Public Comment

How Do We Handle Industrial Evil?

by Gar Smith
Tuesday January 17, 2012 - 05:54:00 PM

"What does it matter to us? Look away if it makes you sick"

— Heinrich Himmler in response to complaints about Auschwitz

They conspired to murder millions with lethal gases. They plotted to seek out and kill children. When challenged about what they had done, they lied, they covered up, they tried to silence their critics. They ranked among the country's wealthiest executives. They are the officers of the US tobacco industry. 

In the aftermath of the Philip Morris disclosures and the Liggett Group confessions, the victims of the tobacco industry are demanding justice. 

A proposed $368 billion settlement would shield the tobacco industry from future lawsuits in exchange for halting advertising, financing anti-smoking programs and underwriting healthcare for children. 

The trade-off is uncomfortably reminiscent of Latin American "amnesty" agreements. In Chile, Brazil, Argentina and Peru, military leaders who plotted the political assassinations of thousands of civilians have escaped punishment entirely under the cover of such deals. 

If a particular make of car is shown to roll over, lose control or explode, that auto is recalled. If pesticide residues in food send people to the hospital, those products are taken off the shelves. Toys that choke children and eat little girls' hair are banned. 

Now that the cigarette makers have admitted that their products kill, why should they be allowed to remain in business? 

Nicotine and Nuremberg 

When individuals and corporations commit crimes of demonstrable evil, by what standard should they be judged? 

The world first confronted this question in Nuremberg, Germany, on November 20, 1946, when an International Military Tribunal of distinguished jurists tried 23 Nazi officials for war crimes. 

On May 3, 1947, a second Nuremberg tribunal was convened. This court charged 24 officials of a powerful German chemical corporation — I.G. Farben — with committing crimes of "slavery and mass murder" at the company's sprawling Auschwitz chemical plant. 

I.G. Farben officials initially claimed that they had no idea what was happening at Auschwitz. When that failed, they fell back on the excuse that, had they tried to prevent the extermination of their Jewish workforce, they could have been sent to jail for "undermining the fighting spirit" of the German nation — a capital offense. 

US tobacco companies do not have this excuse. They did not kill and conspire to save their skins — they did it simply to line their pockets. 

In The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben (The Free Press, Macmillian Publishing, 1978), Joseph Borkin reports that the judges were moved by defense lawyers' attempts "to equate the I.G. defendants with their industrial counterparts in the US and other countries as God-fearing, decent and vigorously opposed to communism." 

As the lawyer for Farben executive Carl Krauch told the court: "Replace I.G. by ICI [Imperial Chemical Industries] for England, or Du Pont for America, or Montecatini for Italy and at once the similarity will become clear to you." 

On July 29, 1948, the court sentenced 12 of the 24 Farben officials to prison terms ranging from 18 months to eight years. 

A Corporate Crimes Tribunal? 

The next question became: What was to become of I.G. Farben itself? 

US Gen. Dwight Eisenhower concluded that a peaceful Germany could be assured only by fracturing Farben's strategic role in the German economy. To this end, Eisenhower proposed the following actions: 

* Seize I.G. plants and assets and use them to make reparations to the victims. 

* Destroy I.G. plants used exclusively for war production. 

* Break up I.G.'s monopoly by dispersing ownership of the remaining plants. 

* End I.G.'s interests in global cartels. 

* Take over I.G.'s research programs and facilities. 

"The same day Eisenhower's recommendations were released to the papers," Borkin writes, "the United States Army announced plans to dynamite three I.G. plants in the American zone... [declaring that] these factories would be `the first of many hundreds... designated for actual destruction.'" 

The American military government promulgated a sweeping antitrust law. Companies found to maintain an "excessive concentration of economic power... were to be reorganized and broken up." On June 17, 1947, decartelization began as Farben's holdings in the American zone were broken into 47 independent units. 

But Eisenhower's plan was sabotaged in 1947 by a team of 14 US businessmen who objected that the anti-monopoly drive might interfere with the "possible recovery of the economic life of a starving people." 

The dismantling of I.G. Farben was halted. The firm's assets were consolidated into three holding companies — Bayer, BASF and Hoechst. In December 1951, when these companies announced their new officers, the names included many former Farben executives. 

In September 1955, Friedrich Jaehne, a former war criminal, emerged as the new chairman of Hoechst. In 1956, Fritz ter Meer, a war criminal convicted of both plunder and slavery, became the chair of Bayer's supervisory board. 

As Borkin notes: "In 1977, Hoechst, BASF; and Bayer were among the 30 largest industrial companies in the world.... Each one is bigger than I.G. at its zenith." 

What's To Be Done? 

The late author/activist Richard Grossman has explained how to put law-breaking corporations permanently out of business by seizing their charters of incorporation ["Seize their Charters," Spring '93 EIJ]. The giant tobacco companies are a good place to start. 

The tobacco giants should be boycotted. In the case of Philip Morris, this means shunning scores of products including Duracell batteries, Miller beer, Sanka, Yuban, Shake In' Bake, Post cereals, Kool-Aid, Jello-O, Miracle Whip, Cheez Whiz and Velveeta. 

Tobacco farmers should be encouraged to grow "substitution crops" — e.g., kenaf for tree-free paper and food for the poor. (The US finances similar anti-drug substitution crop programs for opium farmers in Thailand and cocoa farmers in Peru.) 

Genocidal exports of cigarettes targeting kids in Asia and Africa should be banned. 

Finally, corporate reparations should be offered to the victims in terms of lifetime medical treatment for tobacco-linked diseases. Seized corporate assets also could finance drug-treatment programs to help people break their addictions to nicotine. 

(c) 1997 Earth Island Institute. This article originally appeared in the Summer 1997 issue of Earth Island Journal. Reprinted by permission of the author.