Continental Commissions Curious Study About Its Own Nazi History
While we appreciate anyone taking an active interest in automotive history, any German conglomerate with an industrial history dating back to 1933 or before has a good chance of having an incredibly dark stain on their permanent record.
Daimler, Volkswagen, and BMW all held ties to the Nazi regime and utilized forced labor (slaves) during World War II. While this issue is infrequently brought up, it’s not exactly being hidden from the public either. For example, Daimler has a page devoted to the period on its corporate website and previously offered aid to the surviving workers whose rights it violated via various foundations.
Even though this study could be chalked up to some empty virtue signaling on behalf of Continental, the company said it was about showing how vulnerable businesses are to social and political corruption. Considering how easily firms are swayed by the media or present-day social movements, that’s probably not a bad idea — and extremely timely to boot.
BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and VW were recently accused by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute of using forced labor in Asia after discovering the Chinese Communist Party was transporting thousands of Uighurs out of concentration camps in Xinjiang to work at various facilities. That study also named Adidas, Apple, Gap, Geely Auto, Huawei, Mitsubishi, Nike, Samsung, Sony, and more to prove how widespread the matter had become. Even General Motors and its Chinese partners were said to have connections to the scandal.
According to the study, Continental used a total of around 10,000 forced laborers during the Second World War. Their number fluctuated substantially. Their origins were diverse and ranged from Italian “young fascists” to temporary workers from occupied Belgium and French and Russian prisoners of war. Gradually, the nature of their deployment became more and more radical. In the final years of the war, for example, it was concentration camp prisoners who were used in the production of gas masks and in the relocation of production underground. These people were subjected to inhumane living and working conditions. The Continental management was actively involved in this process and contributed to the gradual radicalization of the mobilized workforce. “At Continental there were no ominous signs of a systematic system of repression, but nevertheless there were dynamics of their own on the part of individual functionaries,” comments Erker in the study on the use of forced labor in the company. In this context, he also documents Continental’s involvement in shoe testing tracks, where concentration camp prisoners were exploited and maltreated to the point of debilitation and death.
“This shows how corporate cultures can quickly topple under pressure from political regimes and opposing social influences,” said Dr. Ariane Reinhart, Continental Executive Board member for Human Relations. “For this reason, corporate cultures must be constantly re-examined, strengthened and continuously developed. This includes a healthy culture of remembrance in order to draw from the past the certainty for our identity today and the lessons for the present and future.”
Continental said it wishes to be extremely clear about its own history, noting that some of its current subsidiaries tussled with the Nazi regime more than others. It also stressed that it needed a “starting point for stimulating a debate on corporate social responsibility and for integrating it internally into our corporate strategy.” While we’re not sure how useful (or wise) carrying around a bunch of corporate guilt is going to be for a business that embraced the banality of evil several generations prior, using its historical knowledge to avoid finding itself embracing similar behaviors today is something that’s incredibly easy to endorse.
Western companies currently allow themselves to to be corrupted by totalitarian regimes, and we’re kind of hoping that was Continental’s point here — rather than just trying to score brownie points by reminding everyone that the Nazis were bad. Even though we know the business is having a rough go of it at the moment, we wouldn’t want to be so cynical as to presume this was all in service of gaining media attention. Continental at least has decided to sponsor the new Siegmund Seligmann Scholarship, which promotes research on economic and corporate history during the Nazi era, and create a commemorative plaque with the names of the forced laborers uncovered in the research.