Arkia's Purchase of Airliners Should Force Airbus to Confront Its Nazi Roots

Despite the recent purchase, no one is uttering a word about the deep involvement of Airbus' German owners in Nazi slave labor.

FARNBOROUGH - For over a decade, the aerospace market has been dominated by the Boeing-Airbus duopoly, with the two giant airliners manufacturers vying with each other for the top. It is a competition for global dominance, with public image being a major part of it. This week at the biennial international air-show at Farnborough, west of London, both companies were out in force, fighting for every bit of public space. In the skies, the Airbus 380, the world's largest passenger jet, competed with the Boeing 787, the most fuel-efficient airliner, in slow, low flights over the airfield. On the ground, the rivalry extended as far as the visitors necks, as company employees persuaded them exchange white Airbus lanyards with blue Boeing ones.

Advertizing and branding is very much a matter of changing fashions and today's aerospace trend underlines passenger and eco-friendliness. That's why the A380 logo is shaped like a heart and the Boeing 787 has been named the "Dreamliner." But despite all this soft-soap PR, nothing beats large orders of new planes. And while the negotiations between the manufacturers and airlines go on for months or even years, the best time to announce a finalized deal is at one of the big international air shows.

As aerospace orders go, Monday’s announcement at Farnborough that Arkia Airlines is buying four Airbus 321s for $400 million is hardly a big deal. But since it is only the second time an Israeli airline has ordered new jets from the European consortium (Israir bought two new A320s in 2010), further breaking the traditional hold of Boeing on the Israeli market, through monopolistic El Al, the deal attracted more attention than is normal for an acquisition of this order and was even heralded as "historic." However, no one saw fit to mention that the parent company, European aerospace giant EADS, had its origin in the Third Reich. Neither did they finally acknowledge the deep involvement of its German owners in Nazi slave labor.

On the face of it, Airbus and EADS are proud representatives of the new European spirit of cooperation and technological progress. Airbus was founded in 1970 as a partnership between German, French and British companies and has since built thousands of airlines, rivaling and even surpassing America's Boeing. Its parent company, EADS, is an even more recent creation, formed in 2000 as a merger of German, French and Spanish aircraft manufacturers. The German partner, DaimlerChrysler Aerospace was itself a combination of veteran aircraft companies - in 1989 it had purchased Messerschmitt-Bolkow-Blohm.

Corporate evolution has obscured some of the origins and detoxified the European aerospace brands, but the historical roots remain. Not only was Messerschmitt the leading builder of warplanes for Nazi Germany, it was also one of the heaviest users of slave labor in their manufacturing. Multinational EADS may have travelled a long way from those days, but the German branch of the company proudly exhibits in one of its hangars near Munich, a historical collection of flyable aircraft from the World War II era, including the Messerschmitt BF-109, the most produced fighter aircraft in history and the Messerschmitt Me-262, the first operational jet aircraft anywhere in the world.

Thousands of these planes were built on sites in Germany and particularly in the mountainous regions of Austria by slave laborers in the last three years of the war. After British and American bombers had ruined most of the Messerschmitt factories, the Reich dispersed manufacture to hidden sites where the various components were made and from there shipped to forest workshops for assembly and departure.

Despite the considerable effort and resources EADS in Germany pours into commemorating its historical heritage, it has never acknowledged the circumstances in which its most famous planes were produced. When pressed, company spokesmen have said that there is no documentation of slave labor in Messerschmitt factories and that in the later stages of the war, all manufacturing was taken over by the SS. This is disingenuous, as many survivors still remember working on assembly lines in camps such as Mauthausen and Gusen, where Messerschmitt engineers and foremen were present daily as an integral part of the production process. These company men were fully aware of the deadly conditions in which the prisoners worked and the high death-rates were clearly visible. After the war, company founder Willy Messerschmitt was tried and convicted by an allied court for having allowed the use of slave-labor in his factories.

Some of Germany's industrial giants have made a belated reckoning of their Nazi past, and contributed to restitution funds which compensated former slave laborers. Messerschmitt and its descendants, MBB, DaimlerChrysler, EADS and Airbus have never owned up. The company's entry into the Israeli market should be an opportunity for it to finally confront its Nazi roots.