Paying for old sins

March 15, 1996

Gert-Rudolf Flick's endowment to Oxford University would be better employed relieving the suffering of those slave labourers who survived his grandfather's wartime exploitation in Nazi Germany.

The endowment of the Gert-Rudolf Flick chair in European Thought at Oxford University, held by John Burrow, has created a storm, but not entirely for the best reasons. Argument has centered on whether the endowment - worth Pounds 300,000 plus - is "tainted" because its original source was the fortune of Friedrich Flick, a pro-Nazi magnate, who earned some of it on the back of slave labour in the service of the Third Reich. But this is only half the story. The problem also arises from what certain members of the present generation of Germans have not done, as well as what their fathers or grandfathers did.

The gift to Oxford University was made by Gert-Rudolf Flick, Friedrich's grandson, after an approach by Lord Weidenfeld, the publisher, who, as a teenager, fled Nazi Austria before the Holocaust in which members of his family perished.

No one disputes that Friedrich Flick was convicted by a military tribunal in Nuremberg in 1947 and jailed for his involvement with organisations connected with slave labour and with murders committed mainly by the SS. He made a fortune from the exploitation of slave labour in the extraction of raw materials and the production of munitions for the Nazi war machine. Whether he was "politically amoral", as Robert Wistrich, professor of modern Jewish history at University College London, maintains, or a convert to Nazi ideology is unclear. But he appears not to have expressed any remorse for the financial support he gave to Hitler before 1933, the economic services he rendered the Nazi regime up to 1939, or his part in supplying the sinews of war until the Reich was smashed into submission.

However repellent old man Flick may have been, it would indeed be unjust to visit his sins on his children and grandchildren. As Lord Weidenfeld points out, it is particularly unwise of Jews, long the victims of collective guilt transmitted through the ages, to engage in the attribution of guilt by inheritance. But the unfortunate background to the endowment does not only come from the connection between Friedrich Flick's postwar fortune and the wartime atrocities for which he was convicted.

Problems also arise from what grandfather Flick and his offspring may not have done sufficiently after the war, when he had restored his fortune and passed it on to them.

Unlike many other German corporations implicated in Nazi aggression, as long as the Flick group remained a private, family-owned business, it never satisfactorily atoned for the murderous treatment of its slave workers during the war nor offered the survivors proper compensation.

In 1970 Friedrich Flick even rejected a call for compassion issued by John J. McCloy, the American High Commissioner for Germany, who had granted him clemency and enabled his early release from prison. Token compensation was made to survivors only in 1986, and this seems to have been connected to the flotation of shares around the time some of the group's interests were sold to Deutsche Bank.

Lord Weidenfeld is right to praise the German Federal Republic for its sharply contrasting efforts to come to terms with the Nazi past and to make reparation for it. The silence and niggardliness of some of the Flick family members is disturbing because many of their peers paid compensation long ago to Jewish and non-Jewish survivors.

Should survivors of the Nazi regime be mollified by information that members of the Flick family have given to other good causes? Does it improve matters when Gert-Rudolf Flick gives money to a hospital partly because he is on good terms with one of its Jewish doctors? Or does this rather highlight the tardiness of the family in making good some of the damage caused by the wartime crimes of Friedrich Flick when the opportunity arose?

Lord Weidenfeld suggests that Dr Flick is giving practical expression to his "revulsion against German National Socialism" by establishing funds that are designed to benefit East European students who have been the victims of "Communism and racist persecution". So Nazism and communism are equated, and helping the victims of the latter is as good as compensating the survivors of the former?

This apologia does more harm than good since it rests on a dangerous relativism that blurs the unique character of Nazi criminality and the racial motives of the perpetrators of Nazi genocide. This is no substitute for acknowledging the particular crimes of the Flick enterprise and its complicity with a regime that singled out Jews for extermination.

In its press statement, the University of Oxford asserts that "Dr Flick's abhorrence of a dark period of the family history has been made very clear". But might it not have been more appropriate to have expressed abhorrence of the rather darker period in the short, miserable, tortured lives of the estimated 38,000-40,000 slave workers who perished under the lash of Friedrich Flick's foremen?

Let us recall the thousands of young men and women wrenched from their homes and families by Nazi thugs, dragged thousands of miles across Europe to end their pitiful lives half-starved and beaten in mines and factories in the heart of the Reich. Several thousand survived, many physically and psychologically scarred. Despite the restoration of the Flick family wealth, their pleas for compensation were ignored for very many years.

The ethics committee of Oxford University may have been narrowly correct in ruling that no connection existed between the money for the endowment and the riches accumulated by Friedrich Flick through the tortured lives of those poor creatures. However, it might have pondered whether the money the university was being offered would not have been better employed relieving the suffering of that shrinking band who survived Flick's wartime entrepreneurship.

The pity is that the grandfather's heirs seemed to remain impervious for so many years to the calls for justice and reparation when they had the opportunity to heed them. They personified that section of contemporary German society which remained unwilling to come to terms with the past.

How sad that Balliol, a college with a fine, progressive record, should indulge in the whitewashing of a surname that, until proper recompense is made, should really be associated with historical myopia, selfishness, obduracy and the basest iniquity.

David Cesarani is Alliance Family professor of Modern Jewish Studies, University of Manchester.

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