- From Cooperation to Complicity: Degussa in the Third Reich
In 2003, the German chemical company Degussa found itself in the midst of a controversy over its production of an anti-graffiti coating for the Holocaust memorial under construction in Berlin. For a month, work on the monument's concrete pillars stopped as architects, politicians, and the press debated whether a company linked to the Holocaust should be involved in its memorialization. Building eventually resumed, with Degussa's continued participation, but not before the international public learned about the company's controversial history. That history is the subject of Peter Hayes's excellent new study.
Before Degussa's role in the Third Reich became the subject of headlines, few Anglo-American readers knew anything about the company. While students and scholars of the Holocaust were familiar with the names of German automobile firms, as well as Krupp and IG Farben (the latter with its immediate links to compulsory labor and death in Auschwitz), they were less aware of Degussa's relationship to Nazi crimes. Indeed, before Hitler came to power, it seemed unlikely that this company would become a major player in the German economy. In 1927, it ranked sixty-fourth [End Page 528] among the one hundred largest firms in Germany and near the bottom among the largest chemical companies. Yet as Hayes details, this situation changed dramatically over the next decade and a half. Through the end of World War II, Degussa had grown at a remarkable rate. But it also bore a burden of complicity as heavy as any other German firm's: it had produced materials for an expansionist war, "Aryanized" thirteen Jewish firms, exploited thousands of forced laborers, processed gold dental fillings ripped from the mouths of death-camp inmates, and supplied (through its subsidiary) the Zyklon B gas used to murder Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Majdanek. How did a company that began as a precious metals smeltery in the second half of the nineteenth century grow into a diversified firm that could offer so many products and services to a murderous regime? How did pragmatic businessmen become involved in such ghastly crimes?
In exploring these questions, Hayes lays to rest certain myths that persist with respect to many German corporations during the Third Reich. Degussa was not a company run by avid Nazis who plotted Hitler's rise to power and then embraced wholesale the ideological aims of the regime. Rather, its managers soberly measured the risks and opportunities offered by an increasingly interventionist state. In Hayes's portrait we have company leaders uttering antisemitic words on one occasion but helping Jewish board members emigrate on another; or the company purchasing a Jewish firm at a fair market value in one instance and aggressively exploiting the regime's persecution of Jews for profit in another. The moral grey areas that define Degussa's story during the Third Reich make for gripping reading. This was a firm that saw prospects for growth within a new political setting and took advantage of them with great success—albeit under mounting pressure as Germany prepared for war and transformed the economy toward the end of the 1930s into one based on Aryanization, autarky, and armament (p. 15). Hayes's evidence demonstrates that the firm followed the trajectory described in the book's title. Like many corporations, Degussa was labelled a "Jewish firm" early in the Nazi regime, partly due to the presence of Jews on the company board, but also due to the assessment by a Nazi newspaper editor that "gold is, anyway, a Jewish invention and anything that trades in gold is a Jewish institution" (p. 39). After overcoming these suspicions, Degussa travelled a halting path toward cooperation with the regime. All the while, it tried to balance the demands of its shareholders and stakeholders against those of a regime that gradually abandoned recognizable forms of economic rationality. In its factories and those of its subsidiaries, the company manufactured components for tires, flame throwers, metal hardeners, gas masks...