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The Nazi-Corporate Connection: Facing the Ethical Challenges of Business Head-on

Through the Business Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE), Shira Beery ’17 visited sites of genocidal atrocities and explored the relationships between the Nazi regime and businesses.

I recently spent 12 days in Germany and Poland as one of 13 fellows in the Business Fellowship at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics (FASPE). The fellows, from business schools in the U.S. and Europe, joined journalist and law fellows to explore our respective professions’ roles in Nazi atrocities and to draw lessons for the present. We discussed contemporary cases, including Volkswagen’s rigging emissions tests to meet U.S. standards; Walmart’s sourcing from the poorly constructed Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, which collapsed and killed 2,000 workers; and the Ford Pinto’s faulty design, which led to numerous deaths over 11 years. We also reflected on personal ethical challenges at work and learned useful tools to act effectively in the future. Conversations about recent and personal events became increasingly urgent as we learned about the Nazi period through visceral experiences.

Shira Beery (second from left) and other FASPE fellows. Photo by Harriet Dedman.

One of the key takeaways I will bring back with me to Yale SOM from this fellowship is that we must be vigilant and act early and strategically when businesses are complicit in human rights abuse and unethical behavior. If we wait, as the world did in the 1930s, we may be too late. 

Business played an essential role in Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.  IG Farben (Bayer's predecessor) supplied the patent for deadly chemicals used to exterminate millions of Jews. Financial institutions like Allianz and Deutsche Bank meticulously transferred Jewish assets to German hands. Technology developed by IBM tracked and managed the "evacuation" of Jews across Europe. The hair of Jews who were gassed and burned to ash was sold in bulk to textile manufacturers.

It is most palatable to categorize business complicity in Nazi atrocities against Jews, Sinti and Roma, homosexuals, people with disabilities, and too many others as inhumanly evil and, therefore, unlikely to be repeated. However, FASPE makes the compelling case that many of the factors that led businesses to become perpetrators were, well, business as usual. These companies followed the rule of law, championed values like honesty and loyalty, and protected their market share and employees' welfare by supporting Nazi strategy.

We visited the Wannsee House, where Nazi middle managers planned the logistics of the Final Solution to annihilate Europe’s Jews. We saw train tracks where tens of thousands of Jews from Berlin were deported to concentration camps. We went to Auschwitz, where gas chambers and crematoria were built to “process” 200,000 Jews per day. Seeing the sites removed their mythic shrouds, exposing them as normal places where people made horrifying decisions and implemented them with impressive efficiency. We mourned the murdered, including 1.5 million beautiful children, and met a survivor who shares her story to inspire respect for all humans. As the granddaughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, these experiences were deeply personal for me. It was the first time I visited the place where my grandparents were born and my ancestors perished. Their legacy has influenced my path and commitment to promoting social impact. 

As corporations’ global footprint increases, it is more important than ever for business leaders to be equipped to face complex ethical challenges. I now better understand how I might influence organizations without being a CEO. Professor Mary Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values curriculum provided tactical guidance that any MBA student would find valuable. I leave the program with a toolkit and a lifelong network of peers and mentors. Despite the difficult topics we discussed, I feel hopeful and energized.

I strongly encourage SOM students to apply for FASPE. Thank you to Professors Markus Scholz and Mary Gentile and the entire team for an unforgettable experience.