In July 2019, the Shoah memorial in Paris hosted a names-reading ceremony for Convoy 77, the last deportation train that left Paris for Auschwitz. This convoy departed two months after the allies arrived at Normandy. The few survivors in attendance remarked at the thinning crowd and spoke of friends recently passed and those simply too ill or frail to keep attending.Footnote 1
With the diminished physical and moral presence of survivors, one might expect to see a similar decline in atonement and accountability discussions for World War II activities. To the contrary, however, recent years show an upswing in these conversations, especially regarding corporations. In March 2019, for example, the German Reimann family announced its plans to donate roughly €10 million to help atone for their ancestors’ use of slave labor during World War II and for the family’s support (political and financial) of Hitler and his anti-Semitic policies (Isidore 2019). While the Reimann family and JAB Holdings might not be household names, many recognize their brands: Dr. Pepper, Krispy Kreme Donuts, Panera Bread, Peets Coffee, Pret A Manger, Einstein’s Bagels, and Coty. In recent years, survivors and their descendants also called upon the French, Dutch, and Hungarian National Railway companies to compensate for their predecessors’ participation in the Holocaust (Karasz 2019). These debates extend beyond Europe: In October 2019, a South Korean court asked Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal to pay damages for slave labor used during the war (Sang-Hun and Gladstone 2018).
Some corporations that claim to have atoned for their wartime activities continue to participate in hauntingly similar abuses. Victims of slave labor during World War II, for example, learned through an August 2019 New York Times opinion piece that Volkswagen and Siemens Corporation are profiting from China’s notorious “Open Air Prison” or “re-education camps” targeting the Uyghur minority (Haas 2019). Many of the banks that supported the Nazi regime and that supposedly atoned for doing so continue to make headlines for on-going indictments. Such examples raise questions about the ability of current atonement mechanisms, namely compensation and apologies, to shift corporate ethos enough to prevent future violations.
Corporations can do better. However, scholarship concerned with ethical leadership provides little guidance for those business executives willing to engage beyond carefully crafted public statements and legal strategies. This article aims to provide some guidance, first by arguing that ethical corporate leadership requires taking responsibility both for present-day business activities and the decisions of predecessors. Through this more timeless conception of moral responsibility, past harms can be addressed and current or future violations can be interrupted.
To make this argument, this article uses the recent atonement debates concerning the French National Railways’ (SNCF) role in the Holocaust. Focusing on a World War II-complicit corporation makes sense given that the notion of corporate liability for participation in war crimes began in the aftermath of this conflict, albeit on a relatively shaky footing. The Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals of 1946–1949 held roughly a dozen corporate directors accountable for their companies’ wartime activities (Ferencz and Taylor 2002). Executives from I.G Farben, Flick, and Krupp, among others, received prison sentences, though none served more than eight years before heading off to run post-war Europe in various capacities. Legal lacunae and lack of public, political, and corporate will limited the scope of these trials. For example, Moore (2018), responsible for collecting and reviewing documents for the I.G. Farben case, found her work thwarted by the chief I.G. Farben archivist who claimed ignorance regarding the organization of his hundreds of shelves of neatly organized documents. When Moore sought the help of the American army general in charge of the Farben complex, he refused on account that he disagreed with the trials, especially the prosecution of industrialists.
Corporate entities never faced trial because U.S. prosecutors, as well as some French and British prosecutors, agreed to focus on individual executives. This left the question of how to handle collective accountability unresolved (Bush 2009). In spite of these limitations, the precedents set at the Nuremberg WWII military tribunals enabled plaintiffs to use the U.S. Alien Tort Statute (ATS) to hold corporations accountable for human rights abuses committed abroad (Skinner 2008). Even though the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. limited the use of the ATS for future cases, the Nuremberg precedents made their contribution. The cultural mores that Nuremberg helped establish continue to matter, especially with so few legal mechanisms able to hold transnational actors accountable (Kelly 2016). The International Criminal Court can only try individuals not entities. The International Court of Justice only considers conflicts between states. Many smaller countries lack either the strength or judicial will to hold corporate actors accountable. Even when courts successfully hold corporations liable for human rights violations, the checks issued to victims can become simply the cost of business, rather than symbolizing a recognition of moral wrongdoing or, more substantively, providing a disincentive to continuing immoral practices.
Where law cannot reach judicially or morally, human rights-related bodies step in. Discourses about universal obligations to protect human rights proliferated after World War II, giving birth to the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Genocide Convention. The United Nations Guiding Principles, supported by NGOs and UN Human Rights Council members, includes a section on business and human rights. Only recently did human rights advocates consider corporations as important protectors or violators of human rights (Muchlinski 2001). The UN Global Compact encourages businesses to voluntarily comply with human rights standards. Only in 2011, however, did the UN’s Human Rights Council endorse this Compact and the related Guiding Principles on Human Rights developed by John Ruggie. Now, the movement has momentum: in 2019, the Human Rights Council drew attention to on-going state-sanctioned campaigns of mass atrocity, including the companies, foreign and domestic, that facilitated Myanmar’s extermination and deportation of the Rohingya (UNHRC 2019). In spite of these promising efforts, United Nations remains devastatingly limited in its ability to protect human rights (Sethi 2015).
The need to include business in these conversations, however, is only increasing. Transnational corporations continue to dwarf the size of many countries. Today, more than fifty percent of the richest entities in the world are corporations, not countries (Global Justice Now 2018). Encouraging corporate participation in the protection of human rights requires supporting corporate leadership in ways that make it more willing and prepared to engage in this work. Public voices increasingly demand this participation.
Impacted and influenced publics advance human rights discourse as much through informal processes of persuasion as through the formal actions of organizations (Niezen 2020). A dialectical relationship must exist between the harmed and the one that committed harm in order to promote the emotions of guilt necessary to compel a response (Makkai and Braithwaite 1994a, b). Victims and their advocates can sometimes instigate corporate engagement with human rights violations. The idea that Unilever, for example, could be considered complicit with the Nazis came late to the company and only due to outside pressure (Forbes 2007). Also due to public pressure, Royal Dutch Shell continues to face questions about its war years operating in Nazi Germany (Boon and Wubs 2016). Publics pressured Hugo Boss to reveal its role in the war. The company responded by commissioning historian Roman Koester to complete an independent history. Upon completion of a World War II study in 2011, the company issued an apology (BBC 2011). Scholars Köster and Schnaus (2018) revived attention to the clothing industry’s margins of maneuver during the Nazi regime. Hugo Boss made Nazi uniforms; Seidensticker made shirts; and Bierbaum-Proenen made other garments. Company founders Walter Seidensticker and Hugo Boss became early and lasting members of the Nazi party. While they used less slave labor than other industries, each company benefited from the closure or acquisition of Jewish-owned competitors. Hugo Boss flourished, doubling its employees to fulfill the demand for Nazi uniforms. Such histories have increasingly come into public view and shifted corporate ethical discourse.
Contemporary executives who are engaging (willingly or by public demand) with questions about the past first need to understand that they cannot fully control the duration of these atonement conversations. Degussa AG thought it had atoned for its wartime role but finds itself still crippled by its past. During the war, Degussa AG absorbed Jewish real estate and assets, acquired rights to the $8 million (in contemporary value) of stolen precious metals, and used forced laborers (most of whom they worked to death). Through its subsidiary, Degesch, the company also produced the cyanide-based Zyklon B pellets used in the gas chambers. The company made an estimated $168,000 profit in contemporary value for the sale of Zyklon B (Rosenbloom and Althaus 2010). For this, the director of Degesch received a five-year prison sentence (Gutman 1990; Feig 1981). Other Degesch leaders lost their jobs. Ultimately, international law, through German courts, issued a rare conviction: The court held the entire company accountable for slave labor. In 2000, Degesch worked with sixteen other companies to create a foundation that donated millions of euros to the survivors of its abuses.
The company had hoped their donations and legal convictions would put the past to rest, but survivors do not forget so easily. At the time of the commemoration ceremony for Convoy 77, one of the participating survivors, Cecile, spoke to me about how her father’s deportation from France and murder at Auschwitz continues to affect her feelings about corporate complicity: “When I go to the pharmacy, I always look at which brand made the product. The pharmacist always wonders why I ask. But I won’t buy a product from a company that participated in the production of Zyklon B gas.”Footnote 2 While companies rarely feel the moral or financial pinch of survivors’ personal boycotts, they may face their history in other ways. In 2002, when AG Degussa responded to a Request for Proposal (RFP) to provide the anti-graffiti paint for a new memorial in Berlin to honor murdered Jews, the executive team worried that the lucrative project, valued at just under one million euros, would unearth its past (Rosenbloom and Althaus 2010). This is not an unrealistic fear. Over the past two decades, French National Railways (SNCF- Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français) executives watched their wartime history make national and international news as they bid in response to RFPs for high-speed, regional, and commuter rail projects in several U.S. states.
My study of the French National Railways’ wartime activities both demonstrates the complex roles these actors can play during war and advances conversations about corporate leadership in the aftermath. The company had multiple roles during World War II; first, as a victim of the German occupation in France. Post-war the company received the title of hero for the acts of some brave employees. Fifty years later, the title of perpetrator circulated as the company’s role in the Holocaust deportations became more publicly visible. The SNCF worked to maintain a positive group identity throughout these periods. Initially, trying to maintain esteem within the organization and in the eyes of consumers, sidelined ethical complexities associated with the war. When this happens, superficial work of image management replaces the development of healthy esteem earned through reflection and correction of missteps. Etang (1994) aims to guide leaders through this difference. Many confuse public relations and propaganda; the former engages in a thoughtful on-going two-way (or multiparty) dialogue. Propaganda, on the other hand, seeks only to influence opinion.
Increased scholarly engagement will inspire and guide corporate engagement with human rights protection and atonement. Clohesy (2004) encourages corporations to adhere to human rights standards as an extension of moral duty, most scholars writing about management, entrepreneurship, finance, or accounting sidestep corporate moral obligations. Scholars considering this subject matter rarely discuss historical wrongs. Liu et al. (2019) reviewed the thematic landscape of business ethics scholarship, they identified scholars grappling with ethical decision making (leadership, market and consumer), corporate social responsibility, and philanthropy. An analysis by Collins (2000) identified other subcategories, such as ethical sensitivities, ethics codes, and human resources. Singer (2007) explores scholarship at the intersection of business strategy and ethics. None of these contributions, however, enter into the historical behavior of corporations and its relation to contemporary corporate ethics.Footnote 3
The themes of human rights, mass atrocity, atonement, genocide, complicity, war crimes, historical legacy and even victims remain outside the scope of these inquiries. To date, the most egregious crimes, such as those enumerated in the International Criminal Court’s Victim’s Handbook, remain unexamined by scholars writing about corporate behavior and strategy. Yet companies continue to participate in murder, torture, pillaging, enslavement and the use of armed groups. The lack of juridical or government bodies at the international level that handle corporate actors and legal lacuna at the state level make the participation of business ethics scholarship imperative. This new conversation fits easily within existing scholarship about ethical leadership. Thankfully, CEOs of major corporations increasingly fashion themselves as activists (Chatterji and Toffel 2018). This activism, which usually focuses on forward change, could also apply to addressing past atrocities. While perhaps less glamourous work, addressing past harm remains an essential aspect of ethical leadership. Just as leaders as well as citizens inherit their country’s histories, so too do CEOs and employees. Leadership sets an ethical tone that staff can materialize to great effect (Lempereur and Herrington 2016).
Perhaps this argument moves too quickly for those asking, “can groups be responsible or have moral duties?” (Singer 2007, p. 25). Friedman (1970) and others, who see profit seeking as the only collective responsibility of businesses, challenge this ethics and accountability discourse. Increasingly, however, scholars are pushing back on what seems, to many, like dated logic. Robinson (2009), writing about professional contexts, promotes a standard of “universal responsibility” that asks us “to see the other as of value and thus worthy of our response—always” (2009, p. 18). Following Bauman (1989), Robinson contends that the Holocaust made this a moral imperative. Pruzan (2001) argues that these duties had to be fulfilled through the kind of on-going existential self-reflection needed for honest assessment. I argue that the kind of increased organizational consciousness that Pruzan advocates must also include reflections about past behavior. Who can provide guidance to those at the helm of companies with histories of human rights abuses?
Transitional justice scholars consider amends-making in these contexts. While initially focused on nation-building during the Cold War (Teitel 2003), the field expanded to include various forms of atonement such as compensation, institutional change, victim services, commemoration, transparency, and apologies (Auckerman 2002). While state engagement with these mechanisms remains the focus of most working in transitional justice, corporations increasingly find themselves under scrutiny (Federman 2017). The SNCF serves as an ideal case at the intersection of business ethics and transitional justice, both because of the company’s complex roles during the war and its deep engagement with how to respond to its participation in the Holocaust. From the moment of German occupation through the present day, the company’s moral actions and inactions can provide guidance to those needing to atone.