Oliver Rathkolb

The author (born 19xx)

Private Industry and Banking Commissions and the Holocaust Era Assets Debate

After a few years time lag, the end of the Cold War in 1989/1990 initiated a boom of historical commissions and projects conducting new and extensive research on forced and slave labor during the Nazi regime as well as on the role of banks and insurance companies in Nazi looting of property owned by Jews and other victims of the Nazis. Legal debates concerning restitution or compensation payments (including heirless assets) of European firms ended, however, in only two court settlements—the large Swiss Bank and the small Bank Austria settlements, the latter being finalized as late as 2001. These settlements were in addition to three significant bilateral agreements between the US and Germany and Austria and France--concluded in 2000 during the ”last days” of the Clinton administration and concerning both forced labor issues as well as non-restituted or non-compensated Nazi looted property. They were designed to settle a number of class action lawsuits against the Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank as well as Austrian companies like Voest Alpine Stahl AG in Linz and Steyr and other German, Austrian and French banks and companies.

Since the 1996 class action lawsuit brought against the Swiss banks by New York lawyer Ed Fagan, both state and corporate resources were made available in order to finance large-scale historical accounts and studies. This unexpected boom for public and private funding of historical research started with a public initiative, the establishment of a nine member ”Independent Expert Commission on Switzerland in the Second World War,” headed by Jean-Francois Bergier and institutionalized by the Swiss Parliament in late 1996. Altogether, 50 researchers worked for this commission, which finalized its work in late 2001.

This prototype of a commission--handling ”hot historical topics from the Nazi past”--soon multiplied into 18 state funded commissions. They were established in late 1998 in Austria as well as in France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Estonia, Lithuania and other countries outside Europe such as the US, Argentine and Brazil in order to analyze the value of looted property from 1938-1945 and the amount of restitution and compensation after 1945. In Germany, only company funded commissions were engaged in research (among others Bertelsmann Publishers, Commerbank, Deutsche Bank, Dresdner Bank, Degussa (precious metals), Allianz (insurance), BASF (chemicals), Diehl (mechanical engineering), Ford (automobiles), Hochtief (construction), Hoechst (chemicals), Friedrich Krupp (coal mining), Lufthansa (civil aviation), General Motors (automobiles) In Austria, historians worked on the savings bank Postsparkasse, the steel combine Voest Alpine Stahl AG Linz, Verbund (state-owned Austrian Electrical Utility Holding Company), Lenzing AG (viscose and paper). Dieter Stiefel developed individual reports for the Austrian Insurance Companies. The Dorotheum case, the state-owned traditional Austrian auction house, is still being studied by Stefan Luetgenau and Alexander Schroeck, since a previous report by an inexperienced historian was not accepted by the Austrian Historian’s Commission due to lack of academic research. The Dorotheum had whitewashed a huge amount of assets of Jewish owners in 1938-1945. Luetgenau and Schroeck, who published the first empirical study on slave labor in the construction industry TEERAG ASDAG (”Asphalt und Dachdeckungs AG”), have been commissioned to produce a completely new study to be finished in March 2003.

Austria has been very active, particularly in the field of looted art, and even passed laws--both on the national and provincial level--allowing for the restitution of state owned art and the establishment of an expert advisory commission. From time to time media information as well as detailed unpublished reports appear, but no academic results have been published yet. (Recently at the request of the Green party in the Vienna provincial government, a report concerning looted artwork in the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien was declassified).


New sources and hidden company archives:

Already at this point it is fair to argue that many more primary sources have been discovered in semi-archival deposits of banks and companies as well as museums. Although these sources are in many cases highly fragmentary, in total they constitute much more than what has previously been available for historical research. Archives that had been closed or had limited access in East Central Europe and Russia were found to contain material from the Nazi period. Due to general disinterest in thorough historical documentation combined with underlying fears of facing the ”truth” with respect to the Nazi period, most of the banks and companies involved in the recent legal disputes rarely established professionally structured archives that also contained material from outside sources (such as the fragmentary collections of the Creditanstalt-Bankverein, which in the 1980s ended academic research started by Eduard März in 1973 and never approached a professional archival solution beyond the level of board meeting minutes. In the mid-1970s they destroyed a large collection of documents. The former Oesterreichische Laenderbank’s documentation is even more fragmentary, whereas the former Zentralsparkasse in Vienna, now part of the Bank Austria group, still has a large deposit of archival documentation.) Other companies like the Voest Alpine Stahl AG in Linz forgot about the existence of the largest collection of documents that were stored in the cellar of a ”Luftschutz” tower and contained more than 30,000 personnel records of forced labor and German workers. In comparison, like in most of the Austrian and German companies, the personnel records of the Volkswagen AG have been completely destroyed.

An important issue that needs to be discussed publicly concerns the future availability of these sources for further research and whether the companies and banks involved will keep a historical department after research for the legal battles has been completed. The Director of the Austrian State Archives, Lorenz Mikoletzky, used the new Archival Law (which was a first result of the Holocaust Era Assets debate) and decreed more than 74 private and public company, banking and insurance archives as ”denkmalgeschützt”, which means that the companies are not allowed to destroy documents from the period of 1933-1967.

The author himself headed three commissions in Austria (Postsparkasse, Verbund – the latter together with Florian Freund - and Voest Alpine Stahl AG Linz) and is a member of the three-member committee nominated by a US court in the settlement with the Bank Austria Group for Creditanstalt, former Laenderbank and Zentralsparkasse. In the following paragraphs, I shall try to compare the approaches used in these commissions.

An open research effort was designed in 1998 in order to begin concentrated research into the Nazi past of the Austrian Postal Savings Bank, which had been absorbed by the German Postal Service in 1938. Former clients started this research by requesting detailed information about their pre-1945 accounts and were assisted by both the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and Lord Janner of Braunstone, a former British Labor politician active in Jewish Affairs. The then CEO of Postsparkasse, Max Kothbauer, was much more interested in an open debate than many other bank managers since he went through the Waldheim-Debate in Austria as Chancellor Franz Vranitzky’s chief of cabinet.

It seemed appropriate to publish online as soon as possible the intermediary research findings in order to initiate communication with former clients and their heirs. As a result of the publication of the first intermediary report in December 1998--published both in German and English and containing a list of 7,000 names of former account holders (mostly small amounts)--nearly 4,000 requests for information have been handled by the Postsparkasse and the research team. A second report, again in German and in English, followed in January 2000.

Thus, classical historical research both contributed to the public debate about Holocaust era assets and was somehow transformed by the requests for information. New structures emerged that had to be included in the analysis. The publication, which should come out in late 2002, represents the first Savings Bank Study for the Nazi period in Austria that contains a detailed analysis on the transformation of the continuous expropriation orders after 1938 on the bank and client level, focusing on accounts, securities deposits, saving accounts, and blocked accounts. The Nazification of the Savings Bank and the Denazification after the War are covered, as well as the accounts of forced laborers and the ”aryanization” of buildings and restitution issues surrounding this property after the war.

This approach was the only one in the private sector in Austria that used the Internet and included victims’ memories in the research and analysis structure. In general the small dormant accounts due to the Nazi looting pre-1945 and restituted by Postsparkasse, which contributed a considerable amount to the Austrian restitution fund, were not really important for the surviving clients and their heirs. The large correspondence file documents and the open historical analysis of the circumstances of Nazi looting and compensation and/or non-compensation after the war played a much more symbolic role.

As a result of the Postsparkasse study, Voest Alpine asked the author of this article to lead a historians’ commission from 1998-2001 to analyze the issue of forced and slave labor. It was clear from the beginning that this independent study would be published, but due to the rather intensive documentation and research work, a more classical communication structure was chosen. Classical oral history as performed in previous German industry studies seemed insufficient to produce usable results. Therefore, psychologist Karl Fallend was asked to conduct a number of long and intricate narrative interviews with former forced and slave laborers--mostly in the Czech Republic, Poland, the Ukraine, Italy and Moldavia--in order to obtain subjective viewpoints that illuminate certain typical personal experiences in a biographical context. These individual life stories, recollections and insights from Austrians, forced laborers and concentration camp survivors of the Linz Hermann Göring Works could only be established by means of such interviews. The interviews do not contain random biographical details or tales of heroism, but rather experiences that have long been taboo and are sometimes extremely traumatic in nature. These were experiences that had been silently buried for more than fifty years and that for many were being spoken about and heard for the first time, particularly in this amount of detail. The themes included suppression, humiliation, injury and subsequent shame, with differing forms of individual and social assimilation.

In addition to a detailed economic historical review, Volume I also deals with the responsibility of the management and the economic significance of forced labor under the National Socialist regime. Comprehensive case studies concerning the fate of foreign women--who made up some 10% of the foreign labor contingent--children born in Linz, and Greek workers are intended to reconstruct the fate of the workers and to deepen the extensive evaluation of the statistics containing biographical and work related information on 22,000 foreign civilian workers out of 40,000 workers from the Nazi period. The slave labor force from the Austrian concentration camp Mauthausen consisted of more than 7,000 people.

It is also important that the histories do not end abruptly in 1945, but that the post-war stigmatization in the former Soviet Union and the war crimes tribunals against the perpetrators are also dealt with.

In 2002 there are plans to publish a similar report containing the results of a smaller study on forced labor and electric power plants now owned by the Verbund in Lower Austria (Ybbs-Persenbeug, written by Christine Oertel and Oliver Rathkolb), Carinthia (Draukraftwerke, analyzed by Markus Purkhart), Upper Austria (Ennstalkraftwerke, by Florian Freund) and Salzburg (Kaprun, by Margit Reiter, which is partly published in this volume of Contemporary Austrian Studies). This is the first primary source driven study on the use of forced labor in the building of electric power plants. Although the wartime story of Kaprun was known, many significant details have recently been unearthed, and a database has been established to document individual life stories. Previous work on forced and slave labor relied exclusively on statistics and/or individual case studies; this new approach is aimed at considerably enlarging the empirical foundation. It is interesting to note that Ybbs-Persenbeug’s wartime history seemed to be completely forgotten, even though the project was pushed by Adolf Hitler himself due to the location of the power plant near the town of Poechlarn, which played a role in the Nibelungen saga. Ybbs-Persenbeug is a good example of how the Austrian postwar reconstruction and finishing construction overruled the first phase of construction and use of forced labor.

The first study on the role of the construction industry by Stefan Luetgenau and Alexander Schroeck was originally commissioned and financed by TEERAG ASDAG and aimed at reconstructing the fate of Jewish laborers, concentration camp inmates and forced laborers in the construction industry--both in the ”Alpen- und Donaugaue” and outside the country in the German Reich and occupied territories. Here, too, a broad empirical basis was researched and analyzed. This work is an important contribution since all studies commissioned by the public sponsored Historians’ Commission will be limited to activities in current Austrian territory.

Scholarly Independence and Research Standard

In order to answer the question whether these commissions and experts can work without any political or legal pressures, the much-debated issues of independence and research standards have to be addressed. These issues have even been reported on by the international media (e.g. in Financial Times, 22 Feb. 1999 or International Herald Tribune, 19 February 1999), and cannot be excluded. Even in Austria the weekly ”Profil” brought up the issue (22 March 1999).

In general, efforts to exclude company-funded research from scholarly research because of the source of the financial contribution were not successful, although the media liked these debates. In Austria only the Bank Austria Commission has been attacked – despite the fact that it is the only privately funded commission established as a completely independent committee by a court decision that established a fixed budget at their disposal. In Great Britain and the US, the political scientist Michael Pinto-Duschinsky gets media attention by attacking ”Selling the Past” (Times Literary Supplement, Oct 23, 1998). His own research on the topic, however, is extremely meager, as an unpublished paper on ”Slave Labor” shows.

Recently this issue came up again in the first English publication of the Office of Military Government (OMGUS) Reports on ”War Crimes of the Deutsche Bank and the Dresdner Banks,” which have been available in German since 1986. Although these reports contain important but rather incomplete documentation gathered in the first years after 1945, the editor, Christopher Simpson, praises them as the only purely historical account and again tries to reduce the importance of historical work published by independent historians from the Deutsche and Dresdner Bank commissions – for every professional historian, an example of the lack of methodological interpretation of sources.

Another question that needs to be examined concerns methodology. Are the scope and analytical depth of research in these projects limited by the special court related questions or the narrow focus on the isolated business level, or do they contribute to the advancement of historiography? (See the rather "eager" methodological debate on this field in Unternehmen im Nationalsozialismus, edit. Lothar Gall and Manfred Pohl, München 1998.) Here both the field of economic and political contemporary history need to be extensively covered, since as far as political history is concerned, this research contribution is contra-cyclical - in favor of applied history. In return gender studies and/or cultural studies, although both ”trendy” methodological directions can contribute to the issue as such if leaving the ivory tower of academic inner debate.

As Gerald Feldman recently has pointed out, ”the goal must be to understand how business organizations deal with the problems of political risk and the public sphere cannot be separated from their inner economic logic” (Feldman, Holocaust Assets, 32). Feldman refers again to the example of Daimler’s management, which increasingly used forced labor in order to keep investments in machinery that could be lost during or immediately after the war. The peacetime perspective dominated the decision to use large man- and womanpower.

This postwar perception is important – both seen from the methodological perspective concerning the postwar sources of investigations and trials and from the point of view of continuity. In the case of the former Hermann Goering works in Linz it should be noted that the German top management was dismissed; both on the management level and on the worker level, ”Sudetendeutsche” refugees were integrated. One of the inventors of the world famous new LD (Linz-Donawitz) production was Herbert Trenkler, a Sudeten German steel expert. The post-1945 workers were partly Volks- and Sudeten Germans forced out of their home territories in 1944/1945. They took over the jobs of the forced laborers who were repatriated.

Still business history needs more research to analyze companies as social organizations in a market situation both on national, European and global level. Here the new, more empirically driven studies on forced labor and aryanization produced hidden sources that could be used for further analysis.

In order to compare the results of forced labor research in Austria all internal studies should be published – especially the studies of teams supervised by the economic historian Roman Sandgruber on the Lenzing Zellwolle AG (which used female concentration camp inmates from a ”Nebenlager” of Mauthausen, with a capacity of 565 women at the most) and the Boehler Steel works. Only by comparison of the empirical data can the social dimension be analyzed more effectively. The percentage of female workers in steel works and the number of and reasons for abortions are still in debate.

Oral History, too, has to be reexamined as a method since many projects base some of their analysis on ”mass” interviews (a Daimler-Benz-project by Barbara Hopman and others has conducted nearly 200 interviews with surviving forced/slave laborers, but gained practically no new information or insight which could not be reproduced by primary sources). The real methodological strength consists of intensive interviews with a much smaller but carefully composed group and includes large-scale archival research. Personal memories are only reproductions of completely different perceptions formed in order to cope with an extreme situation (being deported to become an (in most cases) unskilled worker at a rather young age, in many cases under 18) and continue a ”normal” life after 1945.

At the same time, ”new” definition approaches as such should not be accepted as a new and absolute truth, but need to be re-evaluated as well; an example of this is the US debate about slave labor as the general approach concerning the broad phenomena of forced labor, although slave labor concerns primarily the work of concentration camp inmates (under much higher pressure and destruction by forced work), but the larger group concerns forced labor.

Business history should abandon the case study approach and place individual analysis in the framework of social, economic and political history.


Reevaluation of the Decision Making and Responsibility Structure:


The necessity to document and analyze the situation on the ”executive” (working) level as far as the Nazi expropriation and looting policies are concerned (including the mass extermination camps) will lead to a more precise picture of the decision making process on all company levels: from the CEOs down to the company foreman and how they dealt with forced laborers and the day-to-day decisions on how to execute the racist orders from the Nazi regime. Already today we see a rather large group of managers that all were well within the limits of the Nazi orders, although their room to maneuver was much larger.

As a result of the previous studies, we know a lot about the ”Überbau”(superstructure) of the Nazi regime concerning Holocaust Era assets and forced/slave labor, but we still need more empirical data on the execution of these policies by ”experts” and ”administrators”. Here the individual project studies are important.

An interesting issue is the continuity of elites from the Nazi period after 1945--both in banking and industry in Germany and Austria (but also in other European countries like France etc.)--who already had important positions on executive level or even on the CEO level during the war. For example, in Austria the CEO of the Creditanstalt Bankverein, Josef Joham, was commissioned by the German Bank after the take over in 1939 and was given relatively strong power even though he had already been installed as CEO by the Christian-Socials in 1936. After the war he was allowed to continue his job since he had secretly cooperated with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) turning over plans and information to prepare for the bombing of industry owned by Creditanstalt and others. Unlike in Germany in 1945 and afterwards, the Allies never investigated the Nazi past in Austria. During this period, Joham was under the special protection of the US government. When he was ”interviewed” for the Nuremberg Tribunals, the whole court came to Vienna!

Another example from the business elite is Walther Kastner. As head of Department C of the Kontrollbank, he ”administered” more than 100 of the largest companies looted from their Jewish owners and sold them until 1942, the profit being transferred to the Reichshauptkasse in Berlin. After 1945 Walther Kastner became one of the most important ”hidden” decision makers and legal experts in banking and industry and even managed some restitution cases. What effect did ”continuity” of this type have on historical documentation from the Nazi period and professional research on business history? What effect did their professional socialization in the Nazi economy have on peacetime decisions? In the 1960s the then CEO of the VOEST Alpine, Walter Hitzinger, (he later joined Mercedes Benz in Germany) who was a business expert with a Nazi Party background and his first experiences as a CEO in wartime industry before 1945, prepared the ”centralization” of Nationalized State Industry in Austria. This proved to be a failure in the late 1970s. Was this decision influenced by the centralization mania of the Nazi period?

Still only few experts realize how strong the impact of legal norms from the Nazi period in Austria influenced business life after 1945. Another issue is the transformation and continuity of business decision-making, control institutions and social culture from the Nazi period in the Second Republic of Austria, especially in the Nationalized Industries (to a large segment former ”German Property”). How strongly was this social continuity in the business community influenced, changed or even used by the emerging social partnership?

Therefore I would end by saying that during the most recent years a large number of sources and a few studies have been introduced into the historical debate of economy and business in the 1930s and 1940s focusing on the Nazi period. It is now up to the day-to-day research at Universities and historical think tanks and by individual private historians to continue and enlarge the perspective into the Post War period and deepen the views of the social structure of companies in the 1940s during World War II. Still the business community and the business schools have not realized how important a deep rooted knowledge of the past is for modern companies in the future, although for the first time the Holocaust Era Assets debate shook the perception of Henry Ford, who just said ”History is bunk”.


Die Politische Ökonomie des Holocaust. Zur wirtschaftlichen Logik von Verfolgung und “Wiedergutmachung”, ed. Dieter Stiefel (Wien: Verlag für Geschichte und Politik, 2001).

Gerald Feldman, Die Allianz und die deutsche Versicherungswirtschaft 1933-1945 (München: C.H. Beck, 2001).

Gerald Feldman, “Holocaust Assets and German Business History: Beginning or End?” German Studies Review 25 (February 2002): 23-34.

Stefan Luetgenau, Alexander Schroeck, Zwangsarbeit in der österreichischen Bauindustrie: Die Teerag-Asdag AG 1938-1945 (Innsbruck: Studienverlag 2001).

NS- Zwangsarbeit am Standort Linz der Hermann Göring AG Berlin, 1938-1945, 2 vol. (Wien: Böhlau Verlag 2001).

Dieter Stiefel, Die österreichischen Lebensversicherungen und die NS-Zeit (Wien: Boehlau Verlag 2001).

War Crimes of the Deutsche Bank and the Dresdner Bank. Office of Military Government (U.S.) Reports, ed. Christopher Simpson (New York: Holmes & Meier 2002).