The next time you greedily bite into a Krispy Kreme donut or climb into your shiny new Volkswagen from the dealership, think about it: Your money might just have helped obscure the Nazi past of some of the most great German industrial families.
In Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties, author and economics journalist David de Jong investigates the business activities of six German industrial dynasties during the Third Reich. Some of these companies are still today placed under the control of the same families, in the hands of their descendants.
The families examined in the book owned, among others, Porsches, Volkswagens and BMWs, or American brands ranging from Panera Bread to Krispy Kreme. There’s also Dr. Oetker, an $8 billion food company, and luxury hotels spread across Europe.
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“Companies and many families in Germany have never really been denazified,” comments the journalist from the Netherlands. “Transparent companies are those that are no longer under the control of a family that once collaborated with the Nazis. »
The industrial dynasties that caught de Jong’s attention in his book stand out in that they never appropriated the strong culture of remembrance developed by Germany in the face of World War II, he says. Instead of being “transparent” about the crimes committed by their patriarchs during the Third Reich, the six families – the Quandt, Flick, von Finck, Porsche-Piëch, Oetker and Reimann families – seem to believe that the years Nazis never existed, he explains.
“What struck me was how little these stories remain known to the public at large,” de Jong told the Times of Israel. “These six families [dans mon livre] are powerful and they manage to hide these antecedents in full view of everyone”, he is astonished.
August von Finck, for example, was a German financial great who had been personally chosen by Hitler to lead a fundraiser for an art museum in Munich. To thank von Finck, the dictator had allowed him to “Aryanize” the Rothschild Bank of Vienna and the Dreyfus Bank of Berlin, stealing these institutions from their Jewish owners. To this day, von Finck’s heirs own a lot of land in Bavaria and one of his sons is said to have funded far-right causes.
“Then you hear no more about it”
During the twelve years of National Socialist governance, certain families presented in Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties did not hesitate to resort to slavery to strengthen their workforce and to use forced laborers. Others joined the SS, made financial donations to the SS, or helped advance the regime’s “miracle weapon” program, a program that was top-secret.
After the main Nuremberg trial, there had been brief discussions about the possibility of bringing certain German industrialists to justice, de Jong said. Only three such trials were to take place, and so many of the families featured in the book – and many others – “went free, their fortunes intact,” de Jong says.
All the members of the six families who were approached by the author refused an interview – with the exception of one – which led him to rely solely on hard work of archival study and on the voluminous reports that may have been commissioned by certain large families.
“They don’t want these stories to cross the borders of Germany,” says de Jong.
“If a German journalist writes about it, he – or she – will be singled out: ‘And you, what did your father or your grandfather do in the Third Reich?’” he explains.
Despite this stigma, de Jong adds, German journalists in recent decades have begun to report on the activities of those industrial dynasties that profited from the Third Reich. Media investigations which have usually led companies to hire a specialist on their side to investigate the links maintained by their firm with the Nazis and the activities of factories under the National Socialist regime.
“Then you don’t hear about it for three or four years,” adds de Jong. “And suddenly a thick academic study in German is published. The conclusions are hidden in plain sight, and the majority of them are never translated into another language”.
As a last step for companies to show their supposed good faith, they pay money to a “compensation fund”, continues de Jong. And more often than not, he notes, the German media rarely pays attention to family-sponsored reports, such as those examined by the author of Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties – which helps to keep the facts likely to be revealed to the general public within the borders of Germany alone.
A concrete example of this historical lack of transparency is that of the Quandt family, owners of BMW.
During the war, the industrialist Günther Quandt and his son, Herbert, had used forced laborers and slaves in many of their armaments and battery production factories. Hundreds of these workers had died on the job – almost 60,000 of them, according to one specialist, were deployed in all the family’s factories.
Heir to the dynasty, Herbert had not been brought to justice for his war crimes and had “saved” BMW from bankruptcy in 1959. The website of the foundation established in his name mentions the heroic work of recovery carried out by Quandt at the helm of BMW – but there is nothing about Herbert’s activities during the war.
“BMW has retained its foundation which bears the name of the person who saved the company – but the latter at no time admits that its savior planned, built and dismantled a sub-concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland de Jong laments. In addition to its empire made up in particular of forced laborers and other slaves, the Quandt family had acquired several businesses stolen from Jews during the war.
In 2011, the Quandt family released a 1,200-page study of the dynasty’s activities under the Third Reich. A report that concluded that “the Quandt family was indissolubly linked to the crimes committed by the Nazis” – but nothing has changed on the ground in terms of historical transparency, remarks de Jong.
Patriarchs behind Nazi crimes
Not all companies that have been linked to the Nazis have tried to obscure their past, de Jong notes. The author cites Allianz, the insurance giant, which “was transparent about the fact that it had insured the concentration camps and that it had refused to pay compensation to its Jewish customers, and which admitted expropriating Jewish businesses and businesses,” he said.
“Allianz does a transparent job today,” explains de Jong, unlike “brands like BMW and Porsche. The money you spend to acquire their products ends up as a dividend for these families, which helps them maintain foundations and media awards that bear the names of their patriarchs who were behind Nazi crimes,” continues- he.
According to de Jong, research on the past of the great industrial dynasties, at the time of the Third Reich, remains a “highly sensitive and secret” subject. Some of the hurdles in shedding light on these families relate to German society and culture, he explained.
“Germany is still insular and inward-looking even though it is politically at the heart of the European project,” says de Jong. “In a way, she is very provincial”.
If the six families mentioned in Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties want to make amends fully from their past, “it is their responsibility to reveal the conclusions of the studies which are published in a transparent way”, continues de Jong.
As the book was published in Germany only last month, families and businesses have not yet reacted, says the author.
“Things always take a little longer to get done in Germany,” he says. “I’m not surprised there’s no response yet. I guess that’s the conclusion of the book.