VSColonial and Confederate statues toppled. Looted objects returned by contrite museums. Defiled surnames such as Sackler were erased from buildings. A global settlement of past great power crimes is underway. But is there a glaring omission?
A new book, Nazi Billionaires, explores how Germany’s wealthiest business dynasties made their fortunes aiding and abetting Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. It also examines how, eight decades later, they still elude scrutiny, and a nation that has done so much to come to terms with its catastrophic past still suffers from a very particular blind spot.
“What struck me was that this country is so aware of its history in many ways, but apparently the most economically powerful players don’t care about it,” says author David de Jong, a 35 year old Dutchman. “That’s why I wrote the book. It’s an argument for historical transparency.
The former Bloomberg News reporter examines German companies that own beer brewers and wine producers as well as famous American brands such as Krispy Kreme and Pret A Manger. But he shines a particularly harsh light on automakers led by household names such as BMW and Porsche, which propelled the post-war economic miracle and contributed about a tenth of the country’s gross domestic product.
De Jong recounts how the rise of the Nazis was initially met with skepticism and contempt by many business leaders, but some found it could be very profitable.
Ferdinand Porsche convinced Hitler to put the Volkswagen Beetle into production. The business flourished under the leadership of his son, Ferry Porsche, who volunteered for the SS, became an officer, and lied about it for the rest of his life. Ferry Porsche designed the first Porsche sports car and surrounded himself with ex-SS in the 50s and 60s.
Steel, coal and arms magnate Friedrich Flick was convicted in Nuremberg of using forced and slave labor, financing the SS and looting an ironworks. But he was released in 1960 and eventually became the majority shareholder of Daimler-Benz, then Germany’s largest automaker. Deutsche Bank bought out the Flick conglomerate in 1985, turning its descendants into billionaires.
Perhaps no one sums up de Jong’s argument better than Günther Quandt and his son Herbert Quandt, members of the Nazi Party and patriarchs of the family that now dominates the BMW Group.
Herbert Quandt was in charge of the battery factories in Berlin where thousands of forced and enslaved laborers worked, including hundreds of concentration camp women. He acquired businesses stolen from Jews in France and used prisoners of war and forced laborers on his own private estate. He even built a sub-concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
When Günther Quandt was 37 and a widower, he met and married a 17-year-old girl called Magda Friedländer and had a child with her. After their divorce, Magda married Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, with whom she murdered their six children before both committed suicide in 1945.
After the war, Günther Quandt was arrested for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, only to be acquitted after falsely claiming he had been coerced into joining the party by Goebbels.
“Günther Quandt becomes one of Nazi Germany’s most successful industrialists,” de Jong, who has been reporting on the families for a decade, said in a phone interview from Palm Springs, Calif. “He was already immensely rich before Hitler took power. He uses it at the end of the war to say: “I have been the victim of persecution. I was persecuted by Joseph Goebbels and by my ex-wife.’ »
Herbert Quandt inherited great wealth from his father and saved BMW from bankruptcy, becoming the company’s largest shareholder. Two of his children, Stefan Quandt and Susanne Klatten, are now Germany’s wealthiest family, with near majority control of the BMW Group, large holdings in the chemical and technology industries and a net worth of around 38 billion. of dollars.
They and other dynasties are celebrated for transforming Germany into an economic powerhouse, with buildings, foundations, and prizes bearing their names. The skeletons in their closets are no secret – but neither are they well known or explained. Recognition remains an afterthought despite Germany’s vaunted culture of remembrance.
Some have taken small steps towards transparency. The Quandts commissioned a study in 2011 to look into their shameful past. Changes have been made to the companies’ websites, but only, de Jong accuses, reluctantly and incrementally, omitting important details. Stefan Quandt still awards an annual media award named after his father and works from the head office named after his grandfather.
De Jong, who found family members who did not want to be interviewed, except for a London-based heir, said: “You have BMW and Porsche, especially the families that control them, are proceeding to this whitewashing or abandonment of history where they celebrate the business successes of their founders or saviors but omit the fact that these men committed war crimes.
“I’ve never had an answer, whether it’s because they’re concerned it’s hurting the bottom line or the stock price of companies to be completely transparent about the story, or whether it’s just because they derive all of their identity from the successes that their fathers and grandfathers had and by being transparent about them is kind of denying their own identity, it’s probably a combination of both.
Families tend to rely on the German notion of collective guilt, de Jong continues. “But it’s very perverse, where you now have the BMW Herbert Quandt Foundation, which has a model to inspire responsible leadership in the name of a man who, yes, saved BMW from bankruptcy in 1959, but also designed, built and dismantled a sub-camp concentration in Nazi-occupied Poland At a minimum, what we can expect from these companies and families is historical transparency.
In his book, de Jong notes that an international campaign for such transparency, and the resulting accounts, toppled statues of Confederate generals, slave traders and Christopher Columbus and announced the rechristening universities named after racist presidents.
“Yet this move towards confrontation with the past somehow bypasses many of Germany’s legendary businessmen,” he writes. “Their dark legacy remains hidden in plain sight. This book, in a way, tries to right that wrong.
The author, now based in Tel Aviv, Israel, adds: “I hope consumers will become more aware that the money they spend on these products could turn into dividends for these families and could be used to maintain of foundations, headquarters and media properties on behalf of Nazi war criminals.
“I think people should be more aware of these stories and history in general, especially as it relates to the consumption and continued whitewashing of history by these consumer brands and the families that control them.”