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Report: Ford Had No Control over Slave Labor at Its German Subsidiary

December 7, 2001
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The Ford Motor Co. has released a study that it says proves what the company has maintained all along — that it was not responsible for the wartime activities of its German subsidiary.

The report, released this week after more than three years of research that cost millions of dollars, focused on the subsidiary’s use of slave and forced labor during the Holocaust.

The report concludes that Ford’s U.S. headquarters had no control over what happened at the subsidiary, Ford- Werke, and that it did not profit from wartime operations at the German plant.

The report also indicates that all companies operating in Germany during the war had to use labor provided by the German government.

“The use of forced and slave labor in Germany, including at Ford-Werke, was wrong and cannot be justified,” said John Rintamaki, Ford’s chief of staff. “The Nazi regime chose to provide forced and slave laborers to industry.”

Although Ford maintained ownership of the subsidiary in Cologne throughout the war, Ford officials insisted this week — as they have for years — that the U.S. headquarters had no control over the subsidiary’s operations.

Ford spokesman Tom Hoyt said Ford did not receive dividends during the war years, and that the company started to lose control over the subsidiary in the early 1930s.

“Ownership didn’t mean control,” he said.

Jewish organizations reacted to the report somewhat differently.

“This highlights the need for an honest and open accounting of some U.S. companies’ involvement in the Nazi era,” said Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference. “These American businesses must face up to the moral issues of their past, and, where appropriate, extend some form of compensation to victims of forced and slave labor.”

Ford’s acknowledgment that it retained majority ownership of the subsidiary “goes directly to the question of its responsibility for the use of forced labor,” he said.

The report includes Ford Motor Company correspondence, reports and financial records, military reports, ledgers, oral histories and interviews.

More than 45 archivists, historians, researchers and translators worked in teams based in Dearborn, Mich. — where Ford has its headquarters — Washington and Germany.

Simon Reich, one of the independent experts Ford hired to watch over the development and release of the report, said the report sets the model for other companies to deal with their pasts.

However, the World Jewish Congress criticized the study, saying it should have been done independently and supervised jointly by Ford and Jewish organizations.

“The study in itself is valuable insofar as it can be independently reviewed in a process acceptable to victims and other relevant parties,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress. “The subject of an investigation cannot decide who are the independent experts.”

The question of Ford’s wartime culpability made headlines in March 1998, when a Russian woman who was forced to work at Ford-Werke sued Ford in a U.S. federal court in New Jersey for back pay and punitive damages.

That suit, which was later joined by other slave laborers, was dismissed in 1999, when the judge ruled that the claims were filed after the expiration of time limits imposed under U.S. and German law.

The total number of laborers at Ford-Werke is unknown, but it is estimated that the Ford subsidiary employed 4,000-5,000 workers over the course of the war. The highest confirmed number at any one time during the war was between 2,000 and 2,500.

Forced labor was used most of the time, but inmates from the Buchenwald concentration camp worked as slave laborers at Ford-Werke late in the war.

None of the laborers was Jewish.

Ford-Werke, along with such giants as Siemens, Krupp and IG Farben, was among 400 German enterprises that used forced and slave labor.

While not admitting any culpability, Ford has made a number of contributions in the name of corporate responsibility. Ford contributed $13 million to a $5 billion fund created by the German government and industry for slave and forced laborers.

Along with the report’s release on Monday, Ford announced that it is donating $4 million toward human rights studies, primarily focusing on the issue of slave and forced labor.

The company also is establishing a new $2 million center to be affiliated with a university, and it plans to give $2 million to a humanitarian fund at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that helps Holocaust survivors.

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