75th anniversary of the end of World War II

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Our history. Our responsibility.

May 8 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, the worst catastrophe in human history, which claimed more than 60 million lives. The participants included not only military leaders and politicians but also German companies, which helped to consolidate the power of the National Socialists and became collaborators of the Nazi regime. Our company and its decision-makers at that time were also implicated in this collaboration. On the occasion of this memorial year we want to look back at our own history, but also to ask what lessons for our own time have been drawn from what happened back then.

Today the role played by the German business community in National Socialism has been extensively studied and historically documented. Researchers have left no doubt that Hitler’s dictatorship and the penetration of Nazi ideology into almost every area of society would not have been possible without the willing participation of the traditional elites of the Weimar Republic. Through large-scale infrastructure projects such as the autobahns crisscrossing the country and the comprehensive rearmament of the Reichswehr (subsequently known as the Wehrmacht), the regime managed not only to rapidly reduce the unemployment rate but also to secure the support of the generals and the major industrial companies in Germany. Today it is equally well documented that the automobile companies benefited to an extraordinary extent from the Nazi government’s armament and transportation policy.

In the case of the company then known as Daimler-Benz AG, this benefit was enhanced by the fact that Hitler himself had a pronounced preference for cars with the Mercedes star, even before he became the Reichskanzler. It is well known that he traveled in chauffeured in a Benz as far back as 1923, and that starting in 1931 his regular vehicle was the biggest Mercedes model, a 770. Today we know that even before he seized power he was being given dealer discounts on his cars – and that continued later on. This was obviously a good business deal for both sides. There is no doubt that the company gloried in the fact that their vehicles therefore played a featured role at public events and in weekly newsreels.

The Mercedes-Benz Grand Mercedes (“Großer Mercedes,” W 150, 1938 to 1943). An open touring car that was the typical representative vehicle for the leaders of the Third Reich.
The Mercedes-Benz Grand Mercedes (“Großer Mercedes,” W 150, 1938 to 1943). An open touring car that was the typical representative vehicle for the leaders of the Third Reich.

Growing dependence on the Nazi state

During the first years of the NSDAP’s reign, the German economy was still able to operate with a great deal of autonomy. However, as of the end of 1936 at the latest, the regime’s iron grip tightened noticeably as a result of Hermann Göring’s so-called “four-year plan.” Daimler-Benz was still able to set its own model policy until the end of the 1930s. However, the state’s influence was growing through the limits placed on private consumption and the gradual increase of state funding for the arms industry. Starting in 1937, Daimler-Benz AG also produced military trucks such as the LG 3000 and airplane engines such as the DB 600 and the DB 601. In the course of mobilization for war, industrial companies were increasingly forced to submit to the dictates of the party and the state.

The LGF 3000 truck model from 1939. Many of these trucks were used by the German Wehrmacht as part of the mobilization at the start of the war.
The LGF 3000 truck model from 1939. Many of these trucks were used by the German Wehrmacht as part of the mobilization at the start of the war.

When World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, the German economy was finally focused on the production of military equipment. From that point on, it was almost forbidden for Daimler-Benz to sell vehicles to private customers. After the campaign against Russia was launched in 1941, all of the cars and trucks being produced were sent only to the army or to businesses considered essential to the war effort. Research and development for civilian vehicles also came to a halt, under threat of draconian punishments for non- compliance. Henceforth, all of the automotive industry’s efforts had to be directed toward producing vehicles and airplane and ship engines for military use, as well as tanks and tracked vehicles. In addition, ammunition, pistols, hand grenades, gun barrels and parts for military aircrafts were produced in Daimler-Benz plants, such as those in Sindelfingen, Gaggenau, and Stuttgart-Untertürkheim. The production of replacement parts and the repair of military vehicles and engines also gained in importance.

The support of the automobile industry in the 1930s, as well as the later shift to military equipment, caused the number of employees at Daimler-Benz AG to grow rapidly, from just over 9,000 in 1932 to almost 65,000 in the war year 1943. But this growth also generated some problems. The introduction of compulsory military service in 1935, and especially the mobilization in 1939, caused a growing shortage of skilled industrial workers who could meet the increasing demands in the areas of development and production. The growing numbers of working women and legally recruited workers from abroad, who were known as foreign workers, could not compensate for this shortage. The expansion of the war into Eastern Europe opened up one of the darkest chapters in Germany’s economic history: the chapter of forced labor.

Forced labor at Daimler-Benz

At the beginning of the war, the company was still mainly recruiting foreign workers from France. In general, these were trained specialists who had previously worked for French automakers such as Renault. But after the invasion of the Soviet Union, it quickly became obvious that the volunteers who had been recruited could no longer meet the growing need for trucks and military equipment. Consequently, in 1941 the production units of the Daimler-Benz plants started to use prisoners of war from France and deportees from the conquered territories of Eastern Europe, mainly Russians and Ukrainians.

Roll call at the Untertürkheim plant during a visit by Prince zu Schaumburg-Lippe in 1944. In the background are plant buildings destroyed by Allied bombing raids.
Roll call at the Untertürkheim plant during a visit by Prince zu Schaumburg-Lippe in 1944. In the background are plant buildings destroyed by Allied bombing raids.

Working for up to 12 hours per day was exhausting, the food was meager, and the housing in barracks was reduced to the bare minimum. The remuneration — if it could even be called that — was paid out in kind, as a rule. But in the long run even the deportees could not compensate for the shortage of skilled workers. In order to keep the Wehrmacht’s war machinery up and running, a constant flow of combat equipment had to be sent to the front. The massive use of concentration camp inmates as slave laborers in production plants seemed to solve the problem. The inmates could be ordered directly from the economic administration headquarters of the SS. The camp from which the inmates were removed received between four and eight reichsmarks per head and per day by way of “compensation.” The inmates themselves received no payment for their work.

The arrival of female foreign workers from Eastern Europe at the Untertürkheim plant around 1942 or 1943.
The arrival of female foreign workers from Eastern Europe at the Untertürkheim plant around 1942 or 1943.

There are few existing documents that could give us concrete information about how the concentration camp inmates who were sent to Daimler-Benz as forced laborers were treated. However, we must assume that their treatment was hardly any different from the methods used in the concentration camps and labor camps of the SS, especially toward the end of the war. This is because the SS – Hitler’s paramilitary organization – was also responsible for guarding the satellite camps that had been newly built near the production plants. The longer the war dragged on, and the faster the supplies of Germany’s civilian population dwindled, the worse the forced laborers’ situation became. The food they received was completely insufficient and medical care was practically nonexistent. Before their liberation by the advancing Allied troops, the forced laborers were not only subjected to inhumane conditions but also constantly at risk of death. Many of them lost their lives because of these hardships.

Reappraisal and reparations

It is estimated that during the war years approximately 13.5 million deportees and prisoners did forced labor in the German Reich and the conquered territories. At the end of 1944, almost half of the more than 63,000 workers in the production and administration units at Daimler-Benz were forced laborers, prisoners of war or concentration camp inmates. Without this exploitation, the ruling powers in Berlin could not have continued their war of destruction and conquest until their capitulation on May 8, 1945. Ultimately, forced laborers also laid the foundation of the so-called “economic miracle” of the 1950s, because they had supported the growth of German companies during the war years.

Nonetheless, it took decades — until far into the 1980s — for the German economy to acknowledge its share of guilt in the crimes of the Nazis and to pay reparations to the victims who were still alive. In the run-up to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the automobile in 1986, Daimler-Benz was one of the first German companies to appoint an independent commission of experts to conduct a scientific study and reappraisal of the company’s history during the Nazi era. It was also one of the first to initiate regular contact with former forced laborers. On June 13, 1988, the company’s Board of Management at that time announced its commitment to pay 20 million deutsche marks (the equivalent of 11.4 million US-Dollars at that time) in reparations to former forced laborers. The company’s reappraisal of its own past and its financial reparations were appreciated by the public and also became a model for other companies that had had forced laborers in their ranks.

A monument to forced laborers on Mercedes-Jellinek-Straße in Stuttgart Bad-Cannstatt.
A monument to forced laborers on Mercedes-Jellinek-Straße in Stuttgart Bad-Cannstatt.

Just before the turn of the millennium, Daimler became one of the initiators of the German industry foundation Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft (German for Remembrance, Responsibility and Future). The company also contributed funding and staff services to the foundation. The emphasis was on humanitarian assistance for former forced laborers and other groups of victims of National Socialism whose loss of health and property during the Nazi era was partly due to the collaboration of German businesses. In addition to their own contributions, the companies participating in the industry foundation collected 5 billion deutsche marks in total from more than 6,500 German companies. Together with a further 5 billion deutsche marks from the German government, the foundation was able to distribute more than 10.1 billion deutsche marks altogether. Besides paying out reparations, the foundation also supported projects that promoted international understanding and the protection of human rights. The payment of reparations to former forced laborers ended in 2007. This formally closed the chapter of reparations, but the warning to people living today is still valid — and so is the responsibility that the Daimler company will bear for all time.

Clear opposition to inhumanity

Especially today, in an era when right-wing rabble-rousing is becoming increasingly frequent and aggressive, Daimler is aware of its moral duty to clearly and visibly help ensure that racism and discrimination are not tolerated in our company. Racism and discrimination run counter to our corporate values and our Integrity Code, which are binding on all of our approximately 300,000 employees. Daimler employs people from more than 150 nations in Germany alone. This can be a successful mix only if our daily work is characterized by respect, tolerance, and collegiality. The Group recently acted in line with these principles by dismissing employees who had made racist comments and displayed Nazi symbols. This decision was upheld by a court of law. But prevention is even more important than penalties. That’s why the Group launched an internal campaign called “Diversity makes us strong!” at the end of last year. Tens of thousands of our colleagues have supported this campaign with their votes on the intranet and expressed their commitment to diversity and their opposition to xenophobia by adding banners to their profiles or e-mails. Together with the Works Council, Daimler has committed itself to the initiative of the IG Metall labor union titled “Respect! No place for racism” and has put up this initiative’s posters in the entrance areas of its plants.

The Respect! sign is displayed inside and outside many companies, associations, and schools throughout Germany.
The Respect! sign is displayed inside and outside many companies, associations, and schools throughout Germany.
Daimler trainees visiting the memorial site at Auschwitz.
Daimler trainees visiting the memorial site at Auschwitz.
There is also a memorial to the forced laborers in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
There is also a memorial to the forced laborers in the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart.
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Daimler is also an active contributor to organizations such as Action Reconciliation/Service for Peace — an organization that is part of the peace movement and has worked for over 60 years through numerous programs to sensitize people to the consequences of Nazism. The organization’s objective is to promote a culture of remembrance and to stimulate confrontation with the crimes of the Nazi regime by means of international meeting centers. Daimler trainees in the commercial and technical units regularly participate, on a voluntary basis, in a program of talks and meetings with Polish and Dutch participants, visit former concentration camps and memorial sites in these countries, and talk to people who witnessed these events.

Daimler also cooperated with the Amadeu Antonio Foundation to support the actor Hardy Krüger’s “City Hall Tour” and his talks with schoolchildren, in order to draw attention to the dangers of right-wing violence and anti-Semitism. It also promotes exhibitions such as “Art from the Holocaust” at the Holocaust memorial site Yad Vashem in Israel, whose expansion it supported last year with a donation of €1 million. Yad Vashem is the most important memorial site for preserving the memory and promoting the scholarly documentation of the National Socialists’ murder of European Jews. The Mercedes-Benz Museum, which is visited by 800.000 people every year, also devotes a special section to the era between 1933 and 1945, where the victims of Nazism are commemorated.

This list of measures is not meant to be comprehensive, and it is certainly not meant to trivialize these historical events by “putting them into perspective.” The examples cited here serve only to make one thing clear: The history of Daimler AG, which spans more than 130 years, is not only a reason to look back with pride at Carl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler as the pioneers of automaking and at the company’s numerous pioneering products and innovations. Our company’s checkered history also warns us not to ignore the dark years between 1933 and 1945, but instead to actively keep them in our memory. None of the present employees of Daimler is responsible for the harm that was done to human beings in our plants and businesses. But each of us is responsible for his or her own conduct and personal efforts to prevent hate, exclusion, and inhumanity from ever again gaining ground. Not at Daimler and not in our society.

References:

• Die Daimler-Benz AG in den Jahren 1933 bis 1945: Eine Dokumentation. Von Hans Pohl/Stephanie Habeth-Allhorn/Beate Brüninghaus; Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 3. Auflage 2017.

• Zwangsarbeit bei Daimler-Benz, Zeitschrift für Unternehmensgeschichte. Von Barbara Hopmann/Mark Spoerer/Birgit Weitz/Beate Brüninghaus; Franz Steiner Verlag, Stuttgart, 2. Auflage 2017.

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Christian Scholz

After studying politics and management at the University of Konstanz Christian Scholz held various positions in internal and external communications for example at Eastman Kodak and Wüstenrot & Württembergische. Since 2012 he has been writing for Daimler. He has been passionate about history, politics and social issues since schooldays.

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