I’m very excited to host a discussion of Leora Bilsky’s outstanding book entitled The Holocaust, Corporations, and the Law: Unfinished Business (Michigan, 2017). As per usual, I will avoid an extensive introduction to the book, especially because the text contains a very helpful synopsis that I paste below. I’m also thrilled to host an excellent array of scholars (see a list here), who all work on these issues from different vantage points, in the hope of stimulating helpful creative reflections on this important new text.
Here then, is the publisher’s summation of Bilsky’s argument:
The Holocaust, Corporations, and the Law explores the challenge posed by the Holocaust to legal and political thought by examining the multiple issues raised by the restitution class actions brought against Swiss banks and German corporations before American federal courts in the 1990s. Prior to these lawsuits, the legal treatment of the Holocaust had been dominated by criminal law and its individualistic assumptions and had consistently failed to relate to the structural aspects of Nazi crimes, which relied on a modern bureaucratic apparatus and the cooperation of the private sector. Although the class action suits of the 1990s were settled for unprecedented amounts of money, the defendants did not formally assume any legal responsibility. Thus the lawsuits were bitterly criticized by lawyers for betraying justice and by historians for distorting history.
Leora Bilsky argues that class action litigation and settlement offer a mode of accountability that is well-suited to addressing the bureaucratic nature of business involvement in atrocities. Engaging critically with contemporary debates about corporate responsibility for human rights violations and assumptions about what constitutes “law,” she argues for the need to design processes that would make multinational corporations accountable in the era of globalization. She examines the implications of this new legal constellation for transitional justice and the relationship between law and history, as well as for community and representation in a postnational world. In this way, her novel interpretation of the restitution lawsuits not only adds an important dimension to the study of Holocaust trials, but also makes an innovative contribution to broader and pressing contemporary legal and political debates. In an era when corporations are ever more powerful (and international in their reach), Bilsky’s arguments will attract attention beyond those interested in the Holocaust and its long shadow.
Leora Bilsky is professor of law and director of the Minerva Center for Human Rights at Tel Aviv University.