Colonial and Confederate statues toppled. Looted objects returned by contrite museums. Tainted family names such as Sackler expunged from buildings. A worldwide reckoning with the past crimes of great powers is under way. But is there a glaring omission?
A new book, Nazi Billionaires, investigates how Germany’s richest business dynasties made fortunes by aiding and abetting Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. It also examines how, eight decades later, they still escape close scrutiny and a nation that has done so much to confront its catastrophic past still suffers a very particular blind spot.
“What struck me was this is a country that’s so cognisant of its history in many ways but seemingly the most economically powerful actors do not engage with that,” says author David de Jong, a 35-year-old Dutchman. “That was the reason why I wrote the book. It’s an argument in favour of historical transparency.”
The former reporter for Bloomberg News examines German companies that own beer brewers and wine producers as well as famous US brands such as Krispy Kreme and Pret A Manger. But he casts an especially harsh light on car makers led by household names such as BMW and Porsche, which powered the postwar economic miracle and contribute about a 10th of the nation’s gross domestic product.
De Jong tells how the rise of the Nazis was initially met with scepticism and contempt by many business leaders but some discovered it could be very profitable.
Ferdinand Porsche convinced Hitler to put the Volkswagen Beetle into production. The company thrived under his son, Ferry Porsche, who volunteered for the SS, became an officer and lied about it for the rest of his days. Ferry Porsche designed the first Porsche sports car and surrounded himself with former SS members in the 50s and 60s.
The steel, coal and arms magnate Friedrich Flick was convicted at Nuremberg of using forced and slave labour, bankrolling the SS and looting a steel factory. But he was released in 1960 and eventually became controlling shareholder of Daimler-Benz, then Germany’s biggest car manufacturer. Deutsche Bank bought the Flick conglomerate in 1985, turning his descendants into billionaires.
Perhaps no one better encapsulates de Jong’s argument 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 had responsibility over battery factories in Berlin where thousands of forced and enslaved labourers toiled, including hundreds of women from concentration camps. He acquired companies stolen from Jews in France and used prisoners of war and forced labourers on his own private estate. He even built a concentration subcamp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
When Günther Quandt was 37 and widowed, he met and married a 17-year-old called Magda Friedländer and had one child with her. After their divorce, Magda married the Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, with whom she murdered their six children before both killed themselves in 1945.
After the war, Günther Quandt was arrested for suspected collaboration with the Nazis, only to be acquitted after falsely claiming that he had been forced to join the party by Goebbels.
“Günther Quandt becomes one of Nazi Germany’s most most successful industrialists,” de Jong, who has been reporting on the families for a decade, said in a phone interview from Palm Springs, California. “He was already immensely wealthy before Hitler seized power. He uses it at the end of the war as a way of saying, ‘I was a victim of persecution. I was persecuted by Joseph Goebbels and by my ex-wife.’”
Herbert Quandt inherited vast wealth from his father and saved BMW from bankruptcy, becoming the company’s biggest shareholder. Two of his children, Stefan Quandt and Susanne Klatten, are now Germany’s wealthiest family, with close to majority control of the BMW Group, large holdings in the chemical and technology industries and a net worth of about $38bn.
They and other dynasties are celebrated for turning Germany into an economic powerhouse, with buildings, foundations and prizes bearing their names. The skeletons in their cupboards are not a secret – but nor are they well known or accounted for. Acknowledgment remains an afterthought despite Germany’s much-vaunted remembrance culture.
Some have taken baby steps towards transparency. The Quandts commissioned a study in 2011 to look into their shameful past. Changes have been made to corporate websites but only, de Jong charges, grudgingly and incrementally, with important details omitted. Stefan Quandt still gives out an annual media prize named after his father and works from headquarters named after his grandfather.
De Jong, who found family members unwilling to be interviewed other than one London-based heir, says: “You have BMW and Porsche, particularly the families that control them, conduct this whitewashing or leaving out of history where they celebrate the business successes of their founders or saviours but leave out the fact that these men committed war crimes.
“I never got an answer whether it’s because they are afraid it would hurt the bottom line or share prices of the companies to be fully transparent about the history, or whether it’s just because they derive their entire identity from the successes that their fathers and grandfathers had and, by being transparent about them, it’s kind of disavowing their own identity. It’s probably a combination of both.”
The families tend to lean on Germany’s notion of collective guilt, de Jong continues. “But it’s very perverse, where you now have the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, 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 and built and dismantled a concentration subcamp in Nazi-occupied Poland. At a bare minimum what we can expect from these companies and families is historical transparency.”
In his book, de Jong notes that an international drive for such transparency, and its attendant reckonings, have brought down statues of Confederate generals, slave traders and Christopher Columbus and heralded the rechristening of colleges named after racist presidents.
“Yet this movement toward facing the past is somehow bypassing many of Germany’s legendary businessmen,” he writes. “Their dark legacy remains hidden in plain sight. This book, in some small way, tries to right that wrong.”
The author, now based in Tel Aviv, Israel, adds: “I hope people will become more aware on a consumer level that the money they spend on these products might end up as dividends for these families and might go towards the maintaining of foundations, corporate headquarters and media properties in the name of Nazi war criminals.
“I think people should be more aware of these histories and of history in general, particularly when it comes to consumption and the continuing whitewashing of history by these consumer brands and families that control them.”