NEXT WEEK representatives of the United States and Germany will meet in Bonn to push for resolution on the fundamentally unresolvable matter of Holocaust reparations. The outlook for a settlement is bleak. It is not Germany's first time at this particular table: The German government has been paying reparations to survivors of concentration camps since the 1950s. Both sides, though, have much to gain if it is the last.
The current round of negotiations was touched off by a flood of class action lawsuits filed in this country against German industries on behalf of those who, though not interned in camps, were forced to perform slave labor in the Nazi wartime economy. The 16 German companies that operate in the United States have an obvious pressing interest in getting out from under these suits; the German government wants what it calls "legal peace," a foreseeable end to financial liability. The parties have made progress on this and other tricky moral-historical matters, such as the definition of a slave or forced laborer. While U.S. negotiators cannot control the filing of lawsuits in the future, they have pledged that the Justice Department will enter any such lawsuits to urge that separate claims not be granted. (Two judges have already ruled that way without prompting.)
Where the talks are stuck is, alas, on the price tag. Negotiators are frozen some billions of dollars apart, with German industry insisting it cannot meet the demands of survivors' groups and plaintiffs' lawyers -- this though its own government is contributing a large chunk. Historical debts of this magnitude can never, properly speaking, be paid, and money is a poor proxy for suffering. But the end-of-century scramble to classify and quantify all the harms of the Nazi era in monetary terms is a steadily less edifying spectacle. And the growing involvement of the plaintiffs' bar does not point the way to either justice or resolution.
There is no putting the Holocaust behind us in historical terms. But German companies might do well to seize the chance at "legal peace" that a settlement provides.