A four-year trawl through corporate archives by a historian working for the German automotive manufacturer Continental has revealed that the company—today worth €44 billion—played an active role supporting the Nazi party before and during the Second World War.

Describing the role as the “darkest chapter in our company’s history,” the current CEO Dr. Elmar Degenhart said the study was a chance for the multinational to “face up to our responsibility.”

Continental was founded in 1871 as a rubber company. Headquarted in Hanover, Germany, it today makes automobile and bicycle tires as well as brake systems, and automotive electronics. During the early years of the Nazi era the firm made rubber soles for shoes and boots but as Continental’s management fell under the sway of Nazi ideology it was given government contracts to manufacture a wider range of products.

A key finding of the study by LMU Munich historian Paul Erker was how susceptible Continental was to Nazi ideology.

“Corporate cultures can quickly topple under pressure from political regimes and opposing social influences,” said Dr. Ariane Reinhart, Continental’s executive board member for human relations.

Erker’s study—Supplier for Hitler’s War: Continental During the Nazi Era—describes how the company used forced laborers, concentration camp detainees and Russian prisoners of war.

Some of the concentration camp prisoners were “exploited and maltreated to the point of debilitation and death,” concluded the study.

Prisoners at Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin were force marched to test boots with rubber soles. The prisoners were expected to walk up to 25 miles per day around the camp’s parade ground, and if they fell they risked being shot.

War effort

Continental became a “pillar of the Nazi armaments and war economy,” said Erker, who is a specialist in corporate history of the Nazi era. His study also evaluated companies—including Teves, VDO, Phoenix and Semperit—which were also part of the German war effort but which Continental only absorbed some years later.

Teves evaded the attempts of the Nazi authorities to influence it, while Continental and VDO cooperated with the regime “with far less conflict,” found Erker.

“The study shows that Continental was an important part of Hitler’s war machine,” said Degenhart.

“We commissioned the study in order to gain more clarity about the darkest chapter in our company’s history. That’s why we specifically included those companies that were not part of Continental at the time.”

He added: “The study is a consciously chosen opportunity and a renewed motive for us to face up to our responsibility and, on the basis of past experiences, to understand our identity more clearly and to create a better future.”

Overcoming the past

Many German companies prospered during the Nazi era including car makers Volkswagen, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz. Siemens and Deutsche Bank have also had to face up to an unsavoury past while chemical giant IG Farben (which later became Bayer and BASF) manufactured the Zyklon B gas used to kill people in the extermination camps.

Continental’s study—and previous similar ones from other German companies—is part of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, or “overcoming the past,” an owning up of misdeeds during the Nazi era.