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HeraldTribune - Friday, Februari 17, 2006

German bank confronts shameful past
By Mark Landler The New York Times

FRANKFURT Dresdner Bank helped finance the construction of the Auschwitz death camp and was the bank of choice for Hitler's SS paramilitary, according to an independent report on the German bank's dealings during the Nazi era that was released Friday in Berlin.

The findings in the report are not entirely new, but they serve as a blunt reminder that Dresdner, Germany's third-largest bank and one with extensive international operations, was an early, enthusiastic supporter of the Nazis, benefiting from personal ties between its bankers and SS commanders.

"Without the help of the bank, the SS could not have constructed its large network of business interests," said Harald Wixforth, a historian at Ruhr University in Bochum who wrote one of the report's four volumes. "Dresdner Bank participated in many ways in the crimes of the Nazi era."

Most notoriously, Dresdner financed, and owned a stake, in a construction company that built some of the crematoriums at the Auschwitz camp in Poland. Wixforth said Dresdner's bankers were aware of the camp's purpose, and encouraged the company to take the contract.

Dresdner Bank is the latest of several German companies to hire outside scholars to research their wartime history. Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank and Bertelsmann have released such studies, while Commerzbank is expected to publish the last installment of its report next year.

In Dresdner's case, this public act of reckoning was also a response to withering criticism from Holocaust survivors in 1997, when the bank all but erased the Third Reich from its 125th anniversary celebrations. The former chief executive, Jürgen Sarrazin, relegated the bank's dealings with the Nazis to a single sentence in a lengthy speech.

Speaking in Berlin on Friday, the current chief executive, Herbert Walter, said criticism of the bank's selective memory was justified.

"Dresdner Bank took it to heart," he said. "It was a belated awakening."

Like other big German banks, Dresdner has tried, with mixed success, to remake itself into a global financial institution. In 2000, it acquired the New York investment bank, Wasserstein Perella. A year later, Dresdner was itself acquired by Allianz, the Munich-based insurance giant.

In recent years, Dresdner has burnished its image by raising money to rebuild the Church of Our Lady, a baroque masterpiece destroyed in the Allied bombing raid of Dresden, its hometown, in February 1945.

But the bank's wartime past has dogged it. Soon after its anniversary celebration in 1997, Dresdner commissioned four historians, led by Klaus-Dietmar Henke, to sift through its archives, here and abroad, to document the bank's involvement with the SS and other Nazi organizations. The project took six years to research and a seventh year to write.

Wixforth said he visited 35 archives in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and other countries for his volume of the series, which focuses on Dresdner's expansion outside Germany during the Third Reich.

"This is by far the most detailed study of any German enterprise during the Nazi period," he said.

Dresdner demonstrated its fealty to the Nazi Party early on, when it purged Jewish bankers and put two party members on its board. The bank's main link to the SS was through Oswald Pohl, a top SS commander who directed the paramilitary's economic activities, which included stripping and selling the possessions of Jews brought to the camps.

Dresdner's ties to the SS were long known, but Wixforth said the researchers turned up records of money transfers that demonstrate the extent of the links. The bank lent extensive funds to the SS, helping it amass interests in stone quarries and porcelain manufacturing.

Two years ago, Wixforth said, the researchers uncovered the evidence of Dresdner's role in Auschwitz. The bank held a 26 percent stake in a leading construction firm of the time, Huta Hoch- and Tiefbau, which had a contract to build crematoriums at the camp in Poland.

"Huta needed a lot of money to construct those crematoriums," Wixforth said, "and Dresdner lent it that money."

Copyright: HeraldTribune

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