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Probe of Nazi Business Dealings Shifting to Role of U.S. Companies

December 1, 1998
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The investigation into Nazi Germany’s business dealings, the bane of Swiss banks and a host of European companies in recent years, has found its way to American shores.

Historians and lawyers researching class-action lawsuits on behalf of former prisoners of war have uncovered evidence showing that two of America’s leading automakers collaborated with Nazi Germany, The Washington Post reported on Monday.

Documents from German and American archives show that American managers of Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. went along with the conversion of their German affiliates into military production plants, even as they were resisting calls by President Roosevelt to increase military production in their plants at home, the Post said.

Together, the subsidiaries of the two companies controlled 70 percent of the German automobile market in 1939, and as World War II began, they retooled themselves to supply war materiel to Hitler’s army.

A report by a U.S. army investigator in September 1945 accused the German branch of Ford of serving as “an arsenal of Nazism, at least for military vehicles” with the parent company’s “consent.” The report also noted that American Ford agreed to a complicated barter deal that gave Germany increased access to large quantities of strategic raw materials, notably rubber, the Post said.

Both Ford and GM deny they collaborated with the Nazis or that they significantly profited from the use of forced labor at their German subsidiaries during the war. They maintain they bear little responsibility for the operations of their German subsidiaries, saying they lost contact with them after the war began.

In a statement, GM said the claims are “slanderous and untrue and do a great disservice to the thousands of loyal GM employees and their families who worked for the U.S.-Allied cause during World War II.”

But documents uncovered by researchers for Washington attorney Michael Hausfeld, who earlier this year filed a class-action suit against Ford on behalf of a former Russian prisoner and forced laborer, show that the parent companies continued to do business with the Nazi regime and reaped profits from the German affiliates’ use of forced labor.

The revelation comes as delegates from 44 nations assembled this week in Washington for an international conference on Holocaust-era assets. The four- day conference, which will also involve several Jewish groups, will focus on looted artworks and unpaid life and property insurance claims, while underscoring the importance of Holocaust education.

It also comes as the United States begins to take a closer look at its own dealings during and after World War II, focusing on the way it handled Holocaust victims’ assets.

President Clinton on Monday named World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman as chairman of a newly created presidential commission to examine Holocaust victims’ assets in the United States. The commission will look for dormant bank accounts, artworks, insurance policies, looted gold and a range of other assets that made their way to the United States and provide a report to the president by the end of next year.

Other appointees to the commission include Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, former U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), and Brandeis University President Jehuda Reinharz.

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