Thu, Nov 13, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Iconic Nazi-era company Farben files for bankruptcy

EMPTY COFFERS Protesters heckled I.G. Farben's administrators after the decision, which resulted from a failed land deal and leaves little for Holocaust victims


At its zenith during World War II, I.G. Farben was the world's largest chemical company and a sinister symbol of Nazi industrial might.

On Monday, the company, notorious for producing poison gas and using slave labor during the war, announced that it would file for bankruptcy.

That news may seem to come after the fact, given that Farben was dismantled by the Allies in 1952 -- its factories split among Bayer, BASF and other German chemical companies and its chief scientist condemned as a mass murderer by the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal.

But I.G. Farben lived on as a trust -- a legal entity fought over by court-appointed administrators and Holocaust survivors, who thought that its few remaining assets could be sold to pay restitution.

Now, in the wake of a failed real estate deal, Farben's administrators said the company would be dissolved, with the proceeds going to repay bank loans rather than Nazi-era victims or their families.

"It's a sad ending to the story," said Otto Bernhardt, an administrator of the company, which is known formally as I.G. Farbenindustrie in Abwicklung.

"I'm very disappointed because I had hoped to raise some money to pay to victims," he said.

Bernhardt said Farben had signed a deal to sell its last significant asset, 500 apartments valued at 38 million euros (US$44 million), to a German investment company, WCM.

The deal would have allowed Farben to cover bank loans and still have cash left over to settle claims.

But WCM backed out of the purchase, Bernhardt said, and the real estate market has deteriorated so much that Farben cannot hope to raise enough through a sale to another buyer to cover its debts.

WCM said it had signed only a preliminary letter of intent and was never under any form of legal obligation.

That one of Nazi Germany's mightiest industrial empires would come to an end amid the squabbling of a soured real estate deal attests to the difficulty of sifting through the claims and counter-claims dating back to that era.

Pursuing Farben's assets, whether in Swiss banks or factories in the former East Germany, was a profitable business for a generation of lawyers, as well as for investors, who speculated with Farben's shares -- technically called liquidation certificates -- on the Frankfurt stock exchange.

"There was a certain interest among the shareholders in keeping this alive," said Werner Abelshauser, a history professor at the University of Bielefeld, who is publishing a book about BASF, one of Farben's successor companies.

"But what was left of this company was peanuts," he said.

The announcement of Farben's bankruptcy filing in Frankfurt drew a knot of protesters, who heckled the administrators and waved placards asking, "Where is the money to pay restitution to the victims?"

An estimated 350,000 people were enslaved and forced into labor in Farben's plants during World War II.

At Auschwitz, where it ran a synthetic rubber factory, it enslaved 30,000 from the concentration camp.

Farben's holdings included a stake in Degesch, which developed the Zyklon B gas pellets used for exterminating people at Auschwitz and other camps.

Degesch's other major shareholder was Degussa, a chemical company that figured in another recent dispute when it was barred from supplying an anti-graffiti chemical to the memorial for Holocaust victims being built in Berlin.

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