Bayer-Monsanto Deal Collides With post-Holocaust Taboos

That a company with a background in Holocaust horrors would dare merge with one of the most hated companies in the world shows Bayer is counting on the collective short memory.

A farmer holds a placard that reads "Bayer makes farmers die worldwide" in front of the headquarters of Germany's pharmaceutical and chemical maker Bayer AG during a protest of German farmers against the planned $66 billion merger of Bayer with U.S. seeds and agrochemicals company Monsanto Co, in Leverkusen, Germany October 11, 2016
German farmer protesting Bayer-Monsanto merger, holding sign saying "Bayer makes farmers die worldwide", Leverkusen, Germany, October 11, 2016. Wolfgang Rattay, Reuters

Assuming that Bayer’s monster $66-billion takeover of Monsanto clears the regulatory bodies in the U.S. and Europe, it will shatter a number of taboos in Germany and will force many to rethink cherished ideals. 

First, Monsanto’s most profitable products are held to be unethical by many Germans, for example the glyphosate-based herbicide Round-Up, which has been implicated in biological disruption in animals, and also genetically modified food crops, whose modifications enable them to tolerate Round-Up, among other traits. 

Not only does Germany have an aversion to perceived chemical and genetic interventions of all kinds: It is illegal to grow genetically modified crops across much of the EU, and groceries with genetically modified ingredients have been banned.

Germans also have a visceral commitment to environmental sustainability and have embraced environmentalism on a personal level hard to fathom in the comfort-oriented United States.  Germans regularly sort refuse into up to six different categories of recycling. They generally don’t own clothes dryers, and they pause their showers while soaping and shampooing to save water – a chilling experience in the winter, given German norms for temperature setting.

Further demonstrating their environmental commitment, more than 30 percent of Germany's energy already comes from renewable sources, and the country has committed to phasing out nuclear energy by 2022.

Shattering the silence

Environmentalism arose across Western Europe and the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s as part of a broad social rebellion and ethical stocktaking. This rebellion in West Germany, however, was coupled with a demand that the country break a generation of silence about the Holocaust, exposing the genocide and crimes committed by the previous generation and attempting to root out war criminals in positions of power. 

Globalization itself raises hackles in Germany as a form of neo-colonialism that suppresses local cultural priorities and exploits poorer and less-developed countries to enrich the few. The environmental and peace movements, and eventually the anti-globalization movement, not only took on a pronounced ethical imperative, but in the following decades provided a way for Germans to feel proud of their actions on a world stage and to ground an identity without resort to ethnic nationalism.

Similar motivation can be felt in the high standard Germany has set in the past year for accepting refugees from Syria and other crisis areas, although we are now seeing a troubling rise in nationalist political parties.

The plant of German pharmaceuticals and chemicals giant Bayer in Leverkusen, western Germany.
Oliver Berg, AFP

And just as the refugee crises have challenged dearly-held political mores, Bayer’s purchase of Monsanto will shake the vision of priorities and values embraced by post-‘60s and then a post-reunified Germany.

As the largest takeover by a German company of a non-German company in history, the merger places Germany visibly in the forefront of a bare-knuckled brand of global capitalism.

Bayer itself has had its own recent controversies – it produces neonicotinoid pesticides that have been linked to the decline of bee populations, for example. 

But its biggest ethical transgression lies further in the past.  Bayer was one of a number of chemical companies that banded together to create I. G. Farben in 1925, the chemical giant that went on to produce the poison Zyklon B for the gas chambers and to use concentration camp inmates as forced labor. Bayer re-emerged as a smaller chemical and pharmaceutical company after I. G. Farben’s disbanding by the Allies.  

That Bayer would dare a takeover of a company the Frankfurt daily newspaper has called among “the most hated” and the Munich daily has called among “the most feared” companies in the world is a sign that Bayer itself trusts the power of forgetfulness. 

The deal is part of a slow creep by Germany toward “normalization” as a country, in which it behaves with the same disregard to communal ethics as other nations.

Protest in Paris, France, during a global day of action against the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto, Saturday, May 23 2015. Marches and rallies against Monsanto, a sustainable agriculture company and genetically modified organisms (GMO) food and seeds were held in dozens of countries. The banner, in French, reads: 'Against Monsanto'.
Kamil Zihnioglu, AP

Stefani Engelstein is an associate professor of Germanic Languages and Literature at Duke University.