For a brief period in the late 1930s and 1940s, Adolf Hitler managed to redefine and personify evil in a way that even ancient mass-murderers such as Tamerlane and Genghis Khan never aspired to. By virtue of Hitler taking complete control of the most powerful country on the European continent, practically every existing business entity in Germany thus became a de facto instrument of this new and tyrannical government. At that time, doing business in Germany meant supporting Hitler, so it's not fair to frame all these businesses as enthusuastic Nazi collaborators. While some of these businesses exist and flourish today, it's likely that millions of their customers have no idea of these companies' past dealings with the Nazi party.
It seems that almost any German multinational of a certain vintage can find a link to the Nazi regime. In some cases, that link is more direct than in others. Bayer was founded in Germany in 1863, and has been a household name in North America since not long after.
Today, despite making everything from polymers to blood glucose monitors, Bayer remains most famous for being the company that first discovered (or more accurately, isolated) aspirin.
The most outrageous thing about Bayer's connection to the Nazi regime is the timing. In 1956, Bayer welcomed a new chairman of the board: a second-generation chemist named Fritz ter Meer. Bayer's directors must have liked what they saw in Fritz ter Meer, whose resume included the study of law, employment with his father's company and three years in prison for war crimes.
It's not as if ter Meer had been punished for, say, being ordered against his will to stand guard at Dachau. No, he helped plan Monowitz, a concentration camp better known as Auschwitz III. He also built the infamous Buna factory, where his colleagues conducted human experiments and forced slaves to build critical components for the Wehrmacht. Furthermore, Fritz ter Meer never denied his involvement, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison during the infamous Nuremburg Trials.
However, ter Meer served less than half of his sentence. Even then, having been subjected to a wrist slap from a light and fluffy pillow, ter Meer didn't merely fall into obscurity. He not only held the highest executive position at Bayer, but also served on the boards of several other companies before retiring in the 1960s and dying of natural causes at the age of 83.
Next time you're in your garage, look at the brand names of the products you find. If you own a damping pin, turbo compressor or fluoroscope, there's a good chance it carries the Siemens logo. The company is worth approximately $89 billion, employs roughly 370,000 people and claims to operate in about 190 countries.
When World War II became the major topic of concern for Germany, Siemens was there. The company forced slaves to manufacture components for the rockets that ended up raining down on London and Antwerp, Belgium in short order. In the early 21st century, Siemens began to pay reparations to the workers it had paid nary a pfennig to 55 years earlier.
For some of us of a certain age, BASF was the company that made cassette tapes. Another German multinational that's been around since the 19th century, BASF is similar to Siemens in another way, in that it produces the unglamorous if vital things that make life better: engineering plastics, chemical coatings and polymers that their end users don't even notice.
In 1925, BASF and a couple of partners formed an infamous conglomerate named IG Farben. One of the chemicals manufactured by the company at the time was Zyklon B, which was the gas used to suffocate untold millions of concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust.
In 1951, when the victors partitioned Germany, the Western Allies restored IG Farben into its original components. Today, BASF continues to trade as one of the featured securities on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, with a market capitalization of over $60 billion.
The Bottom Line
In a world where Chick-Fil-A can face a boycott because of the religious views of its chairman, and British Petroleum can be the subject of virulent protests because of a tragic accident, it's tough to imagine what form of consumer activism would be appropriate if the companies featured on this list were doing business today with hated regimes.