Monuments Are Taken Down But Why Are Major Companies Left Untouched?

Elad Simchayoff

Corporations with dark pasts should own up to them and help make amends

The Continental's Report

Car part maker, Continental AG, is one of the largest in the world. Founded in 1871 as a rubber manufacturer, the company later shifted its production into tires and started growing rapidly. Becoming a global brand with almost 250k workers, Continental is now worth over 40 billion Euros. It’s massive and hugely successful to this day, but it has a dark and sinister past that the corporation recently had to own up to.

For the past 4 years, Prof. Paul Erker, an expert in corporate history during the Nazi era, has been scrutinizing Continental’s history, and specifically its ties with the Third Reich and involvement in Nazi war crimes. Prof. Erker has been conducting his research on behalf of the Continental corporation.

On 27 August 2020, the full, 870-page study was revealed. Titled “Supplier for Hitler’s War. The Continental Corporation in the Nazi-Era”, the study proved that Continental was a major part of Hitler’s war machine.

“Continental went on to become one of the most important suppliers of key armament products for the Nazi regime… It was the network of highly specialized, mass-producing companies such as Continental, which, as a supplier industry, formed the backbone of the Nazi war economy and were largely responsible for its initial successes”.

The author writes that the company’s executive board had “welcomed the Nazi seizure of power with euphoria”. The company actively wooed Nazi authorities for orders and cooperation. The company was more than willing to act according to Nazi beliefs, part out of economic interest but also out of political and ideological sympathy.

“Continental, in turn, tried in many instances to put entrepreneurial self-interest above the regime’s interests, but with a mixture of overzealous obedience and internal pressures, soon adapted to the totalitarian Nazi system. This also included the removal of Jews from the corporate management and supervisory board”.

The relationship was fruitful and Continental’s supply to the Nazi regime was varied, ranging from tires, hoses, gas masks, and mainly shoe soles. This, the study finds, were products made and tested by 10,000 forced laborers during WW2. During the later years of the war, these workers were mostly made of prisoners from Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Hundreds of people were made to march around the camp’s parade ground, 25 miles each day, to test the rubber boots made for the German army. Other prisoners were made to walk 1,400 miles through snow and water, Those who fell to the ground were executed by Nazi soldiers. The company, the study concludes, was aware and involved.

“The working and living conditions of the forced laborers were inhumane. Continental management was actively involved in the process and contributed to the ever more extreme forms of manpower mobilization”.


Continental is not alone. Dozens of companies, some of which are huge international brands to this day, cooperated with the Nazis. In recent years many of them are going through what is called in German Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung — coping with the past.

It’s a tricky subject, especially when your past includes helping the Nazis. For many years corporations tried to ignore it, or hide it. In 2015 an ad celebrating the 75th anniversary of the soft drink Fanta caused controversy and was eventually pulled by Coca-Cola. The ad went back to the origins of Fanta, explaining that the idea for the drink came up as a result of the German market not able to get hold of Coca-Cola syrup. The company forgot to mention, though, that the reason for that was the international trade embargo against Nazi-controlled Germany.

Volkswagen was the first. The car manufacturer commissioned a world-known historian to write a thorough report about its history. It was published in 1996, and some of the corporate’s links to the Nazi regime, and to Hitler himself, could be found on their official website. This wasn’t the case with most companies though. Some thought that paying millionsto survivors, living family members or charities would help make the past go away quietly.

In 2016, BMW celebrated its 100th anniversary and admitted its “profound regret” for the use of forced laborers from concentration camps during the Holocaust. Some years earlier, the company’s owning family broke its decades-long silence in the matter and admitted direct links to crimes committed by the Nazis.

International fashion label Hugo Boss decided to own up to its Nazi past in recent years as well. The company’s founder, Hugo Boss, was a member of the Nazi party and used dozens of forced laborers to produce uniforms for the army and SS. The company’s spokesperson later conveyed in frustration that although the current owners are not tied to the Hugo Boss family the corporation’s brand is stained.

Statutes Come Down, Corporations Stay

Corporations with dark pasts are not solely a matter of Germany and the Nazis. In the US, for example, J.P Morgan apologized for its contribution to the slave trade. Lehman brothers also admitted to had profited from slavery. There are more, you all know them.

In recent months, monuments and statues honoring the confederacy and slave-traders were toppled in protest all over the world. And yet, the discussion rarely expended to current active corporations being tied with some of the darkest acts of human kind’s recent history.

Most of the companies that decided to own up to their past did that after being almost forced to. It is much easier for protestors to topple statues, but taking down corporations is almost impossible. These companies are here to stay, but in times of social awakening in many parts of the world, we need to demand that they act differently.

Firstly, corporations with dark pasts should own up to it. They should acknowledge it and help make amends. International successful brands that made their fortune on the foundations of evil should now do a lot more to give back to the community, educate and help prevent past mistakes happen in the future.

When speaking about the Continental report in a press conference, Dr. Ariane Reinhart, Executive Board member for Human Relations at the company said: “Corporate cultures can quickly topple under pressure from political regimes and opposing social influences”. This is a bleak and frightening observation. In search of growth and power, corporations might still be susceptible and willing to cooperate with forces who seek to cause harm. It’s not just a matter of the past, it’s happening as we speak.

Photo: Nate Johnston on Unsplash

Comments / 2

Published by

I love writing about what I love. Journalist. Always curious. Israeli born, London based. Father, Husband, and a dog person.


More from Elad Simchayoff

Comments / 0