Rezension über:

Ludolf Herbst / Thomas Weihe (Hgg.): Die Commerzbank und die Juden 1933-1945, München: C.H.Beck 2004, 444 S., ISBN 978-3-406-51873-7, EUR 29,90
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Rezension von:
Peter Hayes
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL
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Michael C. Schneider
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Peter Hayes: Rezension von: Ludolf Herbst / Thomas Weihe (Hgg.): Die Commerzbank und die Juden 1933-1945, München: C.H.Beck 2004, in: sehepunkte 5 (2005), Nr. 6 [15.06.2005], URL:

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Ludolf Herbst / Thomas Weihe (Hgg.): Die Commerzbank und die Juden 1933-1945

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This collection of seven interim reports (Zwischenberichte) on aspects of the role of the Commerzbank in the destruction of the livelihoods of Europe's Jews during the Nazi period will both educate and frustrate readers. On the positive side, the research and analysis are of high quality, the writing is clear and accessible, and the conclusions command respect. On the other hand, the book has two problematic aspects.

First, it is appearing in medias res as part of a series being prepared by a research team at the Humboldt University on the history of the Commerzbank from 1870 to 1958. Much background information essential to understanding the story this volume tells presumably will be treated in other works in the series, so the authors have not provided it here. Meanwhile, readers may find themselves inadequately oriented. The brief introduction merely explains terminological choices and summarizes the findings of the individual chapters, instead of providing overviews of the surviving sources and of the persons and strategies that guided the bank from 1933 to 1945 and that had implications for the story told here, and the body of the text also sometimes omits specifically relevant contextual information.

Consider one illustration. Nowhere will a reader encounter even a mention of the early and enduring support for the Nazi Party on the part of both Franz Heinrich Witthoeft, the chairman of the bank's Aufsichtsrat until 1934, and Friedrich Reinhart, the chairman of the bank's Vorstand until 1934, then Witthoeft's successor until 1943. In 1932, Reinhart joined the Keppler Circle and signed the famous November petition to Hindenburg calling for Hitler's appointment as Chancellor. [1] A reference to this behavior might have thrown light on matters the text mentions but leaves unexplained: the enormous earnings of the Commerzbank's Munich branch from the NSDAP (65-66), and the bank's success in reversing a decision to exclude it from the Protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia in 1943 (196).

Second, as these examples suggest, despite the considerable informative value of this book, neither politics nor people, neither ideologies nor emotions, figure prominently in it. Ambition, avarice, antisemitism, and nationalist feeling, for instance, are largely absent from the narrative, though they are likely to have been operative at the time, albeit to varying degrees in different situations. Instead, the authors consistently present self-interested economic rationality as virtually the sole determinant of the bank's behavior.

Commercial considerations thus serve as the Leitmotiv of the book, whether the subject is the uneven success of efforts to blend the practices of the non-Jewish managers and those of the Jews in private banks taken over before 1914 and the under representation of Jews in the firm compared to the nation's other large banks prior to 1933 (Chapter 1), the inconsistent and halting pattern of dismissals of Jewish personnel between 1933 and 1938 (Chapter 2), the simultaneous increase in willingness to find "aryans" to acquire Jewish enterprises whose creditworthiness was being undercut by Nazi persecution (Chapter 3), the help provided to the state in taking over the wealth of Jewish customers and the charges imposed on them to cover the resulting administrative costs (Chapter 4), the growth of eagerness to further German economic objectives in occupied Bohemia-Moravia, Holland, and Poland (Chapters 5 and 6), and, finally, the probability that financing for one infamous client, Topf & Söhne of Erfurt, would have continued, even if its role in building the crematoria for Auschwitz had been known to the Commerzbank's officers, which cannot be proven, one way or another (Chapter 7).

To point out the one-dimensionality of the argument is not to imply that it is apologetic or false. The authors are unstinting in their exposure of the bank's actions, and their explanation has much to recommend it. "The interests of the firm," to quote a much used phrase of the time, indeed generally dictated cooperation with Nazi criminality. But they did not do so alone, and they did not define themselves. People identified and prioritized those interests, sometimes gladly, sometimes reluctantly, and not always as purely economic actors. One wishes that the human factor played a more conspicuous role in this work.

Nonetheless, the book is replete with important insights that merit wide recognition. One is the observation that "Der Zeitpunkt für ernsthaften - moralischen - Widerspruch gegen die "Entjudung" war in dem Moment verpaßt, als die Verantwortlichen der deutschen Großunternehmen pragmatisch zu argumentieren begannen" (73), which is to say in early 1933. This swift abdication of responsibility deserves more explanation than the authors provide, but they are right to emphasize that it delivered the fate of Jewish Germans in the nation's economy to the mercy of the National Socialists, as Georg von Müller-Oerlinghausen pointed out at the time.

Also valuable as a corrective to popular opinion is the demonstration that "es ist daher problematisch [...] mit der Annahme zu arbeiten, die Vernichtung der jüdischen Gewerbetätigkeit durch die nationalsozialistische Politik habe den Banken zu einem lukrativen Geschäft verholfen und sei gar in der Lage gewesen, Einbußen auszugleichen, die infolge der nationalsozialistischen Wirtschaftspolitik andernorts eintraten" (127). As so-called Aryanization gathered force within the Altreich, damage control (Schadensbegrenzung) propelled banks' participation more than expectations of gain. So did a tendency to identify what was right with what was legal. Thus, in the Commerzbank's records concerning the transfer of its Jewish clients' assets to the Reich, "findet sich [...] kein einziger Hinweis, daß man über Handlungsspielräume nachdachte oder gar nach ihnen suchte" (171).

Later, in occupied Holland and Bohemia-Moravia, the bank's shift from an initially cautious and modest policy to one of greater acquisitiveness resulted from "die schwierige, insbesondere durch rückläufiges Kreditgeschäft hervorgerufene Geschäftssituation der Banken im Deutschen Reich [...], welche die Expansion ins Ausland wohl als Überlebensfrage erscheinen ließ" (219). Probably the same impulse strengthened the less hesitant, but more officially restricted eagerness of the bank to serve the authorities in the annexed and occupied parts of Poland, an attitude that prompts one contributor to note that nothing in the surviving sources permits "auch nur bei einem einzigen Kreditinstitut so etwas wie eine Strategie bzw. Ansätze zu entdecken, sich von augenscheinlich als unmoralisch, ungesetzlich und verbrecherisch erkennbaren Geschäften fernzuhalten" (271).

Finally, the painstaking attempt to establish who in the Commerzbank knew what about Auschwitz and when results in an analysis of the business of Topf & Söhne, the client that provided the crematoria for that and several other camps, which parallels the history of Degesch, the firm that controlled the production of Zyklon B. In both cases, Auschwitz accounted for a tiny share of the firm's total sales, business with the SS an only slightly larger portion, and that fact meant that neither the house bank of Topf (the Commerzbank) nor the parent firm of Degesch (Degussa) necessarily took notice of the corporate involvement in mass murder. The possibility remains, however, in both cases, "daß dieses Wissen sich für die Abschätzung des geschäftlichen Engagements [...] als völlig irrelevant hätte erweisen können" (306). [2]

In sum, this book whets the appetite for the volumes that will accompany it, but also provokes the hope that they will probe more deeply into the multi-faceted people and the multi-dimensional motives behind the behavior being examined. One also hopes that each of those volumes, unlike this one, will help future researchers by including an index (Register).


[1] See Christopher Kopper: Zwischen Marktwirtschaft und Dirigismus. Bankenpolitik im "Dritten Reich" 1933-1939, Bonn: 1995, 29, 35, 37, 48, 289.

[2] See Peter Hayes: Die Degussa im Dritten Reich. Von der Zusammenarbeit zur Mittäterschaft, München 2004, 308-09.

Peter Hayes