Nazi billionaires – the murky origins of Germany’s industrial wealth

When Porsche makes its planned public debut later this year, descendants of the sports car maker’s eponymous founder – an SS officer who was Hitler’s favorite automotive engineer – will be among the main beneficiaries of Germany’s biggest listing since. decades. The family of Adolf Rosenberger, a German Jew who co-founded the company, will not.

At the time of writing, a search of the Stuttgart-based band’s comprehensive website returns only three passing mentions of Rosenberger. None describe the former race car driver’s lifelong attempt to be properly compensated for his actions, which Ferdinand Porsche and his son-in-law purchased for a fraction of their real value in 1935, the same year Rosenberger was was arrested by the Gestapo for the “crime” of dating a nice girl.

This task is left to David de Jong Nazi billionaires, in which the Dutch journalist develops a series of investigations for Bloomberg on the murky origins of the wealth of German industrialists, part of which remains invested in the most famous brands of the country. De Jong quotes Rosenberger – who later took the name Alan Robert after fleeing to California in 1940 – as saying his co-founders “used my Jewish background to cheaply get rid of me”. He disputes the Porsche family’s post-war claim that they had sought Rosenberger’s release and treated him fairly in commercial matters.

Blatant examples of revisionist history abound in de Jong’s forensic examination, which focuses on four figures who, despite their or their clan’s crimes, would reemerge as Germany’s wealthiest businessmen from the West within two or three decades of Hitler’s defeat.

Coal and steel baron Friedrich Flick was at least convicted in Nuremberg for using slave labor, among other evils, to regain his stature and fortune once he served a commuted sentence of seven year. A charitable foundation bearing his name still exists and sponsors academic positions at the prestigious Goethe University in Frankfurt.

August von Finck escaped almost unscathed thanks in part to the submission of doubtful Persilscheine, or “Persil tickets” – exculpatory affidavits from Jews or other Nazi victims attesting to his character and conduct. His family bank, Merck Finck – whose balance sheet had been quadrupled by the forced acquisition of rival lenders Dreyfus and Rothschild – was sold to Barclays for around $370 million in 1990. A history page on the company’s website conveniently jumps from 1870 straight to 1954.

Rudolf-August Oetker, heir to a pudding and frozen food empire who volunteered to join the Waffen-SS, never even saw the inside of a courtroom and continued to employ and supporting prominent former Nazis.

However, perhaps the most rehabilitated of the quartet is Herbert Quandt, whose descendants still own nearly half of BMW and whose surname still graces one of Germany’s most prestigious journalism awards. Quandt’s father, Günther, successfully portrayed himself in post-war accounts as a reluctant collaborator with the Nazi regime, ushering in a new era of “massive prosperity and grave silence”, writes de Jong. But the documents cited in this book (including letters and diaries the author obtained from antiquarian book dealers) detail how Günther Quandt, while not necessarily an enthusiastic party member, capitalized on the rise of fascism and its connection to Joseph Goebbels, who married his ex. -wife Magda. Its nefarious activities included, but were not limited to, the expropriation of Jewish property, the manufacture of weapons, and the exploitation of tens of thousands of forced laborers.

Some of the ancient sins of German business have been well documented elsewhere, and companies like Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank have commissioned historians to lay bare their misdeeds. Yet, as de Jong recounts in an all-too-brief chapter, leniency was granted to many authors when the priorities of the Truman administration shifted to ensuring that the West German economy was strong enough to join the struggle against communism. Only recently has public pressure and hard journalism forced a reexamination of those who were quickly exonerated or ignored, like the Nazi patriarch of Germany’s wealthiest and most secretive family, the Reimanns. Meanwhile, writes de Jong, “many German business dynasties continue to avoid full reckoning with the dark history that stains their fortunes.”

The author’s research also provides an uncomfortable backdrop to current boardroom decisions. VW, one of the biggest Nazi-era exploiters of forced labor, continues to operate a factory in China’s Xinjiang region, where President Xi Jinping’s regime is accused of committing genocide against the Muslim minority uyghur. So did BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, which under its wartime incarnation, IG Farben, manufactured Zyklon B for the Nazi gas chambers. Both groups say they have no evidence of human rights abuses at their factories.

Consideration of historical responsibilities has also been notably absent from German industry’s lobbying to ensure that Russian gas continues to flow into the country, even if it helps Vladimir Putin finance his war in Ukraine.

The mindset behind such an opportunity was perhaps familiar to prosecutor Günther Quandt. The defendant, he argued, quoting Max Weber, was simply motivated by the belief that “the building up of society is the ultimate good, and . . . anything that resists its construction is bad.”

Nazi billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Richest Dynasties by David de Jong William Collins £25 / Mariner Books $28.99, 400 pages

Joe Miller is the FT’s Frankfurt correspondent

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