OMYA and World War II
March 28, 2000
By BRUCE EDWARDS Rutland Herald
The long hand of history reaching out from World War II has touched Pluess-Staufer, the Swiss parent company of Vermont's OMYA Inc. of Proctor.
Extensive research by the Rutland Herald of Swiss and French archives shows that Pluess-Staufer's French subsidiary was penalized 5 million francs after the war for economic collaboration related to its business dealings with Nazi Germany.
Documents from the Swiss archives show that shortly after the war, the French government confiscated the calcium carbonate company's "illicit profits" and levied a fine against the subsidiary, known as OMYA SA, for economic collaboration and tax evasion, although the company strongly denied the charge.
For perspective, the records show that the French subsidiary was one of more than 1,200 cases of economic collaboration investigated in the Marne region of France. In Pluess-Staufer's case, the company at one point said the fine and confiscation threatened its very existence.
This is the first time a company that today has strong ties to Vermont and is a major Rutland County employer has been linked with the historical look into business connections with Nazi Germany.
Pluess-Staufer joins a growing number of companies known to have had, or to have been accused of having, questionable business dealings with the Germans, including Ford Motor Co. and Standard Oil in the United States.
Other nations have examined their own roles in the war. In recent years, Swiss banks were alleged to have collaborated with Nazi Germany. But there were many levels of collaboration.
Pluess-Staufer officials today say they are unaware of this event in their company's history and did not wish to comment. In most cases, leaders of the company today were not even living at the time. One company official dismissed the matter, saying there was little point in digging up old history.
Still, historians say it is important to analyze the role businesses played during World War II for historical and moral reasons.
In Switzerland, the man charged with leading the examination into the country's wartime past is Jean-Francois Bergier.
"It's a charge of memory and I think it's necessary to be active for the present and the future to have a clear understanding of the past," said Bergier, who is chairman of the Bergier Commission.
Located on the Marne river some 100 miles east of Paris is Pluess-Staufer's du Blanc OMYA quarry. It is one of a number of chalk quarries clustered in an area known for its vineyards and champagne.
The OMYA quarry, named after the villagers who call themselves Omyats, was opened in 1894. It remains to this day Pluess-Staufer's oldest and largest facility for the production of calcium carbonate, the white industrial mineral that makes up rock marble. The substance is used in the manufacture of paint, paper, plastics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.
Following the defeat of France in June 1940, the Germans plundered the country's natural resources and industry. In fact, the French economy proved to be the largest contributor to the Nazi war economy outside of Germany itself.
And although France had little choice in the matter, the Germans were also aided in their efforts through the help of cooperative French bureaucrats and businesses. In some cases, according to historians, the French were quite willing and even enthusiastic economic collaborators.
After the liberation of France late in the summer of 1944, some of those who collaborated with the Germans were called to account. Many were summarily executed; others faced trial. Still others - actors, writers and journalists - were banned from working in their professions. In the case of economic collaboration, the various departments or states in France established administrative panels known as committees on illicit profits.
According to documents obtained from the Swiss Federal Archives, on Dec. 31, 1944, the Committee on Illicit Profits in the Marne notified OMYA SA that it was under investigation for economic collaboration. More than two years later on Feb. 25, 1947, the committee confiscated 2 million francs in illicit profits from the company for its questionable business dealings with the Germans. In addition, the committee imposed a fine of 3 million francs on OMYA for trading with Nazi Germany.
Pluess-Staufer, the parent company, did not take the charges lightly. Documents show that it enlisted the help of the Swiss government and spent 10 years fighting the decision, but to no avail. It lost its final appeal in March 1957. During the appeal process, the confiscation was increased to 2.3 million francs for a total penalty of 5.3 million francs (equivalent to approximately $320,000 today.)
Another 3 million francs in interest that had accrued over the 10 years on the unpaid fine was set aside by the French government on the condition that OMYA paid the original fine within six months. Whether OMYA paid the fine could not be verified. It also could not be determined whether OMYA ever received a pardon or amnesty.
According to the committee's records on file in the regional archives in the Marne, cases of economic collaboration involved a variety of companies, ranging from industrial companies and wineries to hotels and cafes.
Of the more than 1,200 cases of economic collaboration investigated in the Marne, OMYA represented one of the largest confiscations in the department. According to the available records, the largest confiscation on file was 22 million francs.
Pluess-Staufer officials did not want to discuss questions relating to the company's postwar problems in France. They said the company has no records of such charges and that no former or current employees, including 86-year-old owner Max H. Schachenmann, had any knowledge of the postwar problems in France.
The head of the company's U.S. subsidiary in Vermont declined comment. Pluess-Staufer Industries President John Mitchell referred all questions on the subject to company officials in Switzerland.
Pierre DelFosse, the former head of the French subsidiary and a former member of Pluess-Staufer's board of directors, also had little to say. "I'm not aware of this," said DelFosse, who now makes his home in Rutland.
On several occasions over the past three years, Pluess-Staufer officials have maintained that the company had no major business dealings with Germany during the war or said they were not aware of such activity. Company officials also said that during the war they had little control over the activities of its subsidiaries in France and Germany.
In an interview in 1997, a spokesman for the company indicated the company's trade with Germany during the war was minimal.
"During the war our subsidiary in Cologne was broken because of war reasons," Ilario Fanetti said during a telephone interview from Pluess-Staufer's headquarters in Oftringen, Switzerland.
Regarding the French subsidiary, Fanetti again said business with Germany was minimal. "We had a plant in France in Omey and from France we sold calcium carbonate, but very small quantities, to Germany to paint manufacturers," he said.
The head of the French subsidiary, an 18-year employee of the company, also said he had no knowledge of OMYA's business dealings with Germany during the period.
"I wasn't even living at that time," Jean Crespon said during an interview at the company's Paris headquarters in May 1997. "Very frankly, I've never heard of anything like that in the group."
In January 1999, Crespon again said he had no knowledge of the company's wartime business dealings. When informed that documents existed that verified the company had in fact been accused of economic collaboration, Crespon said he was "shocked" that the subject would even be brought up.
"I'm shocked at what you are raising," Crespon said during a telephone interview from his Paris office last year. "I really don't see the point."
Crespon drew an analogy with the trial of convicted French war criminal and former Vichy official Maurice Papon.
"It's like the Papon trial a year ago. What was the result of that? Nothing. Rubbish," he said.
"Maybe he did a wrong thing, but what was the use of this trial?
"We have so many problems, urgent problems, with the people and unemployment to solve, that really that kind of problem (collaboration) does not interest me," Crespon said.
Responding to a series of written questions submitted by the Herald, the Swiss parent company categorically denied that OMYA had aided the German war effort. At the same time, however, both Pluess-Staufer and its French subsidiary, again would not respond to specific questions concerning economic collaboration and illicit profits.
Meanwhile, the company noted in a letter dated June 15, 1999, that "to the best of our knowledge Pluess-Staufer Switzerland was never implicated by the French authorities."
In the same letter, Pluess-Staufer said that chalk from its Omey calcium carbonate plant was sold primarily to paint manufacturers. In addition, the company said that its chalk was also used in glaziers' putty, caulking compound, wallpaper, and linoleum.
During the 10 years of appeals, OMYA SA argued its case on several fronts:
* It vehemently denied that it had collaborated with Nazi Germany.
* It said the committee's auditor was prejudiced, used a faulty method to calculate the company's profits and failed to take into consideration investment in new equipment.
* It claimed as a Swiss-owned company it should be given the same exemption under French law from economic collaboration accorded individual Swiss citizens.
The Illicit Profit Committee's report found during the war that Pluess-Staufer's French subsidiary was shipping 44 percent of its calcium carbonate to Germany, 44 percent to France and 12 percent to Switzerland.
However, the committee's audit also concluded that a certain percentage of OMYA's product shipped to its LaRhenane subsidiary in Strasbourg in Alsace aided the German war effort.
"All business with LaRhenane is included in the category of illicit profits. The goods delivered to Alsace were redirected to Germany or used in factories working for the war," the auditor, who went by the last name of Vermot, wrote in his report to the committee.
Documents also show that the Germans regarded the company as an asset. OMYA was one of a number of industrial and commercial operations in the Marne that the Germans designated as an "S Betriebe" company and useful for its war economy. Named after Nazi Armaments Minister Albert Speer, "S" companies were exempt from sending their workers to Germany.
In a 15-page letter sent to the Committee on the Confiscation of Illicit Profits dated Dec. 2. 1946, two months before the committee's unfavorable decision, OMYA took strong exception to the auditor's claim "that the company maintained strong economic collaboration with the Germans."
The company noted that it kept an important piece of manufacturing equipment out of service during the war, equipment that would have doubled production and benefited "the occupying forces."
The company also argued that it could not be held accountable for sales within France that eventually may have aided the German war effort.
"It is to be highlighted that all the French clients who were to be served by Blanc OMYA are old clients who existed in France long before the occupation and who were not created to help the enemy. Even if some of them had recourse to, or by reason of the scarcity of means of transportation, letters of transportation bearing the German seal, this in no way predetermined the usage that would be made of the product."
While denying it had collaborated with the German war effort, the company acknowledged in a letter challenging the fine and confiscation that 44 percent of OMYA's production was delivered to Germany. In its defense, however, the company argued that the figure was far less than the 80 percent it had intended to ship.
"As a result of the enormous difference between the intended percentage of deliveries, which is a major difference for evaluating our case, we believe that your method of evaluation is questionable," the company wrote in its March 24, 1947, letter addressed to the Conseil Superieur in Paris. The company also disputed that its supplies to Alsace and Lorraine were influenced by the German occupation. It challenged the committee to produce proof that the deliveries were of use to the Germans.
Rather than collaboration, company officials said, "... a letter from the Frankfurt distribution group dated March 4, 1941, shows beyond a doubt that we did not solicit German orders and that, on the contrary, they were imposed on us."
The Frankfurt group was composed of several calcium carbonate companies including Pluess-Staufer, which according to its own records, opened in 1930 as a distribution center to coordinate the sale of chalk in Germany.
The company also warned in its December 1946 letter, two months before the committee handed down its decision, of the possible dire consequences if a fine and confiscation were imposed on the company.
"We cannot help but be amazed at the cursory nature of the report since it is serving as an exceptionally serious means of imposing a sanction which could bring about the financial collapse of a company."
In a March 24, 1947, letter to the Appeals Board at the Ministry of Finance, the company also took strong exception to the way the auditor calculated OMYA's alleged illicit profits. Included in the calculation were deposits customers made on burlap bags that were not returned for credit. The company, however, objected to the calculation, arguing that it did not accurately "reflect all the costs incurred associated with the packaging."
A different view
While the company was putting up a vigorous defense, a Feb. 13, 1948, unsigned letter from the Swiss Legation in France to the Litigation Department of Financial Transactions and Communication in Bern, appears to cast doubt on the strength of Pluess-Staufer's case.
".... the matter is being handled, privately by Mr. R. Gentizon, counsel for the Swiss Legation, who is devoting all of his attention to this matter, even though this matter does not appear in the most positive light anticipated given that certain compromising documents relative to the source of profits have been discovered in the bookkeeping records of the company. I am, however, supposed to be unaware of this fact."
Although company officials today argue that the Pluess-Staufer of the 1940s was a small family-owned business, the company caught the attention of the British government. Early in the war, the British drew up a list of companies that were in a position to trade with Germany.
While apparently never winding up on what was commonly referred to as the black list, in the summer of 1941 Great Britain's Ministry of Economic Warfare placed Pluess-Staufer on its watch list.
In its confidential list of June-August 1941, the MEW noted that Pluess-Staufer had "subsidiaries in enemy territory." And while Pluess-Staufer was a leading supplier of calcium carbonate, the MEW took note that they were "large importers of vegetable and technical oils and kindred products, including gum, resin, wood resin, wax, etc."
The MEW was concerned about the export of various raw materials and finished products from neutral countries to Germany during the war. Chalk, linseed oil, mineral oils and fats were on the list of hundreds of items the British wanted to keep out of the hands of German industry, according to W.N. Medlicott's "The Economic Blockade."
Exactly which German companies purchased calcium carbonate from Pluess-Staufer's French subsidiary and how those purchases aided the Nazi war effort could not be determined.
Company officials today take great pains to point out that there were no business dealings between the parent company in Switzerland and Germany during the war.
The company's postwar problems in France occurred during a period known as the purge, a controversial period that was often marked by revenge when collaborators were sought out and punished. But historians familiar with the period say that given the postwar focus on rebuilding the French economy, many economic collaborators got off lightly or were not pursued at all.
At the same time historian Henry Rousso says justice was not always meted out fairly during the period.
"The purges were not well done. It was too hard in certain senses and in a lot of senses it was not hard enough," said Rousso, research director of the Institute of Modern History in Paris and the author of "The Vichy Syndrome."
A better indication of collaboration, Rousso said, was whether officials of a company faced criminal charges or were purged, banned, from their professions for their involvement with the Germans during the Occupation.
"If you find only a financial penalty, of course you can say that the company has collaborated, but it was less important than the other, which were really involved in the German economy," Rousso said.
A heavy price
In a fax dated June 15,1999, Pluess-Staufer board member Heinz Haller said the company "struggled to survive" during the war as "a small family business" and that the owners paid a high personal price.
"The SS murdered Eduard Pluess, the son of the founder, who was managing our company in France in 1944. We consider at this time and we still consider today, that his loss was a heavy price for the company and for the family to pay for their freedom."