German Auto Parts Maker Admits It Was a Nazi Accomplice

FRANKFURT — The auto parts maker Continental became the latest German company to issue a confessional study of its Nazi past Thursday, saying it was “a pillar of the National Socialist armaments and war economy” that employed around 10,000 slave laborers, often in inhumane conditions.

During the war, when Continental supplied tires for military aircraft and vehicles, the company used concentration camp inmates to test products and the inmates sometimes died as a result, according to the study by Paul Erker, a historian at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich commissioned by Continental to examine its past.

Yet after the war, top managers of the company managed to escape punishment and pursue successful careers, according to Mr. Erker, who has written an 800-page book about his findings. The study also looked at firms that Continental acquired after the war, like VDO, a maker of auto electronics that supplied guidance systems for V-1 rockets fired at Britain by Germany during World War II.

Such studies have become obligatory for German companies, which often used slave laborers, profited from the Nazi regime and took part in the persecution of European Jews. But Continental, a member of the benchmark DAX index with 230,000 employees worldwide and a major presence in the United States, is far behind other blue-chip companies like Volkswagen or Deutsche Bank that laid bare their wartime pasts decades ago.

Elmar Degenhart, the chief executive of Continental since 2009, said the study was “overdue” but could not explain why it took so long.

“We can’t speak for earlier generations of management and don’t want to make any accusations against them,” Mr. Degenhart said during a news conference Thursday.

Ariane Reinhart, the chief of human relations at Continental, said the study contained lessons relevant for business today. She said she was struck by how easily the Nazis co-opted Continental’s managers.

“It shows me how fragile company cultures are,” Ms. Reinhart said. “In the 1920s, Continental was an open, international, liberal company. Within a few years, the Nazi system was able to smother all of these qualities.”

Though best known for tires, Continental, based in Hanover, also makes a wide array of automobile components like electronic sensors and brakes. It is investing heavily in autonomous driving technology.

Founded in 1871 by Jewish bankers, Continental had many Jews in high-ranking positions when the Nazis took over in 1933. By 1938, as Germany was gearing up for war, they had all been forced out.

The first forced laborers at Continental were French or Belgian civilians or prisoners of war. But as able-bodied German men were conscripted into the military, creating a severe labor shortage, Continental drew on concentration camp inmates. They were sometimes forced to work in abysmal conditions underground where production facilities were moved to escape Allied bombing raids.

Continental was among German companies that together paid about $4.5 billion in reparations to former forced laborers in the late 1990s.

After the war, Fritz Könecke, Continental’s wartime chief executive, was able to reinvent himself as a Nazi resister and escape punishment, Mr. Erker told reporters. Könecke later became chief executive of Daimler; he died in 1979.

Continental’s story contains a warning for modern society amid the rise of right-wing and authoritarian leaders, Mr. Degenhart said. Without naming names, he criticized leaders who “place their self-interest and quest for power above empathy and responsibility. That was true then and it’s true now.”

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