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Holocaust and Genocide Studies 17.2 (2003) 358-360
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Allianz and the German Insurance Business, 1933-1945, Gerald D. Feldman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2001), 625 pp., $60.00.
Confronted with restitution demands during the 1990s, many German corporations have chosen to revisit their Nazi past. Gerald Feldman's book Allianz and the German Insurance Business is a product of this effort. While his study focuses primarily on Allianz and its subsidiaries (the leading insurance concern in Germany), he sheds light on the private insurance industry generally. Feldman examines a number of topics including a history of the firm in the 1920s, biographical sketches of its most influential leaders, relations between the state and the insurance industry, Allianz's relations with its Jewish customers and personnel, the company's wartime expansion, and finally, Allianz's denazification and the process of restitution.
Feldman explores several aspects of Allianz's relationship with the Nazi regime. He points out that once the Nazis came to power, businessmen could not avoid them. But the ease with which most of the Allianz leadership accommodated the Nazis helped to legitimize the regime. Feldman explores this issue by examining the careers of Kurt Schmitt and Eduard Hilgard. Schmitt, who was general director of Allianz, served as Reich Economics Minister from June 1933 until January 1935. Schmitt is portrayed as an impulsive, naïve judge of politics, who approved of the Nazi anticommunist campaign, the rejection of the multiparty system, the fight against the "demoralization of youth," and the restriction of Jews' access to Germany's "public and intellectual life" (p. 58). During April 1933, Schmitt publicly called for "positive collaboration" with the new political order, a directive that became company policy (p. 65). Likewise, Eduard Hilgard, who took a pragmatic approach to the changing political conditions, became the leader of the Reich Group for Insurance as part of a larger effort to introduce the Nazi leadership principle into the economy. Hilgard, who served in this role throughout the regime's existence, later portrayed his service as a sacrifice made in order to protect private insurers from the threats of nationalization. In the process of navigating the polycratic features of governance, he claimed, he became deeply involved in the immoral actions of the Nazi regime.
In assessing Allianz's business behavior during the Third Reich, Feldman reminds us of the importance of context. Traditionally, the state was assigned a greater role in the economy than the other Western capitalist countries. Moreover, since 1914, the German business world had experienced unusually unstable conditions brought on by war, reconstruction, and political upheaval. Allianz was "not operating in a context [End Page 358] where either traditional business ethics or capitalist economic rationality counted for much anymore." While Allianz (and all private insurers) felt embattled by repeated threats to nationalize the industry and by requirements to invest in the German war economy, the company did thrive. Moreover, when Germany began to expand its territory, Allianz responded opportunistically. The leadership learned to use the language of the Third Reich, and conformed to an acceptable political behavior that, over time, became internalized within the company. Feldman suggests that whether or not the Allianz leadership truly was Nazified (party membership not constituting an accurate measurement) misses the point. He reminds us, "Opportunism requires an environment with at least some familiar and even congenial elements" to make it viable (p.279). Subsequently, Allianz contributed to the Nazi fulfillment of the "national community" and pursued dubious business deals.
Feldman is equally vigilant in contextualizing Allianz's treatment of Jews in its employment practices, property acquisitions, compensation for damages, and insurance policies. In all of these situations, he discovered that Allianz increasingly adopted antisemitic rhetoric. With respect to Jewish personnel, Feldman suggests that Allianz pretended as long as possible that there was "no Jewish question... It was a losing battle, but it was fought with some honor and attention to elementary decency" (p.125). The treatment of Jewish colleagues was in part dictated by their contributions to the concern, and differences existed among the branch offices...