During World War II, about 12 million people were kidnapped from their homes across Europe and beyond and forced to work for the Nazi regime in Germany. The slaves were not only put to work in camps, the most infamous of applications of forced labor, but in all areas of German industry.
"Employment of foreign forced laborers was not only limited to large-scale enterprises," said history professor Ulrich Herbert of the University of Freiburg. "It was applied throughout the whole economy; from the small farm and locksmith's shop with just six workers, to the national railway system, the local authority districts, the big armament companies and also many private households."
It took 55 years until compensation became an issue. Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic-Green party coalition government, in cooperation with German industry, set up the "Recollection, Responsibility and Future" foundation in 2000, which had the task of raising a total of 5 billion euros ($ 6 billion) to cover all the claims. Since it was set up, more than 6,500 enterprises have contributed to the fund.
At first, the 2.5 billion euros to which German industry had committed itself began to accumulate slowly, even though the money itself, as a donation, was tax deductible, and companies that participated received protection from further legal action concerning their use of slave labor during the war.
Companies refused to accept responsibility
Many enterprises had refused for years to help the former forced laborers. Though the Nazi regime lost the war, German companies continued to profit from forced labor. German industrial wealth was 17 times larger after the war than in 1939. For decades, the companies' executive boards avoided paying victims compensation by saying they were compelled to use slave labor.
Despite the difficulties in raising the money and getting companies to accept responsibility, the final payments are due to be paid during the autumn of 2005. The former forced laborers are each eligible for around 7,700 euros. The heirs of those who have passed away can claim their relatives' shares.
"Although the payment is in one sense largely symbolic, it has made a difference for many elderly and in some cases very needy people," said Brunson McKinley, director-general of the International Organization for Migration.
Unclaimed funds are due to be channeled into social projects. "This money will be made available to partner organizations for social purposes, for old people's homes, medical services, for providing wheelchairs, hearing aids, etc," said foundation chairman Hans-Otto Brautigam.
Final payment must not be the end, says fund chief
He said the compensation payments are recognition by both the German government and its people of the immense suffering and injustice inflicted on the victims of the Nazi regime. He acknowledged that this recognition is long overdue, but hoped it is not too late.
"In a political and in a moral sense, this chapter will never be closed," he said. "What is at stake here -- and this is the responsibility of our generation and future generations -- is to keep these very tragic events, these human rights violations firmly in the national memory."
Brautigam stressed that future generations must know their history and understand why such things happened. He said he believes the German people have a responsibility to see to it that the sort of atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis under Adolf Hitler are never repeated.