IG Farben, business that aided Nazis, tries to regain East German properties

December 12, 1991|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Special to The Sun

BERLIN B — BERLIN -- Although ordered to be dissolved more than 40 years ago, a German company that produced poison gas for Nazi death camps is still alive and now prospering thanks to German unification.

IG Farben, which was considered such a pillar of Nazism that Allied administrators ordered it to be broken up and sold off, is trying to postpone its end by regaining property it lost to the Communists in East Germany.

The company is thought to have a good chance of regaining some of the 37 million acres of land and two mammoth chemical works it once owned in the East.

But the move, announced at a recent stockholders' meeting, has outraged World War II survivors, who point out that IG Farben produced the Zyklon B cyanide gas used in Nazi death camps, DTC developed synthetic rubber for the war machine, helped finance the Nazi takeover of power in 1933 and eagerly made use of slave laborers from the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"Although many other German companies were involved in these sort of practices, IG Farben became a symbol. To allow it to continue to exist is a monstrosity," said Tjarg Kunstreich, a spokesman for the Auschwitz Committee.

The company's key role in supporting the Nazis made it the first target of Allied denazification efforts. IG Farben managers were tried as war criminals and the company broken up into smaller chemical companies.

In 1952 the IG Farben in Liquidation stock company was set up to sell the giant cartel's remaining assets and compensate victims. Approximately $20 million was paid out.

Thanks to astute managing of the remaining assets of $75 million and countless legal claims by former IG Farben employees wanting pensions, IG Farben in Liquidation survived into the 1980s. In 1989, company officials said the remaining property finally would be sold off by this year.

But with unification, the company has at least temporarily reversed gears and now is trying to regain the lost property, develop it and sell it off at a profit. Company managers say they owe it to their shareholders to do this and maintain that in the end IG Farben will be dissolved.

"The goal remains liquidation, but this will now take years," said board member Ernst-Joachim Bartels.

This means years more work for the liquidation team and potentially huge profits for the shareholders. The company's bright prospects have pushed up its stock prices from $7 a share in the mid-1980s to $15 -- a good 100 percent increase for shareholders of what was supposed to be a company liquidated decades ago.

At the same time, the former forced laborers have received little. The $20 million that was paid out averages to only a few hundred dollars per worker.

This has caused a chorus of protest against IG Farben's plans. The German Federation of Unions, the Protestant Church and the Green party have called on IG Farben to use its current assets of $70 million to pay survivors.

Mr. Bartels, however, said the company is being unfairly criticized. Not only has it compensated victims, but most of the former giant's assets were turned over to BASF, Hoechst and Bayer.

"Claims should be made there," Mr. Bartels said. "They have the property and means to help."

Although Mr. Bartels said IG Farben's history was "terrible," he said it was like blaming the owner of a knife factory for a stabbing death.

This attitude toward the past was reflected at the stockholders' meeting.

The 500 stockholders studiously ignored the 200 demonstrators shouting "Shame, shame." Then inside the meeting room, when Auschwitz survivor Hans Frankenthal tried to get up to criticize the company's new plans, they found their voices. Someone shouted, "Stop it," another said, "That was 50 years ago!" while a third yelled, "Throw the guy out."

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