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Monday, February 23, 1998 Published at 19:31 GMT

World: Americas

Ford 'profited from Nazi slave labour'
image: [ A German soldier poses by a Ford car produced in Cologne ]
A German soldier poses by a Ford car produced in Cologne

The Ford Motor Company is facing legal action in the United States for allegedly making a profit from its self-confessed use of slave labour during World War II. Its factory in Germany produced trucks for the Nazi war effort.

American lawyers representing thousands of forced labourers are taking out a class action later this week .

The BBC's Rob Broomby investigates (17'15")
It is believed to be the first time a legal action has been brought for compensation against an American multinational for its activities in Nazi Germany.

Ford has said it will fight the allegations vigorously.

During the war, at least 1,200 of the workers at Ford's Cologne plant were Russian. They were considered by the Nazis as Untermenschen, or subhuman.

[ image: Ilse Ivanova: traumatised]
Ilse Ivanova: traumatised
Among them was Ilse Ivanova, now 72 years old. She was taken from her home at the age of 16 and forced to work in harsh conditions. Now, she lives in Antwerp, Belgium.

"The work was extremely hard and I am still traumatised today," she said. "The foreman was like a wild animal. He pushed us about. He wore a swastika on his uniform."

Ford Cologne still stands on the banks of the Rhine. It is the company's biggest factory in Europe, turning out more than 350,000 cars a year.

Now, just as German companies must answer for their actions during the war, Ford must also come to terms with its past.

New York lawyer Mel Weise is about to launch a battle for compensation.

[ image: Weise: Ford
Weise: Ford "were out for profit, pure and simple"
He said that althought the parent company in America knew what had happened at its German plant, it never fully broke its connection with Germany and that it still re-employed key managers after the war.

He said the firm has a responsibility to those forced to work in its name.

"They were out for profit, pure and simple," he told the BBC. "They didn't care how it was earned and who was abused in the process."

The Ford Motor Company has admitted forced labour was used at Cologne. But it denies any responsibility, blaming the Nazi government which they say comandeered the plant.

[ image: Rintamaki:
Rintamaki: "The German government is responsible"
"They dictated what was going to be made, how it was going to be made, what the labour force looked like, the working conditions and so forth," said Ford's lawyer, John Rintamaki.

Ford Cologne's head of production during the war, Hans Grundig, denied the Nazis were in control.

"We on the [shop]floor didn't have the impression that we were owned by the government. We considered that we were still owned by the shareholders and that we were working for the Ford organisation in Germany," he said.

Grandy, who was never a Nazi, went on to become Ford's European Vice-President.

Ford was placed under a special government official known as a Reichscommisar, called Robert Schmidt. He retained the civilian management.

[ image: Schmidt: Nazi member and factory director]
Schmidt: Nazi member and factory director
Historians said he had two masters -- Ford and the Nazis.

As a Nazi party member, he made Wehrwirtschaftsführer, or economic leader. Schmidt was interrogated by the allies but stayed on at Ford and by the early 1950s was back in senior management as a director.

Towards the end of the war with labour increasingly scarce, Ford's managers turned to the concentration camps for more workers. They paid the SS for a commando of 50 workers from Buchenwald -- with guards.

Mr Weise is demanding to know what happened to profits made by Ford in enemy territory during the war. He thinks they were reinvested in the company and that America benefited in some way.

But Mr Rintamaki downplayed the profits during and shortly after the war.

"It would be of some value if the profits were reinvested into the company. But as we understand it I don't think there was much there to salvage. There was a lot of work we had to do it," he said.

One thing is for sure. The battle for compensation will be a long one -- and every year there are fewer survivors left to claim.

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