U.C. Berkeley prof unveils war record of German firm

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

When Gerald Feldman agreed to research and write a history of Germany's Allianz insurance company and its relationship to Hitler's National Socialist Party, he got something he didn't expect — speaking engagements around the world.

"I was surprised by the attention," said the U.C. Berkeley history professor. Although he'd written several books, received many honors and felt at ease in front of a room full of students, the new attention made him "uncomfortable."

And some of the reactions he drew from audiences were not positive. Sometimes he was vilified and called an apologist for the Nazis.

As a Jew, Feldman's goal in writing the history was to see justice done, he told an audience of 50 at a recent meeting of the Jewish Business Lunch in Walnut Creek. To him, that means compensating Jewish claimants for insurance policies, confiscated property and slave labor.

However, as a historian and researcher, he developed an appreciation for the complexity of the issues and the position many German companies now find themselves in.

"The companies are willing to pay but they want assurances that [the claims] will come to an end, that there will be no more surprises," said Feldman. Such assurances are virtually impossible to give, he added.

Although millions of dollars in reparations were paid to the state of Israel and Jewish organizations by the German government in the early 1950s, only recently have the vast number of claims by individuals been filed.

"The enormity of what happened [during the Holocaust] had a paralyzing effect on everyone," Feldman said. "Germans and Jews were trying to put their lives back together. There was a collective amnesia."

Even the United States was not eager to stir up those issues in the aftermath of World War II.

"There was the Cold War," he said. "The Soviet threat made us interested in settling outstanding issues with Germany as quickly as possible."

Why the recent rash of claims? Feldman points to several reasons: For one, time is running out for the survivors, the vast majority of whom are elderly. In addition, there is concern that the Holocaust should not fade into history. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall also opened doors to other survivors.

"There was the need to help Jews in former communist-block countries which we could not get to before," he said.

Moreover, these issues interested some powerful North American leaders, including Stuart Eizenstat, deputy secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and Edgar Bronfman, the World Jewish Congress president.

Survivors and/or their heirs began filing class-action lawsuits in the United States. German companies named as defendants were forced to investigate their history and relationship to the Nazis' party. One of those firms, Allianz, hired Feldman in the spring of 1997 to research its history.

That this task should go to an outsider and a Jew isn't surprising. A 1990 history of Allianz, written in-house, "was a whitewash," said Feldman.

He accepted the job on the condition that "I get full support from the company, they open all files to me and that I have complete independence."

Allianz agreed and Feldman went to work. The company has been totally cooperative, although what he found is disturbing.

"The willingness [of businesses] to go along with the Germans was depressingly widespread," he said, adding that as more information turns up, more claims are filed. In spite of this, German companies want to get everything out in the open and settle claims, partly because the non-monetary cost is too high, Feldman said.

In today's economy, these companies have a presence in the United States and throughout the world. Given the politically sensitive nature of Holocaust issues, companies fear being damaged in the media. In addition, news about companies' activities during World War II has a negative impact on employee morale.

But even with good intentions, support and public pressure, resolving the claims is a slow process.

"In short, it appears there's a long way to go," said Feldman, highlighting some of the problems such as how to compute the present value of claims that arose more than half a century ago. Many businesses lack the financial resources to pay the $20 billion to $30 billion needed to satisfy these claims.

Feldman also raised the question of whether American companies that had European factories before the war could have maintained some control over the company's wartime operations, even though there was no American presence there.

Some companies have voluntarily paid into an international humanitarian fund to compensate survivors, hoping to buy their way out of the claims. But there is no guarantee that they won't be held liable in the future. And there are still concerns about how the fund will be administered.

Although several class-action lawsuits have been filed in the United States, these may not provide a solution either. The courts are slow. Survivors are aging. Some claims can be pursued by the heirs, but not all of them.

The legal route is also uncertain. Feldman reported that one case was thrown out recently when the district court judge ruled that there was no jurisdiction because these matters are governed by international agreements.

That case is being appealed.