(Bloomberg Opinion) -- America has in recent years undergone a reckoning with its original sin of slavery. From toppling statues of Confederate generals to adding the 1619 Project to school curriculums to erasing the legacy of a former president (of both the Republic and my alma mater, Princeton University), attempts to at least acknowledge if not right the wrongs of past centuries is one of the most potent social movements of our times.
Germany, on the other hand, has since the beginning of its post-World War II iteration made contrition central to its national identity. Given the horrors of the Nazi regime, this effort seems both laudable and impossible. Collective guilt can go only so far.
Where it has not gone, in many cases, is to the families of the powerful industrialists who eagerly joined Hitler’s cause in the 1930s or more passively hitched to the dictator’s star. Some journalists and academics are trying to bring about that reckoning. Prime among them is David de Jong, a former reporter with Bloomberg News’s billionaires project and author of a new book, “Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties.” I talked this week with de Jong, a native of the Netherlands who is now the Middle East correspondent for the Dutch Financial Daily, about 20th-century atrocities, modern whitewashing and the wealthy circle around Russian President Vladimir Putin. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:
Tobin Harshaw: I want to talk mostly about Nazis — wow, never thought I’d say that sentence — but first, can we touch briefly on Russia and Ukraine, and whether there’s a parallel with Putin and his oligarchs?
David de Jong: The main parallel is that the Russian oligarchs got their stakes in their companies through the “loans for shares” scheme under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, during the Wild West years of Russian democracy. They consolidated their power through this devil’s pact that they formed with Putin in the early 2000s.
TH: And that’s something akin to what happened in Weimar Germany?
DdJ: Likewise, the Weimar Republic was the first time there was ever a democratic republic of Germany; it, too, was politically and economically volatile. The families I write about profited heavily after World War I as speculators, leveraging hyperinflation to their advantage.
The German industrialists and financiers fell in line after Hitler seized power, because they wanted economic stability. And of course you had the draconian measures imposed on Germany by the Versailles Treaty. Hitler promised them mass rearmament, and he delivered on that promise. From 1934 onward, you had billions of Reichsmarks flowing into the coffers of industrialists and their steel and machine-production conglomerates, which then were retooled to become arms companies.
TH: You write about how twinning the industrial base and the German state started well before the Nazi era, and Foreign Minister Walther Rathenau is the main figure in that. Yet he’s Jewish and was assassinated in 1922. That’s some irony for you.
DdJ: Rathenau, not only prior to hyperinflation but during World War I, is really the leading figure of German industry, overseeing the war economy. He also oversees the leap that many of my characters make from provincial businessmen into full-fledged industrialists, moving to Berlin and capitalizing on the tragedies of the German economy from 1920 onwards.
TH: You write fascinating individual stories of the industrialists involved. I think the sexiest one to a lot of people will be the Porsche story. It seems almost as though here was a guy, Ferdinand Porsche, who had a dream about a great car, and he made a deal with the devil and then just got sucked in further and further.
TH: He also, of course, stole a portion of the business from a Jewish co-founder.
DdJ: Correct, 10% of the business — they pushed out Adolf Rosenberger and they erased him from company history.
Ferdinand Porsche was a man with a terrible temperament who only cared about his designs and who was willing to work with the Stalin regime, was willing to work with the French communists after the war, just as he was willing to work with the Nazi regime earlier.
I think it’s very emblematic of all the men I write about in the book. They would have thrived in the pre-World War I Kaiserreich, they would thrived in the Weimar Republic — in Nazi Germany, West Germany, a reunified Germany.
I would even argue that Ferry Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche’s son — who applied to the SS in 1938 and was admitted in 1941 — was more of a fellow traveler than an outright Nazi. After the war, he teamed up with his childhood friend, Albert Prinzing, who was a very high-ranking SS officer, and was basically a recruiter for former high-ranking SS members to join Porsche in the 1950s and 60s.
TH: These people were all in bed with the Nazis to some degree, then after the war, some were tried at Nuremberg and others “denazified” and cleared. Was justice totally arbitrary? Was it entirely cynical on the part of the Western victors because of the Soviet threat?
DdJ: It was both. The U.S. or the U.K. — forget about the French — didn’t have the bandwidth to prosecute all suspected Nazi perpetrators, let alone sympathizers. The main Nuremberg trial held by all four victors was highly substantial — a trial of the century in many ways.
But in the successor trials under American purview, they had to pick and choose the industrialists and the executives put on trial, because there was a policy decision made under President Harry Truman that there had to be a politically and economically viable West Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. A decision was made to do an accelerated handover of suspected Nazi perpetrators and sympathizers back to the West Germans. Millions got off scot-free.
TH: The industrialist Friedrich Flick was convicted at Nuremberg, yet ended his life as the richest person in Germany, right?
DdJ: He was one of the five richest people in the world. There were three industrialist trials in the Nuremberg successor trials. Against Flick, against Alfred Krupp and his associates, and against the entire board of IG Farben. IG Farben was the most notorious company in the world at the time, not only the largest chemicals and pharmaceutical conglomerate, but together with Degussa, it was responsible for producing the Zyklon-B gas used in the Holocaust.
TH: Even many those found guilty had a soft landing.
DdJ: Flick was sentenced to seven years, but none of his assets were expropriated by the Americans and his sentence was commuted. Everything in the Soviet-controlled zone was expropriated, but nothing by the Americans. It was a political decision, made first under Truman and then under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, as an appeasement policy to West Germany and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. They needed West Germany not only as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, but also as the key Western industrialized nation to fill the production gap for weapons for the Korean War.
TH: Other families like the Quandts, who now control BMW, basically got away unpunished?
DdJ: Guenther Quandt, the patriarch, was secretive; he didn’t own companies in his name. He owned a weapons business and AFA, a massive global battery company now known as Varta AG, which produces Apple’s AirPod batteries.
TH: You detail how many of the heirs of these industrialists, and the Quandts in particular, seem to want to bury that history. What started you on their trail?
DdJ: I first found this story as a reporter at Bloomberg, when I was looking into the “poorer” branch of the Quandt family, the one that’s descended from Magda Goebbels. Magda Goebbels’s first marriage was to Guenther Quandt, the second to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief.
I was struck by how the BMW Quandts, Germany’s wealthiest family, had this supposed reckoning, commissioning an academic study in 2007, but then not showing its findings anywhere. Their corporate headquarters remains in name of their grandfather, Guenther, who committed war crimes on a massive scale, as an exploiter of mass forced and slave labor.
They have a media prize named for Herbert Quandt, their father, who saved BMW from bankruptcy in 1959 but also oversaw the designing, building and dismantling of a sub-concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. He had the responsibility for battery factories in Berlin that exploited thousands of forced laborers, including hundreds of female slave laborers from concentration camps. He acquired companies seized from Jews in France and used prisoners of war at his own private estate.
In 2016, Stefan Quandt and Susanne Klatten, Germany’s wealthiest heirs and siblings, renamed the car company’s global foundation after their father — it’s now the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt. It claims to “promote responsible leadership.” That is a complete perversion of history and a whitewash.
TH: Other than journalism, what mechanism is there to try and bring a true reckoning to these people?
DdJ: Many German companies and business families commission these academic studies, that’s kind of the way to quell outrage after a story breaks about their Nazi past, which get published four years later and they’re in dense academic German. It’s really insidious, because the Germans in many aspects of society do such a great job of reckoning with their history. But these families very much lean on this notion of Germany’s collective guilt to bury their individual histories.
TH: I’m thinking of what’s happened in the U.S. in recent years, this huge reckoning with our original sin of slavery. Do you foresee anything like that happening in Germany through public pressure?
DdJ: The only way that anything ever gets done in Germany is through journalism and public pressure, or journalism that leads to public outrage. I hope that my book and the facts in it will lead other journalists, particularly in Germany, to build on the reporting that I’ve done. The German translation of “Nazi Billionaires” came out this week. The best way journalism can hold these companies and these families accountable is by sticking to the facts and by being transparent.
TH: Are you hopeful?
DdJ: Yes, I’m hopeful.
To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at [email protected]