Peter Hayes

Corporate Complicity in the Holocaust: Degussa from Aryanization to Auschwitz
Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Degussa-Huls began more than 120 years ago as a refinery in Frankfurt-am-Main. Within a few years it opened a plant in New York, and over the next several decades continued to evolve- via mergers, diversification, and scientific advances-into a multi-national corporation which today operates more than 300 facilities worldwide and employs nearly 50,000 people. In Germany, to be in the employ of Degussa-Huls is to be recognized as one of the elite: only one of every seven applicants makes it through the company's selection process, which includes rigid resume screening and a five-hour test of general knowledge-all for the privilege of enrolling in a three-year training program.

Yet this titan of technology has had to confront the ghosts of its past. Between 1933 and 1945 the company realized enormous profits from precious metals and other properties expropriated from Jews. Degussa also produced Zylaon B, the cyanide derivative used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz (which alone purchased some 23,000 kilograms from Degussa) and Majdanek. Moreover, Degussa, like many industries struggling to meet production quotas at a time when 11 million Germans had been called to fight in the war, used slave labor to re-man its diminished work force. After the war, the Allies demanded that Degussa make restitution to its victims and their survivors.

Questions remain regarding Degussa's participation in the Nazi war effort. Did they have a choice? How much did they know? Peter Hayes, the Theodore Z. Weiss Professor of Holocaust Studies at Northwestern University, has devoted much of his career to uncovering evidence of corporate complicity in the Third Reich. The author of lndustry and Ideology: IG Farben in the Nazi Era (1987) and Lessons and Legacies: The Meaning of the Holocaust in a Changing World (1991), Hayes is a member of the academic advisory boards of the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt and the concentration camp memorial at Buchenwald-Dora. Professor Hayes's Golo Mann Lecture, also part of the series "Confronting Evil: Lectures on the Holocaust and Genocide," was sponsored by the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies and the Pomona College Department of Sociology.