Dark corporate past

“WE THOUGHT we knew our story, and we knew it wasn’t great,” says Maurice Brenninkmeijer, chairman of COFRA Holding, which owns C&A, a 175-year-old Dutch clothing retailer with over 2,000 stores globally. Yet the full account of how the German branch of his family behaved in the second world war “tore through your heart when you heard it”, he adds. Mr Brenninkmeijer’s ancestors—considered to be genial, virtuous, Catholic and reserved—turned out to have been avid Nazi collaborators. Old letters revealed cosy, corrupt, ties to Hermann Goering. From 1942 onwards C&A and Siemens, a German engineering firm, together exploited forced Eastern European labourers in Germany, keeping them in such a wretched state that malnutrition killed several women and children. C&A profited from “Aryanisation”, grabbing business and property from terrified Jewish owners. Perhaps worst, it used Jewish tailors and leather-workers, corralled in Lodz, a dreadful ghetto in Poland. Of some 200,000 people trapped in inhumane conditions there, only 1,000 survived to liberation.

Such grim details are now public thanks to Mark Spoerer, a historian in Regensburg who specialises in archival research to assess companies’ dark pasts, putting “immoral business behaviour” into historical context. Remarkably, his new book “C&A: A family business in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom 1911-1961”, was commissioned by the notoriously reclusive family. Mr Spoerer, over five years and with generous funds, was given unrestricted access to private files, conducted interviews freely and had the right to publish all he found.

Being low-profile went from being something worthy, to something strange, and now suspect, says Mr Brenninkmeijer, in a rare interview. Though some relatives were said to be reluctant to confront old horrors, he says all now agree on the need for a sort of corporate therapy, “so we have an understanding of our history, not as a burden but as a platform”. This, he says, helps the family get a deeper sense of itself. A core of 30 family members are active owners and managers of the firm; around 1,300 Brenninkmeijers form an outer circle.

It is rare for a company to confront an ugly past so openly, especially as C&A faced no looming pressure from victims’ relatives, journalists or other outsiders. Firms are most likely to do so if they have a strong international presence and deal directly with consumers, says Mr Spoerer. Another corporate historian, Lutz Budrass, assessed 100 companies that thrived in Germany in 1938 and still exist in some form today. He suggests that only 30 have yet organised a serious scholarly assessment of their wartime activities, while 40 have done nothing at all, including five companies which, he says, “were very heavily involved” in Nazi crimes.

He points to Deutsche Post, a successor of Reichspost, and much of the German steel industry as particularly hostile to the idea of exploring their pasts. Siemens has made only partial efforts to assess its wartime role. In the car industry, Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler have owned up to their intimately close associations with Nazis, but other firms have not. Mr Budrass is especially dismissive of German aircraft companies. He was commissioned in 2002 by Lufthansa to write part of its 75th anniversary, especially in explaining its use of 8,000 forced labourers in 1944. But the firm refused to publish it, acceding only this year once Mr Budrass brought out a separate book on the airline’s past. He also argues that Airbus, the European aircraft-manufacturing group which incorporated old entities including Messerschmitt (one of the largest users of concentration-camp labour), is “trapped by fear of its past” in failing to commission a proper history.

How cleansing is the sunshine?

Perhaps it is not irrational for firms to shy away from difficult memories. And German firms are more transparent than most. Some 6,000 companies and the German state contributed to a €5.1bn ($4.5bn) fund created in 2000 to compensate victims of forced labour. By contrast, it took until 2014 for foreign relatives of holocaust victims transported by SNCF, the French railway, to be allowed to seek compensation from the state. Many Japanese firms can trace their histories back to wartime exploits, including the use of slave labour, but are far less likely to assess what went on than German ones. Similarly it is rare for American financial firms to admit to profiting from businesses related to slavery in the mid-19th century, as Aetna and JPMorgan Chase have. Nor is there any serious discussion to suggest firms which made money in apartheid South Africa should today offer compensation.