After two years of negotiations and months of legal wrangling, an overwhelming majority of lawmakers voted in a show of hands to unlock the government-industry fund. They passed a motion saying the dismissal of a series of U.S. lawsuits seeking compensation from German companies constitutes "legal peace" demanded by industry.
More than 1 million aging survivors of Nazi labor, most of them in eastern Europe, are expected to benefit from closure of what Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder called "the last great open chapter of our historical responsibility." Some 300,000 applications already have been approved.
Fund officials say payments from the government-industry should start reaching survivors in mid-June. Former slave laborers will receive one-time payments of up to 15,000 marks ($6,700).
"I want to start with a word which I think reflects the relief we all feel today," Schroeder said in opening parliament's debate on the topic. "That word is: finally."
Germany has paid some $60 billion in restitution for the suffering of Nazi victims, but slave labor was not explicitly included in postwar German restitution laws. German companies long denied responsibility for using slave labor, arguing they had been pressured by the Nazis.
Schroeder pledged shortly after his 1998 election the year before the government returned to the revived German capital of Berlin to compensate the victims.
"Compensation in the true sense of the word is hardly possible," Schroeder said. But the fund "sends a signal that Germany is fully conscious of the terrible crimes of its past, and will remain so."
Under pressure from U.S. lawsuits, German industry agreed with the government on the fund's financing in December 1999. An accord last July that laid out conditions for industry's protection from lawsuits was signed by Germany, the United States, East European countries, Israel and lawyers representing survivors.
But compensation was held up by legal wrangles over dismissal of the suits and industry's slowness in raising its half of the fund.
"It has been a long, tough, arduous and sad road," said Volker Beck of the Greens Party, who sits on the fund's board and has long criticized industry for its slowness in raising its half of the fund while thousands of elderly Nazi labor victims meanwhile died.
"We have tried to draw a financial line under the darkest chapter of our history," said Otto Lambsdorff, the German government's envoy on the slave labor issue.
But "we can and must never draw a moral line."
Earlier, the U.S. State Department's envoy on Holocaust issues praised Germany for finding a "dignified" way to atone for Nazi use of slave labor.
Efforts to dismiss the suits "took longer than we ha hoped," said James Bindenagel, who was in Berlin to observe Wednesday's debate. "But we have, although not met a deadline, achieved everything we set out to achieve."
Wednesday's parliamentary motion urged the companies to pay out their 5 billion mark ($2.3 billion) half of the fund "immediately."
The industry side said it may only pay a partial sum at first, as not all the money is in the bank. But spokesman Wolfgang Gibowski pledged the remaining money that was pledged by German companies would be transferred "in the next week."
"We will only have achieved our goal when the victims have received the full payments to which they are entitled," said Wolfgang Bosbach of the opposition Christian Democrats.
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