The banks and Nazi Germany

This article was submitted to YFile by Irmgard Steinisch, York University’s Modern German Historian and associate dean of the Faculty of Arts.

Modern German Historian Gerald Feldman visited York University recently to deliver the The Historian and Holocaust Restitution: Personal Experiences and Reflections Lecture, titled: “Aryanization in Nazi Germany and Austria: The role of financial institutions.”

Right: Gerald Feldman

York University’s interdisciplinary structure came to the fore during Feldman’s visit. Feldman is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley. The lecture was funded by Vice-President Academic Sheila Embleton and hosted by York’s Modern German Historian Irmgard Steinisch under the interdisciplinary umbrella of the Canadian Centre for German and European Studies. It was the combined support by different Faculty of Arts units, such as History, Humanities, Jewish Studies and Political Science, as well as Associate Vice-President Adrian Shubert, which helped make the event possible.

Feldman’s workshop and public lecture, which took place on Oct.13, addressed the historian’s role in the search for moral and financial restitution sought by victims of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany. His experience as witness at the Washington Conference on Holocaust Assets in 1998 and his extended research in the archives of big business, banks and insurance companies provided the background for his lecture. In addition Feldman’s expertise is supported by his membership in the historical commissions of Deutsche Bank and Bank Austria, and the advisory board of the historical commission of the Dresdner Bank.

Using case studies, Feldman outlined the complexity of the issue of individual restitution for the expropriations of Jewish property under Nazi Germany rule. The burden of written proof for expropriated real estate holdings, life insurance policies and bank accounts has been difficult for survivors but it is the legal legacy of Nazi German rule which to this day has complicated individual restitution claims. Among other examples, Feldman chose the fate of Germany’s famous Rothschild banking house to illustrate the legal maze the Nazi government used in its efforts to “Aryanize” Jewish property.

Feldman concluded that this legalism was needed in order to placate international business, but also German business which, as he emphasized, played by the rules of the Nazi regime and often welcomed the new business opportunities afforded to them by the policy of “Aryanization”. The culpability of German business leaders who operated according to “law” was a matter of some debate.