the Düsseldorf-based company -- and the other participating firms that collaborated with the National Socialists -- will be permitted to continue its work on the "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe."

The chairman of the foundation board and the president of Germany's parliament, Wolfgang Thierse, explained on Thursday that opinions continued to differ among the 22 foundation board members but that a "very clear" majority supported the decision.

"This monument is a monument that the whole of German society is building," Thierse said. "Neither in the parliamentary decision nor in the past among the public nor in the foundation board have we heard any argument calling for parts of this society to be excluded." Thus, Thierse said, the board decided that certain companies should not be excluded now, "even if their predecessors were connected to the Nazi regime's crimes in the worst way."

Thierse pointed out that Bayer -- which is also involved in building the monument -- was, like Degussa, also a successor firm of IG Farben, which had been closely intertwined with Hitler's Third Reich. But he also stressed that the decision was influenced by concerns that searching for a replacement for Degussa could have disrupted the project's schedule and forced it to go beyond its budget, which could have jeopardized the entire undertaking.

Hostage to political correctness

Peter Eisenman
U.S. architect Peter Eisenman designed the monument.Image: AP

U.S. architect Peter Eisenman, who designed the monument, welcomed the decision. Discussing the company's role in National Socialism was important in Germany, he said in an interview with German TV broadcaster ZDF. "One must always forgive. That is the essence if this monument," he added. Previously Eisenman had criticized the efforts to exclude Degussa and claimed that the project was becoming a hostage to political correctness.

Lea Rosh, the controversial initiator of the monument and a board member, said it was important that the monument be built. "The thought that Jewish people and the descendents of Holocaust victims won't come to the memorial is horrible to me," she said. Rosh, who strongly opposed Degussa's participation, said the memorial should to include documentation about the firm.

Three weeks ago foundation board members cancelled a contract with Degussa after objections surfaced against the firm coating the memorial to protect it from graffiti. But the discussion didn't end there. A Degussa-subsidiary, it was later discovered, also provided a product used to make the concrete foundation for the monument of some 2,700 pillars.

A foundation report estimated that the cost of the much-delayed monument would have increased by €2.34 million ($2.73 million) if Degussa did not provide the anti-graffiti coating. The monument is expected to cost €27.6 million and be completed in spring 2005. It has been in the planning for 15 years.

Rosh and Berlin Jewish leader Alexander Brenner, also a board member, had advocated preventing Degussa's further involvement, but not undoing the work it had already done.

"An encouraging signal"

But German Protestant Church Council head Wolfgang Huber appealed to include Degussa in the monument since it had engaged in a thorough examination of its past. "It would be an encouraging signal," the bishop wrote in a letter to Thierse.

The former Israeli ambassador to Berlin, Avi Primor, also spoke out in favor of Degussa being allowed to stay involved in the project. "Degussa is no longer the company it was during the Third Reich," he said in an interview with the German broadcaster ARD last week. He said it had made a significant contribution to redressing its past.

Degussa head Utz-Hellmuth Felcht said on Thursday that the firm was open to discussing its history and that in continuing to work on the memorial it could make a contribution to remenberance. Degussa was one of numerous German firms that paid into a government-administered fund to compensate World War II forced laborers several years ago.

IG Farben, once the world's biggest chemical maker, had a holding in Degesch, the Degussa unit that produced Zyklon B. After World War II, the Allies stripped IG Farben of its assets and transferred them to the three chemical firms Bayer, Hoechst (now Aventis) and BASF.