The Final Reckoning

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It was a fitting place to sign an agreement to compensate the hundreds of thousands of people who were forced laborers under Nazi rule: Hitler's Reichsbank, now reborn as Germany's Foreign Ministry. Present were representatives from the United States, Russia, Germany and East European nations, as well as more than two dozen lawyers representing former slaves and forced laborers. All that was missing was the money.

The historic agreement signed last week in Berlin requires that the German government and German industry each contribute about $2.4 billion to a foundation called Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future. The money will be divided among an estimated 240,000 surviving slave laborers, who lived and worked in concentration camps, and more than 1 million forced laborers, who were compelled to toil in German companies to free manpower for the Nazi war effort. Former slaves were slated to receive about $7,500 and forced laborers $2,500 apiece. "This closes one of the last open chapters of the Nazi past," said German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder after the signing. "We are putting down a durable marker of historic and moral responsibility."

Participants in the foundation include most of the bright stars of German industry such as Deutsche Bank, Lufthansa and the carmakers Volkswagen and DaimlerChrysler. The problem is that German industry is still far short of reaching its promised contribution. A spokesman for the fund said that of the 200,000 German companies that were approached by representatives of German industry since the foundation was established in February 1999, only 3,238 have agreed so far to join. They have chipped in about $1.5 billion, a little more than half the promised amount.

"I know the reticence of German industry leads to questions doubting whether it will stick to its commitments," said Otto Lambsdorff, the German government's representative in negotiations that led to the setting up of the foundation. "All representatives of the foundation are surprised and disappointed about this apparent reserve."

While the German government has been forthright in accepting responsibility for Nazi crimes, many Germans have been shocked by the unwillingness of German companies to come forward. The Nobel Prize-winning author Günter Grass published an appeal to all Germans to chip in $10 each to the fund, saying: "The Nazis committed their crimes in the name of all of us." He added that he was "outraged" at corporate attempts to evade responsibility.

Tagesspiegel, a Berlin newspaper, wrote to 12 companies asking why they had not joined the foundation. Only half responded: adidas-Salomon, maker of sneakers, said that the board of directors was currently weighing its participation, while Grünzweig & Hartmann, a producer of insulation, said it didn't feel obliged to contribute because it was part of a French firm in World War II, under "forced administration." Haribo, makers of the jelly bear candy sold around the world, was named in the German parliament as having used forced labor, a charge it denies. It says of the fund that "under the cover of alleged solidarity the thesis of collective guilt is being brought up again. There is no doubt about the suffering that existed but that cannot be righted now."

Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee's office in Berlin, says, "It is shameful that German companies are not showing a greater sense of moral responsibility." Berger said that of a list compiled by the ajc of 400 companies with ties to forced labor, only 199 have agreed to contribute. "Slave laborers are dying every day," said Rabbi Israel Miller, head of the Claims Conference, which represents many of the slave laborers. "Our obligation is to reach them quickly so that they will see some benefit in their lifetime."

One area still in dispute is the contribution of former state-owned companies such as Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Post and the German railways. They have expressed willingness to help, but the government decided that since they were state-owned until recently, the government's contribution would cover them. A number of German industry associations have suggested that the former state industries should be allowed to participate. "It is unbearable that the government forbids these companies from joining the foundation," they said in a joint statement. The government has been reluctant to allow the contributions because the payments are tax-deductible, meaning that taxpayers will end up paying three-quarters of the total in any case.

The deal provides for the lawyers present, who stand to earn $50 million for their help, to dismiss all pending lawsuits. The U.S. government has agreed to issue a "statement of interest" in which it asks U.S. courts to accept the payout as final reckoning for all former forced laborers. Some German companies had expressed concern that the statement was not legally binding. But as Manfred Gentz, a member of the board of DaimlerChrysler, noted after the signing, "legal peace does not reduce our historic responsibility." The pity is that so many German companies still fail to grasp that truth.

With reporting by Regine Wosnitza/Berlin