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Oct. 25, 1998

iF Magazine publishes honest, independent, investigative journalism.

Kohl's Defeat & Hitler's Ghost

By Jerry Meldon

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's defeat finally has ushered the World War II generation off the stage as leaders of major Western nations. For Germany, however, the change has a different significance than it did for the victorious Allies.

Adolf Hitler's long shadow extended over many of West Germany's post-war political leaders, especially after the Cold War brought a premature end to the de-nazification program. In the name of economic and political stability, the Allies struck deals with many of Hitler's supposedly less despicable accomplices, deals that shaped the Kohl era.

Kohl himself was not implicated in the crimes of World War II. He counted himself lucky to have been under military age -- 15 years old -- when the war ended. Like many young Germans, he belonged to the Hitler Youth. But he shoulders no personal guilt from the war.

The same is not true for many of Kohl’s financial backers. Kohl was one of the Christian Democrats who benefitted from secret ties to former Nazi industrialists, the same men who assisted Hitler's rise to power in the 1920s and '30s.

Indeed, if the West had not relented on its German de-nazification program, Kohl might never have climbed to the pinnacle of national leadership, let alone come to dominate German politics for the past 16 years.

Through his career -- and his hushed connections to Hitler's old allies -- Kohl personified an ambivalent political class which, on one level, denounced the atrocities of the Holocaust while, on another, protected some of the business executives who benefitted from Jewish slave labor.

Kohl owed much of his political ascendance to one corporate giant which refused to pay reparations to wartime slave laborers, the powerful holding company known as the Flick Group. During his tenure, Kohl also rejected demands for slave-labor compensation through a government fund.

Yet, amid the laudatory press accounts of Kohl’s career, little has been written about these shadowy connections, how in the early 1970s, the Flick Group and other conservative industrialists tapped Kohl, then a little-known regional governor, for leadership of the Christian Democratic Party.

Forty years earlier, the Flick Group’s founder, Friedrich Flick, had been a pillar of the pre-war German steel industry and a bankroller of the Nazi Party. Flick was part of Heinrich Himmler's exclusive Circle of Friends, a group of wealthy Germans who made annual donations to Hitler's SS. [See Robert Wistrich’s Who’s Who in Nazi Germany.]

The financial backing helped Hitler consolidate political control over Germany and begin the persecution of European Jews. The money also earned Flick the opportunity to tour the Dachau concentration camp, presumably to view the source of his labor force. Through World War II, Flick kept his plants humming with the forced labor of some 48,000 workers. Four out of five of Germany’s slave laborers died. [See Wistrich.]

After the war, some industrialists stood trial along with Hitler’s political and military elites. At Nuremberg, the Allies sentenced Flick to seven years in prison for abusing slave laborers. But the Allies were not as harsh as they could have been. They let Flick retain one-third of his industrial holdings.

Soon, Washington was more worried about the rise of international communism than the residue of German fascism. With the start of the Cold War, the United States curtailed the de-nazification program in the name of stability. In 1950, John McCloy, U.S. high commissioner for Germany, granted Flick clemency and released him.

A free man, Flick set to work rebuilding his business empire. As the West German economy rose from the ashes, Flick bought interests in hundreds of firms, including major shares of Dynamit Nobel and Daimler-Benz.

His old connections and new investments transformed him, again, into a man of immense wealth and power.
But Flick could not fully escape his past. His surviving slave laborers and the descendants of those who died were demanding reparations for the wartime work at his plants and at other factories where Flick now was a major shareholder.

The Conference of Jewish Materials Claims approached Flick on behalf of 1,300 claimants. They sought $1.5 million from Dynamit Nobel, which then was 80 percent owned by Flick. As cited by Benjamin Ferencz in his book, Less Than Slaves, Dynamit Nobel subsidiaries had used war-time slave labor from Buchenwald and Dachau provided by the SS at the company's request.

Flick representatives negotiated with the Claims Conference for six years. McCloy, the former high commissioner, even returned to Germany in 1969 to help hammer out a settlement. But McCloy faced an unyielding Flick Group executive named Eberhard von Brauchitsch.

At one pivotal negotiating session, Ferencz wrote, "McCloy had been up late the night before [meeting with Flick representatives] and his stomach was upset. ... Von Brauchitsch pounded out his legal argument ... that the rejection of the claim was justified. ... What [McCloy] recalled most vividly was that during ... the von Brauchitsch tirade [McCloy had to] run out of the room several times to vomit."

Despite McCloy's determination, the final answer from Flick's negotiators was no. Flick was no longer a penitent who needed McCloy's mercy.

Just as Flick quickly had regained his form as a business tycoon, he also reestablished himself as a political kingmaker. The Flick Group was pouring money into the coffers of the Christian Democratic Party.

By the time of his death in 1972 at the age of 90, Flick left $1 billion to his playboy son and passed on to his corporate heirs a powerful network of political and financial influence.

When Willy Brandt's Social Democrats defeated the Christian Democrats in 1972, von Brauchitsch was among the West German industrialists who engineered a changing of the guard in the Christian Democratic leadership. The old Christian Democratic leader, Rainer Barzel, stepped down -- and into a lucrative post at a Frankfurt law firm. Barzel managed to earn $700,000 in legal fees from the Flick Group for what Der Spiegel depicted as phantom services.

The choice to replace Barzel was a little-known regional governor, named Helmut Kohl. Overnight, Kohl was a national figure.

In the years that followed, Kohl and Barzel returned the favors for their corporate patrons. According to Der Spiegel, Barzel exploited his political contacts to pass on inside scoops to Flick executives. Then, in 1976, at the Flick Group's urging, Kohl put Barzel in charge of a key legislative commission on national finances.

The Flick Group also built up its political chits in the Free Democratic Party, which was the junior partner in the Social Democrats’ ruling coalition.

According to handwritten notes by von Brauchitsch -- which later were obtained by German prosecutors -- the Flick Group enriched two finance ministers from the Free Democrats, Hans Friderich and Count Otto von Lambsdorff. The ministers had waived $175 million in taxes which the holding company should have paid on its 1974 sale of Daimler-Benz stock to Deutche Bank, for 20 times the purchase price.

Von Brauchitsch's diary also indicated that the Flick Group's generosity may have extended to Kohl. "I intend to fit out Herr Kohl exactly as we did the other gentlemen," the diary read.

Kohl later admitted to legislative investigators that he accepted secret Flick Group payments totaling $53,000 from 1977-79. But he claimed that he deposited the money in the Christian Democratic treasury.

The German press reported that the sums were nearly four times that amount, but no funds were traced to Kohl personally. The so-called "Wassergate" affair was soon forgotten.

In 1982, the Free Democrats -- apparently lured by the lucrative relationships available from thriving German industrialists -- abandoned the coalition with the Social Democrats. Kohl's Christian Democrat prevailed in the next election and formed a coalition with the Free Democrats.

Kohl's Cold War attitudes fit neatly with President Reagan's obsession with the Evil Empire. In 1985, in one of the most controversial actions of Reagan's presidency, Kohl persuaded Reagan to mark the 40th anniversary of the World War II armistice with a visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and the cemetery at Bitburg.

At Bitburg, Reagan joined in paying homage to German dead who included 47 members of the dreaded SS.
That same year, the Flick Group cashed out its astounding growth arising from post-war investments which were cobbled together by convicted war criminal Friedrich Flick. Deutsche Bank purchased the Flick Group for $2 billion. Only later did the bank pay surviving Dynamit Nobel slave laborers their long-awaited back pay, $2 million.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and Kohl rushed to reunite the two Germanies. His hasty actions and rosy promises have been blamed for Germany's current economic morass. The troubles include 20 percent unemployment in the East, a jobless rate that has sparked a rise in neo-Nazi "skinhead" violence against foreign-born workers.

On the issue of Nazi-era slave labor, Kohl remained adamant in rejecting proposals for a government-sponsored fund. Kohl argued that Germany already had paid tens of billions of dollars in reparations for the Holocaust and that enough was enough. [NYT, Oct. 20, 1998]

In September, Social Democrat Gerhard Schroeder finally ended Kohl's long reign. Schroeder won the national election by offering vague promises to resolve Germany's economic problems.

Since the election, however, Schroeder has moved to resolve class-action lawsuits stemming from the slave-labor issue. Schroeder arranged meetings with top industrialists to review options for settling the disputes.

The companies include such giants as the auto manufacturers, Daimler-Benz and BMW; the electronics giant Siemens; and chemical firms, such as Hoechst and BASF. They reportedly fear the suits could result in vast court-ordered compensation plus severe damage to corporate images.

Volkswagen already has announced a $20 million fund to settle claims by its former slave laborers.

With Kohl’s departure, Germany finally might be able to close this dark chapter of its history and exorcise one more ghost from Adolf Hitler’s fascist era.

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