Dr. Warren Blumenfeld explains the importance of holding corporations responsible for their participation in past atrocities.
Mitt Romney asserted in a campaign stop at the Iowa State Fair when he was running for the Presidency in 2012 that “corporations are people.” While I certainly do not subscribe to Romney’s assessment per se, on at least one basic level I can see how individuals and corporations compare: both have histories of which they are responsible.
In the case of individuals, it is often clear when attempting to assess responsibility for past transgressions, but for corporations, this can be difficult. We must ask ourselves, therefore, larger critical ethical questions: What is, if any, the liability of corporations for committing past crimes that occurred even before some of the current officials sat at the helm, sometimes even before they were merely a gleam in their birth parents’ eyes? What is the liability of corporations that committed past offenses before these actions were actually codified as violations in legal statutes? And do the actual targets of these corporate activities as well as their descendants deserve a formal apology and monetary compensation?
Some of the targets of this oppression have held corporations accountable. I just signed an important petition organized by Leo Bretholz, a survivor of the Nazi horrors. As German troops transported him along with 1000 other Jews on railway cars headed to the killing fields of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, 21-year-old Leo somehow leapt from the stiflingly overcrowded train to freedom. He later learned that beside himself, only five others aboard that transport survived the war.
The railway was run by the French company, SNCF, which carried approximately 76,000 people, including 11,000 children and U.S. and other Allied pilots shot down over France toward Nazi death camps. The company received compensation from the German Reich depending on the number of people it conveyed and the distance it traveled. Though other companies have since paid some compensation for its involvement in the atrocities, SNCF has refused to do so.
Leo Bretholz has been circulating his petition demanding the company pay reparations as a condition for the city government of Baltimore, Maryland, consideration of a bid offered by SNCF and its U.S. subsidiary, Keolis, for a lucrative contract. According to Leo:
It is simply unconscionable that SNCF’s American subsidiary is now competing to build and operate the light-rail Purple Line in my home state of Maryland—valued at more than $6 billion and one of the single biggest contracts in state history – while refusing to be held accountable.
Governments have paid settlements to the victims of its cruelty. For example, following World War II, Allied governments through provisions reached at the Potsdam Conference, ordered Germany to pay the World Jewish Congress and later Israeli reparations for confiscated Jewish property under the provisions of the Reich’s so-called Nuremberg laws, and for the forced labor and persecution of Jews and some of the other groups targeted by the Nazis, though unfortunately excluding homosexuals and Roma people. Other governments, including Poland and the Netherlands, eventually were awarded either monetary remuneration or the annexation of land.
In addition, in 1988 the United States government finally issued a formal apology and financial compensation of $20,000 to the over 100,000 survivors of the horrendous incarceration at so-called “internment camps” of Japanese Americans during World War II, which resulted from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066.
Some of the many other companies found doing business with the Nazi regime included General Motors, Ford, and Shell Oil. Following the War, the U.S. government accused General Electric of criminal conspiracy with Krupp, the German munitions company, whose partnership arrangement artificially inflated the U.S. war budget and assisted the Nazi government in rearming Germany.
Records attest to other companies serving as instruments of oppression in other times and places. For example, in 1856, the Mobile & Girard Railroad offered “owners” $180 a year to rent out the people they enslaved for the construction crews on their railroads. In today’s terms, this would be the equivalent of about $3,400. The Mobile & Girard Railroad included just one of a total of 39 lines that today comprise the Norfolk Southern built with enslaved labor.
In addition, sources have discovered a number of insurance companies directly tied to the institution of slavery, including Aetna, New York Life, AIG, and the financial corporations J. P. Morgan Chase Manhattan Bank and FleetBoston Financial Group.
Hearing about the atrocities wrought against my family in Poland and Belgium before and during World War II, I have done what I could throughout my life to understand those evil times. Once growing up with my maternal grandfather, Simon, who lost most of his family to the Nazis, I recall a conversation, or should I say an argument, between Simon and my sister, Susan, in which he voiced his immediate and vehement protest when Susan brought up the notion of purchasing a Volkswagen. Also, my father always warned us against ever purchasing a product from the Ford Motor Company because of Henry Ford’s legendary anti-Jewish attitudes and actions.
Ford actively promoted the notion that Jews controlled worldwide finance. He had the Protocols of the Elders of Zion translated into English. This was a document written anonymously by someone from the Ochrana—the Russian secret police—to influence the policies of Czar Nicholas II regarding Jews. It comprised the alleged minutes of a supposed conference where rabbis plotted how Jews would overtake and dominate the world. Ford thereby introduced the Protocols to a large U.S. audience through his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, and through a series of pamphlets, which together formed his book The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem. In 1938, Hitler presented Ford with the highest award given to a non-German, and at the Nuremberg tribunal following World War II, Baldur von Shirach, Hitler’s youth leader, asserted that he had become “Jew-wise” through reading Ford’s writings.
Toward the closing days of my father’s life, he entered a contest run by a local automobile dealership, and he was the big winner of an expensive Ford minivan. To me, as well as to my father, this was his final strike against Henry Ford.
And for Leo Bretholz, he continues to speak up and to hold people and companies responsible so we can one day live in an age when the promise of “never again” is realized:
I am almost 93 years old now. If I hadn’t jumped off that train, I would have died when I was 21. In whatever time I have left, I will keep telling my story, and keep fighting for what is right. When I speak to young people about what happened to me, I tell them, each of you can make a little difference in the future. Each of you makes a little difference, but when you take it collectively, it becomes a big difference.
You can sign the petition here.
Photo: Henry Ford/AP File