How responsible are you for your ancestors’ or predecessors’ actions?
Posted by silentarchimedes on September 12, 2008
This question has been raised in some form or another regarding individuals, corporations and governments/countries in recent years.
In an article today, some people have been criticizing the football Jets and Giants for considering selling naming rights to their new stadium to Allianz SE, a German financial services provider with ties to the Nazi party back in the 1930s.
Gerald Feldman’s book Allianz and the German Insurance Business is a look at the links between the Nazi party and big business in 1930s Germany concentrating on Allianz’s relationship. According to Holocaust historians and legal experts, such as Professors Michael Bazyler and Gerald Feldman from the United States, Allianz insured the concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau as well as other death camps.
Eduard Hilgard, a general director of Allianz AG and head of the Reich Association for Private Insurance during the entire National Socialist regime.
Allianz’s leadership, represented by directors Kurt Schmitt and Eduard Hilgard, led a policy of drawing nearer to the Nazis, even before they seized power. Already in October 1930, ties were forged with Hermann Göring. These contacts were realized through company dinners and by providing private financial loans. Heinrich Brüning and Franz von Papen tried without success to get Schmitt a ministerial office.
There are several ethical questions to consider regarding this situation. Are there any current ties to the Nazi party now in Allianz? How much has Allianz admitted its Nazi past? And if they have, how apologetic are they?
The question I am interested in in this post is the first one. If there are no current ties to their past actions, how much should they be vilified or discriminated against? How much is the current corporation and governing board responsible for its predecessors past actions? Now obviously you can go into a case by case basis and closely investigate how much of the corporate culture of the past still exist today or if the current company is essentially a new company with the same name and industry as its former. But from a simple ethical perspective, should a company be currently punished for its historical actions many years ago?
As we have witnessed, this ethical question is not limited to corporations. Many individuals have been affected by links to controversial ancestors. Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, had associations with Adolf Hitler. Hitler was known to have said, “I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration.” Ford was also awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, the highest medal awarded by Nazi Germany to foreigners. Even the company itself has had to fend of allegations of Nazi collaboration. However, this has never had much of an impact on Ford’s descendants and even the company. History has judged him more for his inventiveness and pacifism (He was strongly against both world wars) than Hitler’s admiration of him. This is apparent today as his Ford Motor Company continues to be one of the major automobile corporations in America and his great-grandson William Clay Ford, Jr. (executive chairman) continues a long line of Ford descendants as major players in the company.
On the flip side is the question of whether descendants take too much honor in the greatness of their ancestors. For example, as the Yankees play their last season in the old Yankee Stadium, or “The House that Ruth Built”, many of the families of Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle are clamoring for more celebrations to honor their great ancestral baseball players. It makes sense since they are the bearers of the Ruth and Mantle names, but they themselves have not done anything for baseball on the field. Even the descendants of Thomas Jefferson feel some sort of pride and responsibility in upholding the sanctity of the Jefferson name.
Finally, we must broach this ethical question in regards to countries and governments as well. One of the main examples has been the question of whether the United States should pay reparations for the heinous culture of slavery before the Civil War. This example actually analyzes both the responsibility of the country and the individual. One, should a government be responsible for actions it caused over one hundred to three hundred years ago, considering no one in the government was alive during that time? Second, if they are, should the descendants of slaves get the awards their ancestors should be entitled to, considering none of the descendants are or were slaves? These are very interesting questions to consider and will probably never be resolved. One possible sticking point has been who is considered a descendant of a slave, since the Census did not keep track of slaves and slave owners.
This leads back to the original motivation of this article, Germany and its Nazi past. I stayed in Munich, Germany for 3 months last summer and it was definitely hard to fathom that it was the center of Nazi culture. Germany is a much different place now. It almost has a non-feeling atmosphere, where everyone still feels guilty of its past, where everyone is afraid to show any form of nationalism. The past 60 to 70 years have been very difficult for most Germans to comprehend. I definitely believe that although Allianz had connections to the Nazi party many years ago, no one in that company does now. Germany has become one of our steadfast allies, and although there is some negative symbolism in naming one of our football stadiums after such a company, I think we also have to have some sense of closure and acceptance at the new realities.
As what was strongly stated in The Corporation, this whole discussion lends credence to the fact that corporation indeed can be perceived as superhumans.