BASF quickly reacted to the appearance of its Spanish subsidiary managing director's name in a manifesto against Catalan independence, and issued a communiqué disowning him and stating that the company did not wish to get involved in politics. For some this may be the end of the story, but if we look at Catalonia's past in a bit more detail it is clear that it is not. While Germany has made a commendable effort to leave behind her Nazi past, and has successfully sought reconciliation with her neighbours and other victims of Hitler's aggression, there is an exception: Spain. Hitler's support for Franco's rebels was essential in facilitating their victory, which brought 40 years of dictatorship with Catalonia as its main victim. Mariano Rajoy's party was founded by key regime figures, and under a thin veneer of democracy, retains the same obsessions, chief among them keeping Catalonia as a colony, disregarding her natural right to self-determination, recognized by the Atlantic Charter, the UN Charter, the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Court of Justice. By failing to rule out resorting to force, Rajoy is showing his true colours as a non-democrat. Spain's main opposition party, which has also failed to rule out a coup, shares the same authoritarian tendencies, which are not the province of any given Spanish party or ideology, but rather part of the country's national character.
Going back to BASF, while it is much better to see the company defend its political neutrality, rather than let its name be brandished by Spanish nationalists, we should ask ourselves whether this is all we can legitimately ask from Germany and from Germans. Simply put, without Hitler Franco would have found it much more difficult to prevail. Germany has been denazified, but has Spain? Clearly not, since the authorities go as far as publicly paying homage to the Wermacht. The ruling Popular Party [PP] would be illegal in Germany, where the public display of Nazi symbols is banned, the same symbols one can see everywhere in Spain.
What does this have to do with Catalonia's 11/9 referendum? One of Hitler's early successes was precisely to invade Austria in order to prevent a referendum. A referendum that, let us not forget it, he may well have won. Many Austrians wished to unite with Germany. How many? We will never know. That was not the point for Hitler, a dictator does not care whether he may win or lose a referendum, what matters is to make sure that he, not the people, decides. Bearing this in mind, German companies like BASF, German citizens, and Berlin, must go much further than claiming neutrality and purporting not to seek to take part in the debate on the future of Catalonia. This is a debate which is strongly connected with the past, and therefore the future, of their country. In Austria in 1938 and in Catalonia in 2014, the choice is the same: letting the people decide, or using force to stop them from going to the polls. There is no third way. It is the ballot, or the bullet.
Germans have to live with the fact that they failed to stop Hitler from using force against the Austrian referendum. They now have the chance, though, to atone for their past sins. Now they have the chance to support Catalonia's 11/9 referendum. Mark this word: support, not be neutral. They were already neutral in 1938 and we all know what followed. Actually, this is what allowed Hitler to gain absolute power. Historians agree that the number of committed, radical, Nazis was rather small. It was the “neutral” majority that allowed Hitler to reach office and start implementing his program, bringing death and destruction to most of Europe. The “neutrals” were guilty.
Unfortunately we cannot turn the clock back. There is no way Germans, including BASF, can prevent Hitler from stopping the 1938 Austrian referendum. However, they now have the chance to help stop Hitler's followers from using force against the Catalan referendum. They can redeem their original sin and show that denazification is complete. They can show the world that they have fully embraced the concept of democracy, where people go to the polls to decide the future of their countries.
Neutrality is not possible. You cannot be neutral with regard to Nazism. You either support referenda, so that the people can decide, or you support the use of force against referenda, so that it is a regime deciding on their behalf. The word “neutrality” is morally reprehensible and must be buried, when a fundamental human right like voting is at stake.
So, the question for BASF, Berlin, and German people and institutions is very clear: what are you for? Are you for a referendum in Catalonia, so that Catalans can decide their future, as Austrians unsuccessfully tried to do? Or are you for the use of force in Catalonia, so that Catalans cannot decide their future, just like Austrians were not allowed to decide theirs? Will you be “neutral” once more, and become accomplices of criminals? Will you be again “neutral” like your grandparents once were? Or will you now have the moral fortitude, the values, the strength of character, and the belief in democracy, to support a people's faith in the ballot, not the bullet, as the ultimate arbiter of their future?
Just do not try to trick anybody with false pretences of “neutrality”. You were already “neutral” once, in Austria, in 1938.
The time has come for you to prove, without any shadow of a doubt, that you have truly left behind your Nazi past. The world is watching you.
Alex Calvo is an expert in Asian security and defence.