Five leading companies in Germany adopted the leading definition of antisemitism Tuesday, in a joint declaration announced on the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The companies — Deutsche Bank, the automotive firms Daimler AG and Volkswagen, the state-owned railway Deutsche Bahn, and the sports club Borussia Dortmund — include those with admitted historical ties to the Nazi regime during World War Two.
Alongside the group Germany’s Friends of Yad Vashem, the corporations made the decision to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which has been adopted by Germany and 23 other European countries.
“We are acutely aware of our historical responsibility and are resolutely committed to a society and a future without hate and extremism,” said Deutsche Bahn CEO Richard Lutz in a statement. “With this joint declaration we express our solidarity with those confronted with antisemitism and we clearly commit to a Germany that is open to the world, tolerant and diverse, free of antisemitism and racism.”
Leading Jewish groups applauded the decision to endorse the Working Definition, with the American Jewish Committee calling it a “clear signal.”
“They are telling their employees worldwide, as well as their customers, that antisemitism has no place in their organizations,” said Dr. Remko Leemhuis, Director of AJC Berlin. “We look to many more companies and organizations taking similar action.”
Reaction was mixed from scholars of the role of German industry during the Holocaust and the second World War. Several of the companies behind the announcement have faced criticism over — and often admitted — their wartime activities.
“In general, of course I’m pleased when such companies take positive steps to acknowledge their difficult histories,” said Neil Gregor, an historian at the University of Southampton, whose book, Daimler-Benz in the Third Reich, examined how the manufacturer both aided and benefitted from the regime. “However, like many scholars in the field I think the statement concerned creates as many problems as it solves,” he told The Algemeiner.
“One suspects that commercial pragmatism, and the desire to avoid the greater controversy that would come with declining the invitation, is as much a driver of the decision to sign as anything else,” Gregor said.
According to a section on “Daimler-Benz in the Nazi Era” on its website, the auto company began increasing production of armaments for the regime in 1937, eventually using slave laborers taken from concentration camps and other prisons — who would later number nearly half of the company’s 63,610 employees.
A company-produced history of Deutsche Bank described “the darkest chapter” in the financial institution’s past, which included the dispossession of Jewish assets held by the bank, the purchase of gold taken from Holocaust victims, and loans granted to construction firms working at Auschwitz.
Volkswagen admitted its own use of wartime slave labor in response to a 1998 lawsuit, creating a $12 million fund to compensate surviving workers. And in 2008, the state-owned Deutsche Bahn railroad acknowledged that the tracks of its predecessor, the “Reichsbahn”, were integral to the “the industrial murder of millions.”
On Tuesday, those four corporations — plus the sports club Borussia Dortmund, which runs a soccer team in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia — released an online ceremony that included the antisemitism declaration, footage of a wreath laying event, and comments from employees.
“Antisemitism and racism have no place in our society. It is our responsibility and duty, as individuals and as a company, to take a clear stand against hatred and incitement,” said Ola Källenius, chairman of the Daimler board, in the Tuesday statement.
“Crises often awaken the best in people, but sometimes also the worst. It is up to us to keep history and its lessons alive,” said the chairman of Deutsche Bank’s supervisory board, Paul Achleitner.