AMERICAN AND German negotiators in Berlin have put their signatures to an agreement that both sides ardently hope will be the last of its kind. The $5.2 billion settlement establishes a fund to compensate survivors from two groups of victims of the Nazis who have been unreached by previous reparations: those who were compelled to perform slave labor in concentration camps and those who, while not in camps, performed the forced labor that powered much of the German wartime economy. The settlement will also provide some compensation for those with never-paid German insurance policies and those whose bank accounts were lost by being "Aryanized."
It's intended as a comprehensive tying up of loose ends. And while a moral debt of this magnitude can never be wiped out, any more than the crime can be undone, there are good arguments for settling the financial side of the debt once and for all rather than letting reparation proceed piecemeal and more or less at random through American courts.
The settlement does not benefit only Jewish victims; the vast majority of forced laborers were non-Jews now spread over Belarus, Ukraine, Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic. They and others could receive "dignified payments" by summer--an important consideration for a population mostly over 80.
The German negotiators, especially the private companies involved, wanted above all "legal peace"--assurance that they can do business in the United States without the drumbeat of boycotts and lawsuits. The U.S. government cannot guarantee that no more lawsuits will be brought, but it has promised to enter any future cases with a strong statement that dismissing such suits would be in American foreign policy interests.
The companies have tentatively offered to open their wartime archives to legitimate historical research. This move, says Deputy Treasury Secretary Stuart Eizenstat, architect of the settlement, would "ensure that money alone will not be the last memory" of these discussions. Justice also will be served if the money's distribution is carefully documented at every step by some reputable international accounting firm, and if the vast bulk of the settlement money goes not to lawyers, intermediaries or administrative costs but to surviving victims.