Nazi past of top German business families is ‘hiding in plain sight,’ says author
The next time you bite into a Krispy Kreme donut or hop into a Volkswagen, your money could be helping obscure the Nazi past of some of Germany’s leading corporate families.
In “Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties,” author and financial journalist David de Jong probes the Nazi-era activities of six German dynasties who operated businesses during the Third Reich. Some of them still are controlled by family members today.
Collectively, the families featured in “Nazi Billionaires” own, among others, Porsche, Volkswagen, and BMW, as well as American brands ranging from Panera Bread to Krispy Kreme. Other holdings include Dr. Oetker, a consumer foods company valued at $8 billion, and luxury hotels across Europe.
“Businesses and many families in Germany were never really de-Nazified,” said the Dutch-born journalist. “The companies that are transparent are those that are no longer controlled by a family that collaborated with the Nazis.”
The corporate dynasties investigated in de Jong’s book have diverged from Germany’s robust culture of remembrance regarding World War II, he said. Instead of being “transparent” about their patriarchs’ crimes during the Third Reich, the six families — the Quandts, Flicks, von Fincks, Porsche-Piëchs, Oetkers, and the Reimanns — appear to pretend the Nazi years never took place, he said.
“It struck me how little known these stories were to a wider audience,” de Jong told The Times of Israel. “Those six families [in my book] are powerful and they can hide these histories in plain sight,” he said.
August von Finck, for example, was a German banking patriarch designated by Hitler to fundraise for a Munich art museum. To thank von Finck, Hitler allowed him to “Aryanize” — take ownership from Jews — the Rothschild bank in Vienna and the Dreyfus bank in Berlin. To this day, von Finck heirs own large portions of Bavarian land and one of his sons was reported to fund extreme right-wing causes.
‘Then you don’t hear about it’
During the 12 years of National Socialist rule, some of the families featured in “Nazi Billionaires” utilized slave and forced laborers. Others joined or donated to the SS and helped advance the regime’s top-secret “miracle weapons” program.
After the main Nuremberg Trial, there was brief talk of putting German industrialists on trial, said de Jong. Only three such trials took place, so most families in “Nazi Billionaires” — and many other business families — “went free with their fortunes intact,” said de Jong.
With one exception, all of de Jong’s requests to interview members of the six families were declined, leaving him to rely on intense archival research and the voluminous studies commissioned by some of the families.
“The families want these stories contained to Germany,” said de Jong. “If a German journalist writes about this, he or she will get the finger pointed at them, ‘What did your father or grandfather do during the Third Reich?’”
Despite this fingerpointing, in recent decades, said de Jong, German journalists started to look into the activities of leading corporate families that benefited from supporting the Third Reich. These media investigations typically result in companies hiring a scholar to investigate the firm’s Nazi ties and activities during the Third Reich.
“Then you don’t hear about it for three or four years,” said de Jong. “Suddenly a study in dense academic German is published. The findings are hidden in plain sight, and most of these studies are never translated into other languages.”
As a final step, said de Jong, the companies pay into a “compensation” fund. More often than not, he said, German media scarcely covers reports commissioned by families such as those featured in “Nazi Billionaires,” which helps to keep the matter within Germany.
A case-in-point regarding lack of historical transparency is a branch of the Quandt family that owns BMW.
During the war, industrialist Günther Quandt and his son, Herbert, deployed forced and slave laborers at many of their arms and battery factories. Under their leadership, hundreds of forced and slave laborers were worked to death, with one scholar estimating the family deployed almost 60,000 forced and slave laborers across their factories.
As heir to the dynasty, Herbert did not stand trial for his war crimes and went on to “rescue” BMW from bankruptcy in 1959. The website for the foundation set up in his name mentions Quandt’s heroic revival of BMW; however, there is nothing about Herbert’s wartime activities.
“BMW maintains this foundation in the name of their savior but fails to admit he planned, built, and dismantled a sub-concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland,” said de Jong. In addition to their slave labor empire, the Quandts acquired several companies stolen from Jews.
In 2011, the Quandt family released a 1,200 page study about the dynasty’s wartime activities. The report concluded that “the Quandts were linked inseparably with the crimes of the Nazis,” but nothing has changed on the ground regarding historical transparency, said de Jong.
‘Their Nazi perpetrator patriarchs’
Not every company with Nazi ties seeks to obscure its past, said de Jong. The author pointed to insurance giant Allianz as “being transparent about insuring concentration camps and refusing to pay out policies for Jewish policyholders, as well their expropriation of Jewish-owned businesses,” he said.
“Allianz does a transparent job today,” said de Jong, in contrast to “brands like BMW and Porsche. The money you spend on their products could end up as dividends for these families and help them maintain foundations and media prizes in the name of their Nazi perpetrator patriarchs,” he said.
According to de Jong, researching the Third Reich past of Germany’s corporate dynasties remains a “highly sensitive and secret topic.” Some of the obstacles to reporting on the families have to do with German society and culture, he said.
“Germany is still insular and inward-facing, despite the fact that it’s at the heart of the European project, politically,” said de Jong. “In some ways, it is quite provincial.”
If the six families in “Nazi Billionaires” want to make full amends with their past, “it is up to them, after the studies are published, to show the findings in a transparent way,” said de Jong.
Since “Nazi Billionaires” was published in Germany last month, there hasn’t been a response from the families and their companies, said the author.
“Things always take a little bit longer to pick up in Germany,” said de Jong. “I’m not surprised there is no response yet. I guess that’s the bottom line of the book.”