Nazi Billionaires — the murky origins of German industrialist wealth

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

At the time of writing, a search on Stuttgart-based group’s comprehensive website returns just three passing mentions of Rosenberger. None describe the former race-car driver’s lifelong attempt to be properly compensated for his shares, which Ferdinand Porsche and his son-in-law bought for a fraction of their true worth in 1935, the same year that Rosenberger was arrested by the Gestapo for the “crime” of dating a gentile woman.

That task is left to David de Jong’s Nazi Billionaires, in which the Dutch journalist expands on a series of investigations for Bloomberg on the murky origins of German industrialists’ wealth, some of which remains invested in the country’s most famous brands. De Jong quotes Rosenberger — who later assumed the name Alan Robert after fleeing to California in 1940 — contending that his co-founders “used my membership as a Jew to get rid of me cheaply”. He challenges the Porsche family’s post-war claim that they had petitioned for Rosenberger’s release, and treated him fairly in matters of business.

Egregious examples of revisionist history abound in de Jong’s forensic examination, which centres on four figures who would, despite their or their clan’s crimes, re-emerge as West Germany’s richest businessmen within two or three decades of Hitler’s defeat. 

Coal and steel baron Friedrich Flick was at least convicted at Nuremberg for the use of slave labour, among other evils, only to regain his stature and fortune once he had served a commuted seven-year sentence. A charitable foundation bearing his name still exists, and sponsors academic positions at Frankfurt’s prestigious Goethe university.

August von Finck got off almost scot-free thanks in part to the submission of dubious Persilscheine, or “Persil tickets” — exculpatory affidavits by Jews or other Nazi victims vouching for 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 roughly $370m in 1990. A history page on the company’s website conveniently skips from 1870 directly to 1954.

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

Perhaps the most rehabilitated of the quartet, however, was Herbert Quandt, whose descendants still own almost half of BMW, and whose family name still adorns one of Germany’s most prestigious journalism prizes. Quandt’s father, Günther, successfully portrayed himself in post-war accounts as a reluctant collaborator with the Nazi regime, paving the way for a new era of “massive prosperity and grave silence”, de Jong writes. But records cited in this book (including letters and diaries the author procured from antiquarian book dealers) detail how Günther Quandt, if not necessarily an enthusiastic party member, capitalised on the rise of fascism, and his connection to Joseph Goebbels, who married his ex-wife Magda. His nefarious activities included, but were not limited to, expropriating Jewish assets, manufacturing weapons and exploiting tens of thousands of forced labourers.

Some of corporate Germany’s former sins have been well documented elsewhere, and the likes of Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank have commissioned historians to lay bare their misdeeds. Yet as de Jong chronicles in an all-too-brief chapter, clemency was granted to many perpetrators when the Truman administration’s priorities shifted to ensuring the West German economy was strong enough to join the fight against communism. Only recently has public pressure and dogged journalism forced a re-examination of those swiftly exonerated, or overlooked, such as the Nazi patriarch of Germany’s richest and most-secretive family, the Reimanns. Meanwhile, de Jong writes, “many German business dynasties continue to sidestep a complete 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 largest exploiters of forced labour in the Nazi era, continues to operate a factory in China’s Xinjiang region, where President Xi Jinping’s regime stands accused of committing genocide against the Uyghur Muslim minority. As does BASF, the world’s largest chemical’s company, which under its wartime incarnation, IG Farben, manufactured Zyklon B for Nazi gas chambers. Both groups say they have no evidence of human rights abuses at their plants.

A reckoning with historical responsibilities has also been notably absent in German industry’s lobbying to ensure Russian gas keeps flowing into the country, even as this helps Vladimir Putin finance his war in Ukraine.

The mindset behind such expediency might have been familiar to Günther Quandt’s prosecutor. The defendant, he argued quoting Max Weber, was simply motivated by the belief that “building the corporation is the ultimate good, and . . . everything that resists building it out is bad”.

Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest 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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