Carnegie Mellon University

ethics lunch series

December 18, 2018

Tepper Ethics Lunch Series: Students Explore How Moral Breakdowns in Nazi Germany Translate to Contemporary Leadership

Would you say that you generally tell the truth? Did you enroll in business school as a means to become more ethical? What motivates you as a business person? 

These were the questions that David Goldman posed as his opening salvo to a room full of MBA students as part of the Tepper Ethics Lunch Series. The answers were as varied as the students themselves: While most people considered themselves honest, nobody claimed ethics as a primary driver in the decision to earn an MBA. 

Rather, some students were pursuing the degree as a means of gaining respect and adding value to their business and community; others sought recognition and excellence in their fields, and one acknowledged a desire to make money and provide for his family. 

Goldman, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, is also the founder of the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics, or FASPE. Founded in 2009, the organization uses the Holocaust as a vehicle to teach graduate students in business, medicine, law, journalism, and seminary to contemplate the ethical choices they face today. As part of its mission, FASPE sponsors 12 to 15 students in each discipline to travel to Auschwitz for two weeks to explore how the moral breakdown in Nazi Germany occurred, and how that breakdown translates to contemporary society.

After posing his series of open-ended questions, Goldman began by acknowledging the rigor of the Tepper School’s MBA program.

“I believe very strongly in elitism. I believe very strongly that everybody in this room is in that elite class,” he said. “I think we should own up to who we are … What you do is going to matter because of who you are, what your capabilities are, (and) what opportunities will be presented to you.”

And then he drew a startling comparison: while everyone can agree that Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and other Nazi leaders were evil, these men were not the architects of the Holocaust or the framework that enabled the murders to occur.

“It was people just like you, who sat in rooms just like this, between 1920 and 1930,” he said.

Goldman illustrated how the professionals of the time were motivated, in drafting the Nuremburg Laws at a conference at a villa outside Berlin, by many of the same factors the students had mentioned at the beginning of the presentation: financial gain. Community recognition. A desire to improve Germany’s economy, which lacked the engine of natural resources.

He cited the case of Bernhard Lösener, who helped draft the laws, which provided the legal structure for the murder of Jews. Lösener, who Goldman said was not fully convinced of the Nazi philosophy, successfully argued against classifying people as Jews if they only had one or two Jewish grandparents; rather, the standard was set at a minimum of three Jewish grandparents, a distinction that may have spared more than 100,000 people from execution. Goldman posed the question: is Lösener a hero for saving those lives? Or a criminal for helping to draft the Nuremburg Laws?

He also cited the case of IG Farben, the largest conglomerate in Germany at the time, which won significant government contracts. The company later ran the Nazi war machine and became a major party donor. One of its subsidiaries manufactured the poison gas used in mass executions.

Goldman spelled out how the Holocaust was enabled incrementally, by people with seemingly benign underlying intent. He warned the audience to be mindful of its motivations, to remember that “being clever isn’t always good,” and that corporations are not automatically ethical just because they carry a large compliance staff or claim to embrace social responsibility.

Ethical leadership requires vigilance, he noted, because “We do fall short as human beings, don’t we?”