Notes on Poisons and Profits: Germany Almost Settles Up with Polish Labor, 1939-91

Notes on Poisons and Profits: Germany Almost Settles Up With Polish Labor, 1939-91

Philip Glouchevitch, in Juggernaut: The German Way of Business (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992, 165-79), reports on how Germany, as of 1991, had yet to settle all of its debts to the pitiful Polish slave laborers in its concentration camps in Eastern Europe during the Second World War:

"The headlines screamed out the awful fact--secret chemical weapons sales to the Iraqis--for all the world to read just months before the start of the 1991 Gulf War, in which American and other allied forces--but no Germans--routed the Iraqi army from Kuwait. Only a year earlier, similar headlines announced taht chemical plants had been shipped from Germany to Libya. On both occasions, a handful of Mittelstand companies and some lax governmental supervision had succeeded in crippling the worldwide image of German business in a few electronic seconds it takes for news to travel around the globe. Where once people had thought of quality and efficiency, suddenly they thought of amorality and greed and--worst of all--the Holocaust.

"Try as the Germans might to atone for their dark past, all it takes is a few missteps for the specter of the Holocaust to raise its ugly head once again. With the revelations about German chemical plants in Iraq and Libya, people everywhere raised an all-too-familiar question: 'What's wrong with Germany?' The logic is inevitable: gassing millions of Jews and other 'undesirables' at Auschwitz and Treblinka apparently wasn't enough for the Germans; German businessmen seem to be picking up where Hitler left off. Unscrupulously, remorselessly, shamelessly, German capitalists have provided Arab tyrants like Moamar Khaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq the means to produce poison gas to kill more Jews or Kurds--even Americans. The motive? Mere profit. Never mind that German-built plants had been built, ostensibly, to produce pesticides. The heavy anti-aircraft guns surrounding the factories at Samarra in Iraq and Rabita in Libya left little doubt as to the true purpose of the plants. Later revelations linked German companies to Iraqi attempts to build an atomic bomb.

"A similar logic pervades another extremely sensitive issue in German business circles: the plight of the millions of people forced to labor for the Third Reich's war effort. Virtually all of the major German corporations used foreign civilians as forced labor during the war: Volkswagen, Siemens, BMW, Daimler-Benz, AEG (now part of Daimler-Benz), Rheinmetall, Krupp, Koelckner, IG Farben (now split into BASF, Hoechst, and Bayer) and many, many others. This dark episode in German corporate history is still a smoldering issue, as the surviving victims of the forced labor pursue a long, lonely quest for recognition.

"As a nation, Germany will never be severed entirely from its brutal, terrifying past. Yet the extent to which the sins of the father have been visited upon the sons whenever such sensitive issues arise seems unfair to many Germans. What more can they do to live down that past? It's an important question for Germany in general and German business in particular: at stake is not only their reputation, but continuing success in world markets as well.

"Sleeping With the Enemy: Like the holocaust itself, the highly emotional subject of chemical weapons cannot help but bring out the worst in everyone. The Germans themselves developed mustard gas, the first chemical weapon, during World War I; its use by both sides cost nearly 20,000 soldiers their lives and over 1 million their health. Death by mustard gas, which breaks donw a person's immune system, was considered too grisly and unsportsmanlike--compared to bleeding to death from bayonet, bullet or shrapnel wounds--that an international convention was drafted in 1925 prohibiting the use of chemical weapons. Since that time, theworld's diplomats have done their best to limit chemical weapons, albeit withmixed results. In the late 1930's, German scientists working for IG Farben developed nerve gas, which the Nazis used as well as hydrogen cyanide as part of their 'final solution.' Other, more limited uses of chemical weapons have occurred since World War II, most recently by Saddam Hussein in 1987 against Kurds in northern Iraq and against the Iranian Army during their eight-year war. The nerve gas Hussein used was presumably produced in Iraq with German machinery.

". . . The laws governing German weapons exports are generally far more restrictive than those in the United States or other European countries. Unfortunately, the Germans only belatedly got around to controlling 'dual use,' that is, civilian and military, facilities like chemical plants and nuclear technology.\par \tab "A chemical plant waiting to be shipped doesn't look terribly threatening: some pumps, pipes, storage tanks, electronic control instruments and the like. And because chemicals used in pesticide production and nerve gas production are virtually identical, a factory's true function is not always evident until it is actually built. Only subtle differences, like the size of the ventilation system or the absence of a centrifuge, can tip off an investigator. Controlling chemical plant exports demands a great deal of technical expertise.

"Be that as it may, there is more to the story. The problem, in part, was philosophical. Before 1984, German law prohibited exports of dual-use goods only if guilt expressly to produce weaponry. That's not much of a constraint in a highly-technological world where such distinctions can be tragically unclear. In 1984, the law was modified to prohibit the export without governmental authorization of equipment capable of being made suitable for military purposes. Yet at the same time, the German agency in charge of supervising such exports, the Bundesamt Wirtschaft (BAW) was sadly understaffed: throughout the 1980s, only some six people were responsible for supervising all exports involving potentially sensitive chemical and nuclear technology. It would seem that the world's leading export nation was far more concerned with moving the merchandise than with inspecting it."

. . . [It is] abundantly clear that the German government ignored repeated warnings of German wrongdoing.

"As early as 1982, the German embassy in Baghdad had been tipped off that the Iraqis were planning to manufacture chemical weapons in Samarra, some sixty miles to the north of Baghdad. Two years later the CIA presented the German government officials with evidence that nerve gas was indeed being produced in Samarra--and with German technology. German inspectors were dispatched to Samarra to investigate . . .

The invesigators conclusion: the plant was not outfitted for weapons production.

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