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[Leonid Bershidsky] How the Reimanns can atone for their Nazi past

There is no adequate remedy for the crimes the Reimanns, Germany’s second-wealthiest family, committed in the Nazi era. But it’s still worth trying to figure out what kind of redress is possible now that the events are receding so far into the past that few victims are alive.

Through their JAB Holdings company, the family own brands from Pret A Manger sandwich shops to Krispy Kreme Doughnuts. The Reimanns also once owned part of what became consumer goods giant Reckitt Benckiser.

Bild am Sonntag, Germany’s most popular newspaper, reported on Sunday that family patriarch Albert Reimann Sr., decorated by the West German government for his commitment to socially responsible business, had been a fervent Nazi since before the party came to power. So was his son, also Albert. The newspaper unearthed a letter from Albert Reimann Jr. to Heinrich Himmler, in which the industrialist proclaimed himself an “unconditional follower of the racial teaching.” In 1943, about 30 percent of the family enterprise’s workforce -- 175 people -- were forced laborers from Eastern Europe, who were routinely mistreated. So were prisoners of war sent to work at the Reimanns’ Ludwigshafen factory, which made, among other things, Calgon water softener.

In 1947, the Reimanns, father and son, were banned from leading businesses or passing on their shares to their family. But they appealed in Heidelberg, then in the US-occupied zone. The ruling was overturned, and they got off with tiny fines. They lived to a ripe old age and passed on the business to their heirs.

Those descendants reacted with revulsion when confronted with the family’s Nazi history and pledged to donate 10 million euros ($11 million) to a “relevant organization,” which hasn’t been determined yet.

Interestingly, as family spokesman Peter Harf told Bild in an interview, the newspaper’s revelations came after the family had hired a historian who had privately dug up much the same information and presented it to them. The Reimanns made no announcement then.

The family’s Nazi-era enterprise, Joh. A. Benckiser GmbH, was relatively small and thus couldn’t match the scale on which slave labor was used at bigger German companies -- Volkswagen, for example, exploited about 20,000 forced laborers during World War II. But the nature of the responsibility is the same, and it is too late for the Reimanns to do what other corporations have done to atone for their past actions.

Volkswagen was forced to confront its crimes in the 1990s. After initially bristling against demands for individual reparations, the carmaker eventually paid its forced laborers. It funded a memorial and permanent exhibition dedicated to them, and also published historical works about, and memoirs of, the victims. The company has tried to move, in the words of German academic Claudia Janssen, from defendant and perpetrator to agent for the memory of the past.

It is too late now for any other company to try to take that latter role, and not just because plenty of others have tried. (Hugo Boss, for example, has also published research about its history of making Nazi uniforms and contributed to a foundation helping former forced laborers.) Time passes, and victims die: Even the youngest of the 13.5 million slave laborers driven into Germany during World War II are almost 90 years old today.

Meanwhile, memories are fading. There is plenty of evidence that the Nazi past is distant enough now for normalization or relative indifference. Earlier this month, there was an outcry when VW Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess quipped, “EBIT macht frei” -- a pun on the “Work sets you free” sign on the gates of Auschwitz. Still, Diess kept his job after apologizing for his “very unfortunate word choice” -- even if at this particular company, his joke marks a dismissal of two decades of concerted efforts to assume historical responsibility.

Besides, in today’s culture, apologies are demanded and issued so often that they have become devalued. Saying, as Harf did to Bild am Sonntag, that the Reimann heirs turned “white as the wall” as they listened to the historian’s report and that the two Alberts had “belonged in prison” no longer means much.

Dozens of companies have apologized before, and it looks increasingly like an insufficient, ritual move. IKEA, for example, has apologized profusely both for its founder Ingvar Kamprad’s Nazi past and, in a later era, for placing orders with East German factories that employed prisoners -- but the furniture company has been slow to pay compensation.

The Reimann dynasty’s old sins have surfaced late enough that its current representatives should think of further ways of atonement -- more future-oriented ones. The seeds of Nazism are alive in the far-right violence of today and in the hatred of immigrants. It would make perfect sense if the family’s acceptance of historic responsibility came in the form of an investment in the integration of new immigrants, support for their language and job training, and their employment.

Indeed, for all companies in Germany and elsewhere -- for example, in the US, the UK or in South Africa -- that have collaborated with racist regimes, helping immigrants would be a more credible, and more useful, way to distance themselves from their criminal past than dwelling on history and saying they are sorry. The Reimanns’ 10 million euros, too, would be a much appreciated part of such an effort.

Leonid Bershidsky
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion‘s Europe columnist. -- Ed.