There’s a beaten-up Volkswagen Beetle I pass most days while walking the dog. It used to be a pleasurable sight: a throwback to a time when cars were lovingly designed, rather than today when they have all the charisma of an IKEA catalog.
But then I read David de Jong’s book “Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties” – and now I have to resist the urge to smash a side-view mirror every time I pass the damned jalopy. Disney’s Herbie may have associated the “pregnant roller skate” with the number 53, but the number I keep wanting to daub on this particular car’s dusty surface now is 88 – the neo-Nazis’ numerical abbreviation for the “Heil Hitler” salute.
That’s because, as well as being a fascinating exposé of the German industrialists and entrepreneurs who got stinking rich during the Nazis’ 12 years in power (though many were filthy rich already), “Nazi Billionaires” will enlighten you about the wartime actions of some very household-name German companies. It also reveals how some have spectacularly failed to own their shameful pasts.
Or, to put it another way, read this book and you’ll soon be scrubbing that Porsche Panamera Turbo S sports car from your shopping list.
Two dates leap out from “Nazi Billionaires”: February 20, 1933, and 1970. The first launches the book in dramatic style, recounting how two dozen top German businessmen met with Adolf Hitler on that winter’s day in Berlin. After hearing him deliver his vision in a “rambling 90-minute speech,” they were asked to get their checkbooks out to bankroll the heavily-in-debt Nazi Party’s election campaign. They obliged.
Two weeks later, Hitler “won” the far-from-free election, and millions of fates were sealed.
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Like the Bierkeller assassination attempt of November 1939 or Operation Valkyrie in July 1944, this is one of those “What if?” moments where we can speculate what might have happened if this small group of tycoons had refused to fund Hitler’s campaign for an election already far from free.
The book skillfully highlights a side to Nazi Germany that is rarely explored: how businessmen – and yes, it was almost exclusively men – boosted the war effort and made millions in the process.
The second date, 1970, starkly underlines that last sentence: De Jong reports that 25 years after the end of World War II, the wealthiest businessmen in West Germany were Friedrich Flick, August von Finck, Herbert Quandt and Rudolf-August Oetker – four figures whose family fortunes we literally follow throughout the book. As de Jong sums up, “All four were former members of the Nazi Party; one of them had been a voluntary Waffen-SS officer; they had all become billionaires.” Anyone who thinks crime doesn’t pay has either never seen a Scorsese movie, followed the career of Donald Trump or read this book.
Then there are the numbers that don’t have dollar signs before them. At least 12 million foreigners were forced to work in Germany during the war – many of them, the Ostarbeiter, coming from Poland and the Soviet Union. Some 2.5 million died there after enduring hellish conditions, with many being sent to the likes of IG Farben, Siemens, Daimler-Benz, BMW and Krupp from nearby SS-run concentration camps.
“Nazi Billionaires” also details how the Nazis “Aryanized” the 100,000 or so Jewish-owned businesses that existed in Germany in 1933 – initially by paying the owners a pittance, and after the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938, by forcibly transferring all Jewish-owned businesses to non-Jews.
No prizes for guessing if the four abovementioned German billionaires benefited from the Aryanization of Nazi Germany.
One particularly horrifying story concerns Adolf Rosenberger, the German-Jewish co-founder of one of the world’s most iconic brands: Porsche. Five years after helping establish the automobile design firm in 1930, he was arrested by the Gestapo and charged with “race defilement” – aka dating a gentile woman – and was sent to a concentration camp. Though he was released, he was forced to sell his shares in his company to members of the Porsche-Piëch family for the same amount he had originally invested – even though the firm was now increasingly profitable.
Even more infuriating, after the war, he was denied the restitution he sought – reinstatement as a shareholder with the same stake Porsche-Piëch family members had “bought” from him – thanks to a crummy lawyer. He ended up with a small cash settlement and, irony alert, a Volkswagen Beetle.
The whitewashing continues
Amsterdam-born de Jong, 35, started working on stories about hidden wealth, billionaires and family-owned companies after joining Bloomberg News in New York in 2011. After accepting a request to add German-speaking nations to his beat – no small thing given lingering Dutch enmity over the Nazis’ five-year occupation of the Netherlands during the war and his own family’s grim wartime experiences – a year later he came across an “inconspicuous website” called Harald Quandt Holding. Far more attention-grabbing was the firm’s list of assets, which totaled some $18 billion.
It was a chance discovery that, around five years later, would propel de Jong to start work on his debut book, uncovering stories of both ardent Nazis and unscrupulous opportunists who believed that all’s fair in love, war and business.
“This book details the Third Reich histories and reckoning of those German business dynasties that continue to have worldwide influence and relevance today,” he writes – with the book providing readers with plenty to think about as they perhaps drive their fancy German car, load their Bosch washing machine or take a Bayer aspirin.
The author talked to Haaretz about his book in a Zoom interview from New York last week. We could have met him in the flesh if we’d waited a few weeks: He will be moving to Tel Aviv in June to be with his partner, who covers Israel and the West Bank for German television.
De Jong says it was clear very early which German businessmen he would focus on. “It was pretty obvious that the Quandts were going to be the main family, because both branches of the family have such gripping stories, and also because I think the BMW Quandt family is so blatant in their whitewashing today, still.” But more on that later.
He also includes Friedrich Flick, whom he describes as “arguably the most influential and most powerful industrialist of Germany in the 20th century.” Flick was also one of the few businessmen to be convicted at the Nuremberg trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, ultimately serving five years before his release in 1950 and the reestablishment of his business empire.
The family de Jong found most fascinating was the Porsche-Piëch family. Patriarch Ferdinand Porsche designed the Volkswagen (the “people’s car,” which, defying its name, was only driven by members of the Nazi elite during the Third Reich), while his son Ferry would go on to design the first Porsche sports car.
But Ferry Porsche’s past was far less illustrious than his future. He “applied to the SS voluntarily and, while he never served, he was admitted as an SS officer and lied about his voluntary application and entry for the rest of his life,” de Jong says. “He surrounded himself with high-ranking SS officers in the 1950s and ’60s, and spewed virulent antisemitic vitriol about Porsche’s Jewish co-founder Adolf Rosenberger, who was pushed out of Porsche in 1935.
“They were actually the last addition to the book – and it turned out to be a very strong storyline.”
De Jong reserves perhaps his greatest scorn for the Ferry Porsche Foundation. “The Porsche family has never said anything about the role of either Ferdinand or Ferry Porsche during the Third Reich or postwar in relation to the Nazi era. And now you have the Ferry Porsche Foundation sponsoring a professorship of corporate history. You know, it’s beyond irony.”
There’s a quote in the book that really stayed with me, describing Harald and Herbert Quandt’s industrialist father, Günther, and how his business methods ensured success “without great noise of battle.” This seems to perfectly symbolize what these businessmen did for the Nazi regime.
“Not only for the Nazi regime; that’s how they generally made their money. One of the things that’s really important is that – except for the Porsche-Piëch family, who really laid the foundation for their fortune during the Nazi era – all of the other families that I write about were already extremely, exceptionally wealthy before Hitler seized power. They profited greatly from the Nazi regime, from the Third Reich, but their wealth was already immense. They were already Germany’s wealthiest families.
“One of the things I’m also trying to disprove is when people say, ‘Yeah, but these families made all their money during the Third Reich.’ The origins and the roots of their money was before the Third Reich. And that’s really important, because you show the continuation of money and power over a century.
“I always find it so shocking that it’s always George Soros who is invoked by conspiracy theorists as this kind of embodiment of all evil, even though Soros was born in 1930, at a time when these families already belonged to Germany’s wealthiest families. These families have been contributing to money and power for 120, 130, 140, 150 years. Yet you never hear conspiracy theories about the Quandts. I wonder why that would be!”
Is there an example of a German company that has handled its history in a more admirable way?
“[Insurer] Allianz is actually quite a good example. Allianz is very transparent, really incredibly detailed online, about how they robbed Jewish business owners, how they insured concentration camps, how they robbed Jewish policyholders or didn’t pay out insurance. If you go to their website and you go to the history, it’s really detailed. And a study that [U.S. historian] Gerald Feldman did, which was commissioned by Allianz, is also available in English.”
In the book, de Jong describes a method German companies cynically use when reporters start asking questions about what they did in the war: hire a leading German historian to independently investigate the history of the entire firm and family – including their actions during the Nazi era. And then, quietly publish the academic study at a later date, by which time the circus has moved someplace else.
So, what does he think German companies with problematic pasts should actually do? “Well, the way you learn from history is by being transparent about the good and the bad. Today, you have the BMW Herbert Quandt Foundation, which says ‘Inspire responsible leadership.’ And the only thing it says is that Herbert Quandt saved BMW from bankruptcy in 1959.
“They fail to mention that Herbert Quandt was found to have had the responsibility over the staffing at Berlin battery factories where, among other people, many forced and slave laborers were used, including 500 female slave laborers from concentration camps. Furthermore, he planned, built and dismantled a sub-concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. That he helped acquire companies seized from Jews in France. That he used prisoners of war and forced laborers at his own private estate.
“I think if you’re prepared to inspire responsible leadership, the responsible thing to do then is to be transparent about your history. At the very least.”
“Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties” (William Collins, $28.99), is out now.