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|Edwin Black||March 1st 2010|
Some Measure of Justice—The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s. Michael Marrus. University of Wisconsin Press, October 2009. 184 pages.
Few would have been more receptive than I to the latest volume by Michael Marrus entitled Some Measure of Justice—The Holocaust Era Restitution Campaign of the 1990s. I have enormous respect for Professor Marrus who is clearly one of the world’s most talented Holocaust historians. Robert A. Paxton, Marrus’s coauthor in the book Vichy France and the Jews, was one of four leading historians to vet my own work, IBM and the Holocaust, and was acknowledged by me in my book. Like many, I have been troubled by the chaotic mess of Holocaust restitution and I authored a syndicated article for the New York Jewish Week and other Jewish newspapers headlined “Holocaust ‘Industry’ More About Money Than Memory.” Moreover, I am fully versed in the war-time crimes and collaboration of such companies as IBM, GM, Ford, the Swiss banks, and the leading Holocaust-era insurance companies, all of which knowingly helped Hitler pauperize the Jews, systematize the persecution, and consciously helped empower the Third Reich’s war against humanity.
In my opinion, Marrus’s misguided volume seems to be so filled with selective facts and misplaced emphasis that the text creates a totally wrong impression and historical insight into this important topic. Marrus’s five-chapter volume, consisting of 127 pages plus front and back matter, displays no archival references or other primary documentation. Instead, I see a selective collage of secondary and tertiary opinions, journal articles, newspaper reports, essays, and editorials attributed to other thinkers and writers who are struggling with the difficult subject of Holocaust restitution. How Marrus arranges these second-hand and third-hand assessments can be troubling.
On page 34, in a typical passage, Marrus writes “according to an account in The New York Times, ‘objections to the panel work were so strong that some staff members said they contemplated writing a minority report.’” Footnote 106 attributes this passage to a March 3, 2003 article in The New York Times. Hence, we have a New York Times report citing unnamed sources about unnamed individuals which now rises to the standard of a historian’s footnote. Every morning, The New York Times publishes corrections and amplifications about prior articles. This book shows no evidence that Marrus attempted to verify the sentence in The New York Times by doing the same fact checking that a cub reporter would do to make it worthy of inclusion in a senior historian’s work. That is not the depth I was expecting from Marrus.
In a section beginning on page 22 regarding Holocaust-era insurance companies such as Allianz and Generali, Marrus recites the defendants’s party line that they were victims of the circumstances of Nazi-dominated Europe. In fact, these insurance companies were vividly aware that they were colluding with the Nazis in the confiscation of Jewish assets and any remnant Jewish victims had to restart their lives. I called one of the gentlemen centrally involved in this litigation. He states that he was never contacted by Marrus for his side of the story. That does not reassure me.
In a section on General Motors, I see one of several troubling instances of a selective approach that I cannot explain. Marrus turns to GM’s involvement with forced labor, citing the work of the controversial historian Professor Henry Ashby Turner. Marrus writes, “In Turner’s view, the war-time links between the forced-labor-employing Opel and GM in the United States were practically nonexistent.” Marrus then goes on to cite Turner’s work, which was financed by General Motors, to explain the period from December 1941 when Hitler declared war on the United States to underscore the “war-time” period under review. I find that strange. As everyone knows, World War II broke out on September 30, 1939, about two years before America entered the fray. At the time of the outbreak of WWII, General Motors and Opel had completely cooperated in the Nazi military machine. GM had spent years building the Blitz truck for the Blitzkrieg, this for the very purpose of enabling the German military to conquer Europe. This collaboration was done under the direct micromanagement of its president, Alfred Sloan, using a variety of façades, interlocking directorships and management ploys to mask the fact. In fact, General Motors and Opel cooperated in pre-positioning spare parts and other automotive materials along the Polish border during the two weeks prior to the outbreak of World War II. Indeed, Opel, under General Motors’s direct American supervision, effectively motorized the Third Reich, preparing it for the war that enabled the Holocaust. One must wonder what type of Holocaust Hitler could have perpetrated on horseback. Beyond the trucks and cars GM Opel made for the German military, the company also produced the JU-88 bomber, torpedo warheads, and land mines to create a reign of terror on Europe from land, sea, and air. Even Turner covers much of this collusion in his book cited by Marrus, but it is not brought up in the chapter by Marrus.
The point is this: whether or not several hundred forced laborers were compelled to work under brutal conditions in GM installations—which is true—the vastly larger corporate crime involves the millions of people across the continent that were terrorized and murdered by the Hitler war machine thanks to the conscious involvement of General Motors. This involvement was orchestrated directly and knowingly from New York and Detroit. When General Motor reads this paragraph, it will not issue a denial. But nor has GM fully faced up to its behavior beyond issuing a few anemic apologies.
After 1941, when America entered the war, it was of course required for General Motors, and other corporate collaborators, to conduct their crimes using go-betweens in Denmark, and certain neutral countries in South America and Europe. But nowhere do we see this recited in Marrus’s book. That is the kind of selective approach that troubles me. Moreover, of the many historians and investigative journalists who have written about General Motors’s involvement in the Holocaust and with the Third Reich generally, I’m confused as to why Marrus would choose Professor Turner as his credible source. After all, the controversial Turner took GM’s money to undertake the company’s research and was a full partner in the sequestration of the documents arising from that research until I pressured Yale University and General Motors into releasing them to me for a syndicated investigative series I did for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Turner, it will be remembered, was the same man who used his position to hound a junior academic out of the history profession. In the 1980s, Turner disliked a book entitled The Collapse of the Weimar Republic by young historian David Abraham, at the time assistant history professor at Princeton. Abraham argued, as many have since, that large corporate partners helped Hitler seize power. Turner believed and had written the opposite, that corporations were not significantly involved in Nazi Party finances. In a campaign of targeted letter writing and phone calls, Abraham was denounced by Turner and his confederates as unfit to be a scholar. As other historians have observed in plain words, Abraham was “hounded out of the profession” by Turner. Years later, newspapers recalling the incident termed the Turner-Abraham affair “tempestuous.” The young historian Abraham finally buckled under the pressure and left the history field. He then obtained a law degree and now works for the University of Miami as a professor of law, where he has worked with distinction.
In another instance, Turner faxed a pre-publication negative review of a book to a speaking venue attempting to encourage the cancellation of the author’s appearance. So of the many historians to cite on GM, I cannot understand why Marrus would cite Turner—the combative academic so sympathetic to corporate complicity that GM itself hired.
When Marrus attempts to talk about the war crimes of IBM and its president, Thomas J. Watson, he touches a topic of which I have some considerable knowledge. To me, what Marrus writes and does not write is baffling. On page 97, Marrus contradicts the common assessment of IBM’s Watson as a “corporate scoundrel.” The quotes around “corporate scoundrel” are by Marrus. He adds, however, this view of Watson as a “corporate scoundrel” has been “sharply challenged.” As evidence, he cites Kevin Maney’s biography The Maverick and the Machine which, in the words of Marrus, “portrayed his subject evenhandedly as an appeaser, an ambitious peacenik, and a maverick champion.” In other words, Marrus is attempting to discredit the notion that Watson was a “corporate scoundrel” and is trying to use Kevin Maney’s work to buttress that view. But the fact is that virtually all biographies of Thomas Watson recite the fact that Watson was convicted in a massive conspiracy of extortion, harassment, fraud, and manipulation involving National Cash Register machines, this just before coming to IBM. In fact, in Maney’s book, p.23 begins a long section about Thomas Watson himself fearing that his conviction would lead to three years in jail. Maney writes “He could go to jail for three years.” Maney himself uses the term “gangster operation” to describe the National Cash Register crime spree. Most other biographies of Watson and in-depth profiles of IBM also give details of this corporate criminality by Watson. Once again, I am confused by Marrus finding the necessity to be so selective about Watson as a “corporate scoundrel” when the man was adjudged as much by his peers, by history and a careful court of law.
There are many more passages I find troubling. But the few cited here are certainly not atypical for this book. Certainly, it is easy to paper clip together any number of slanted and negative opinions about Holocaust victim litigation successes and failures. But many would feel it is the historian’s job to dig deeper and find greater clarity when confronting the two almost antithetical concepts of “justice” and “the law.” After all, virtually every anti-Jewish measure undertaken by the Reich was perversely justified by some morbid law, decree, ruling, or other quasi-juridical process. But were these laws just?
I also found troubling Marrus’ public thanks in his preface. “I’m also grateful to The Ford Foundation” he wrote, “… which provided welcome financial support.” I cannot understand why an esteemed historian such as Professor Marrus would accept a financial relationship with The Ford Foundation? This foundation has in recent years been exposed as a leading global financier of international groups which engage in anti-Jewish and anti-Israel agitation, as well as Holocaust denial, and other hate-filled activities. Revelations about the Foundation’s past involvement several years ago led to numerous organizational and governmental investigations of Ford’s grants. Ford apologized and claimed it would set a higher standard. But even now in 2010, there has been a daily drum beat in the media and among Jewish organization decrying the involvement of The Ford Foundation in activities that support recent anti-Israel agitation, especially following the one-sided sections of the Goldstone Commission Report.
I would think that gratefully printing the name of The Ford Foundation in the preface would be a stigma—not a badge of honor. It makes me ask just how much money The Ford Foundation gave to this project, under what conditions, and what was the purpose? This is not explained in the book, but I think that in any book devoted to corporate monies and the issue of justice against corporations, the reader is entitled to know.
I also was amazed that the editorial problems I easily discovered in this book were not caught by the editors of the University of Wisconsin Press. I called the editors and they made clear to me that they feel no duty to fact check the books they publish claiming, “We are an academic press,” which they in effect suggested exempts them from fact checking and correcting any intentional or unintended errors, omissions, or context. It would seem to me that an academic press would place a greater value on historical precision. All publishing houses I know accept the professional responsibilities of vetting facts before and after publication. University of Wisconsin should rethink its answers in this realm, especially when the topic involves living people and contemporary matters.
Somewhere in his book I wish Professor Marrus had explained that throughout the twentieth century, all the nations of Europe had their crack at restitution. In fact, it was the onerous levels of restitution and reparation for WWI set by the Treaty of Versailles that fermented the indispensable ingredient in the rise of the Third Reich. After World War II, the Allied governments had their turn exacting confiscations, reparations, and restitutions against Axis corporations and assets to find some measure of justice. But victimized individuals who have had their property seized, their lives destroyed, and their families murdered, did not have the benefit of governmental victors to swing the gavel once and presto—restitution is ordered. The victims were left alone to fend to themselves many years after the fact.
Yes, a free-for-all emerged where greedy lawyers, competing interests and squabbling victims all tried to achieve some measure of justice and too often achieved only a measure of injustice. Many haplessly did so without a play book, without precedent, without structure, and without the power that rich corporations wield in defending their actions. This includes the corporate ability to hire highly credentialed academics to produce reports, books, and articles, and sit on self-serving commissions, as was done by Ford, GM, and many others.
I also wish Marrus had explained that the restitution movement does not originate with greedy lawyers or hand-wringing victims but is, in fact, an injunction from the Bible. Readers of the Exodus story will recall that when Moses won the liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt, the Lord instructed the fleeing slaves to go from house-to-house collecting gold, silver, and fine clothing to compensate for the unjust enrichment of 400 years of slavery. Unfortunately, in the case of Holocaust restitution, there was no Biblical mandate--just a crime where too often the wrong people continue to profit and the victims in fits and starts continue to seek some measure of justice.
Edwin Black is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of IBM and the Holocaust and Nazi Nexus—American Corporate Complicity in Hitler’s Holocaust and a frequent campus lecturer on corporate involvement and the Holocaust.