Though best known for tires, Continental, based in Hanover, also makes a wide array of automobile components like electronic sensors and brakes. It is investing heavily in autonomous driving technology. The company has a major presence in the United States, with 19,000 employees and 60 factories and other facilities.
Founded in 1871 by Jewish bankers, Continental had many Jews in high-ranking positions when the Nazis took over in 1933. By 1938, as Germany was gearing up for war, they had all been forced out.
While supplying the German military with tires, bullet-resistant fuel tanks, gas masks and brakes for battle tanks, Continental and its subsidiaries also produced consumer products like soles for shoes and hot water bottles that helped fulfill the regime’s promise to deliver prosperity to the German people.
The first forced laborers at Continental were French or Belgian civilians or prisoners of war. Often the workers were exposed to toxic chemicals without any protective clothing, the study found.
As able-bodied German men were conscripted into the military, creating a severe labor shortage, Continental drew on concentration camp inmates. They were sometimes forced to work in abysmal conditions underground where production facilities were moved to escape Allied bombing raids.
In the Hanover suburb of Ahlem, for example, about 750 inmates at a time worked in a former mine in extremely damp, cold and dark conditions under supervision of brutal S.S. guards. The inmates slept crowded into horse stalls, and hundreds died.
Continental also produced soles for shoes, a critical commodity in wartime because of an acute shortage of natural rubber. To test the durability of different types of synthetic rubber soles, Continental enlisted help from the S.S., according to correspondence between the feared Nazi organization and company executives.