German car parts giant Continental confronts Nazi past | News | DW | 27.08.2020
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German car parts giant Continental confronts Nazi past

A new report reveals the key role Continental played in "Hitler's war machine." Besides making parts, the company ordered shoe sole tests at concentration camps where prisoners were forced to march or face execution.

Car parts producer Continental released the results of a sweeping study into the company's Nazi history on Thursday, becoming the latest German company to grapple with its dark past.

The company tasked historian Paul Erker, a specialist in corporate history during the Nazi regime, with conducting an independent study into the company's relationship with the Nazis, how it profited and how its managers behaved. 

The result is an 800-page study that shows the company was a "pillar of the National Socialist armaments and war economy," Erker said.

The results of the study clearly show that "Continental was an important part of Hitler's war machine," the company's chief executive Elmar Degenhart said.

Read more:  The German company that enabled the Holocaust

Thousands of forced laborers

At the time, Continental was the world's biggest producer of rubber materials, supplying tires, car parts and rubber soles for soldiers' boots, among other items.

The firm not only monetarily profited from outfitting Hitler's armies, but also from the cheap labor from occupied territories in Belgium as well as French and Russian prisoners of war.

Some 10,000 forced laborers worked in Continental's factories during World War II, who suffered under "degrading working and living conditions." 

Towards the end of the war, the company used concentration camp prisoners in its factories as well, with the prisoners "exploited and mistreated until exhaustion or death."

Read more:  German billionaire family to donate $11M over Nazi past

Concentration camp prisoners forced to test products

An especially gruesome part of the report details how Continental's rubber shoe soles were tested at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin.

Prisoners were forced to march 30 to 40 kilometers (19 to 25 miles) per day around the camp's courtyard to the sound of German marching songs — any prisoners who slowed down or fell were executed by the camp's SS guards.

Continental also ordered special tests involving forced marches on the snow and ice, with many prisoners marching without socks and some walking up to 2,200 kilometers.

The 'Arbeit macht frei' sign on the gate of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. (imago/M. Müller)

Like in Auschwitz, the Sachsenhausen camp gate carried the cynical message 'Arbeit macht frei,' or 'Work sets you free'

Companies examining dark past

The study also shows that the company's managers were "actively involved" in the Nazi war effort, profiting from Hitler's armament policy and actively forcing Jewish workers and board members out of the company during the course of the 1930s.

"The study is a chance that we chose consciously to face our responsibility," Continental Chief Executive Degenhart said.

In the future, the company plans on integrating the results of the study into its professional development and training programs in order to actively inform its employees about the company's past.

Continental is the latest German company to grapple with its Nazi past, following similar moves from a series of companies including Volkswagen, Daimler, Deutsche Bank, Audi and food giant Dr. Oetker.

rs/msh (AFP, dpa, epd)