Dark past of the big-name brands: New book that will rock Germany exposes how its biggest companies still haven’t faced up to their years of Nazi collusion, writes TOM LEONARD

  • A new book uncovers five German dynasties who became wealthy under Nazism
  • Owners of Volkswagen, BMW, Porsche, Allianz and Dr Oetker’s pizzas all named
  • ‘Nazi Billionaires – The Dark History Of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties’ in stores
  • Author David de Jong reveals how firms became successful under Nazi regime

You probably won’t be aware that if you take the wheel of a Volkswagen, BMW or Porsche, arrange an insurance policy with Allianz or even take a bite of a Dr Oetker frozen pizza or Bahlsen Choco Leibniz biscuit, you are directly linked to a company that grew fat on Nazi corruption and cruelty. 

The owners of the companies that make them were part of a group of industrialists shoring up Adolf Hitler’s regime. 

In February 1933, just after he was appointed chancellor, Hitler called a secret meeting of Germany’s most powerful industrialists, requesting they stump up three million reichsmarks for his party’s election campaign.

 The two dozen businessmen present didn’t hesitate to get out their cheque books. Many would become key supporters of the Third Reich — not just patriotic Germans but committed members of the Nazi Party and even the SS. 

They decorated their mansions with paintings stolen from rich Jews sent to the concentration camps. Inmates from those camps would be worked to death in their factories. 

The conventional narrative is that they weren’t actually Nazis themselves, but merely doing their duty as Germans. 

Engineer Ferdinand Porsche presents Nazi leader Adolf Hitler with a model car during celebrations for Hitler’s 50th birthday in 1939

It’s also generally accepted that, along with the rest of the country, they have atoned for their part in one of history’s darkest chapters. Shockingly, neither assumption — a new book reveals — is true. 

Some of Germany’s richest families today remain beneficiaries of monstrous Nazi collaborators who were never punished and whose horrifying legacy continues to be kept quiet. 

The full extent of this terrible and lingering stain on German corporate history is exposed in Nazi Billionaires — The Dark History Of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties. 

Its author, Dutch financial journalist David de Jong, focuses on a clutch of the worst offenders, five dynasties whose products are still famous all over the world: the Quandts of BMW; the Flicks who once controlled Daimler-Benz (now Mercedes-Benz); the Porsche-Piech family who control car giant Volkswagen; the von Fincks, financiers who co-founded Allianz, the world’s biggest insurance company; and the Oetkers, whose business empire stretches from Dr Oetker frozen pizza and cake ingredients to luxury hotels such as London’s Lanesborough. 

The man who ran the Oetker empire during World War II was an officer in the Waffen SS who trained at Dachau concentration camp and kept Nazi forces supplied with instant pudding. You won’t find that on the label of a jar of Dr Oetker’s Fairy Sprinkles. 

De Jong writes: ‘Their names adorn buildings, foundations and prizes. In a country that is so often praised for its culture of remembrance and contrition, an honest, transparent acknowledgment of the wartime activities of some of Germany’s richest families remains, at best, an afterthought.’ 

Britain, the U.S. and France deserve some of the blame, he says. For the sake of ‘political expediency’ and to counter the ‘looming threat of communism’, the victorious Allies handed most of the tycoons back to Germany, which allowed the majority of them to walk free. 

Adolf Hitler ((left) and the banker August von Finck (right) saluting in front of the SS standard bearers

Even the handful who spent a few years in prison were soon back running their businesses. Ferdinand Porsche is remembered as the designer of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle and the name on some of the finest sports cars. 

Until it was revealed in a TV documentary in 2019, the company he founded kept quiet about the fact that he’d had a Jewish partner and co-founder, racing driver Adolf Rosenberger. The omission wasn’t hard to understand. 

Rosenberger had left the company in 1935, forced to sell his stake for a fraction of its true value to Porsche and co-founder Anton Piech, under a ruthless Nazi policy known as ‘Aryanisation’, designed to stop Jews from owning businesses. 

When Rosenberger was carted off to a concentration camp, Porsche did nothing to get him released although, thankfully, another senior company executive did and he fled penniless to the U.S.  

After World War II, the company refused to compensate him, contesting his claim in court. (Porsche also refused to lift a finger for another Jewish colleague who asked for his help but ended up perishing in the Bergen-Belsen death camp). 

Ferdinand Porsche became Hitler’s favourite engineer and joined the Nazi Party. His company switched from making civilian cars to designing weapons and tanks. They used some 20,000 forced or slave labour workers — either brought in from occupied countries or concentration camps.

Most were women, including mothers who had to leave their children in a nursery where conditions, said a British prosecutor, ‘defied belief’. 

Adolf Hitler and Franz-Josef Popp, CEO of BMW AG (in center), at the plant in Milbertshofen, Munich, in 1935

The Porsche family and their cousins the Piechs also used these miserable workers as their household servants. 

Ferdinand’s son and successor, Ferry Porsche, became an SS officer (later falsely claiming he had been forced to join by Himmler) and, after the war, instituted a policy of actively recruiting fellow former SS officers to the company. 

One became its global PR chief, while another — an SS tank commander who had massacred 84 U.S. PoWs in the notorious Malmedy Massacre — was made head of sales promotion. 

In a 1976 memoir, Ferry made anti-Semitic remarks about Rosenberger. 

The Porsche and Piech families are now together worth $20billion (£16 billion) and control the Volkswagen Group, which includes Bentley, Audi, Lamborghini, Seat and Skoda. 

They have never publicly addressed their forebears’ activities under the Nazis which — given the intense pressure on companies and individuals in the UK and U.S. to apologise for far older and more tenuous historical sins — is an astonishing state of affairs. 

Instead, in 2018 they created the Ferry Porsche Foundation to reinforce the company’s commitment to social responsibility. 

Under public pressure, it funded a study by Stuttgart University into the company’s Nazi period which, suspiciously, downplayed its mistreatment of Rosenberger. De Jong dismissed the study as a ‘partial whitewash’. 

Even now, the Ferry Porsche Foundation website pointedly contains no biography of the SS man after whom it is named. 

German industrialist Friedrich Flick is flanked by two American army guards in a courtroom in the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, on January 15, 1947

Then there are the Quandts, even richer than the Porsches thanks to a controlling stake in BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce, as well as substantial chemical and technology interests. 

Two of the heirs, Stefan Quandt and Susanne Klatten, until recently were Germany’s richest family and have near majority (47 per cent) control of BMW. (Another branch of the family is worth a further $18 billion (£14.5billion). 

The siblings are grandchildren of industrialist Gunther Quandt whose second wife, Magda, was a Nazi ‘groupie’ who caught Hitler’s eye but later married Hitler’s chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels. 

Both Gunther and his elder son Herbert were Nazi Party members and far more enthusiastic about its abhorrent politics than they ever admitted, says de Jong. 

Gunther was quick to oust Jews from his companies’ boards as soon as the Nazis’ introduced anti-Semitic policies.

Quandt also ‘viciously’ exploited the regime’s Aryanisation policy, acquiring various Jewish-owned companies and others seized by the Germans in occupied countries for knockdown prices. 

Like the Porsche-Piechs, the family made heavy use of Nazi slave labour — some 57,000 laboured under appalling conditions in their factories. 

The Quandts even built their own small concentration camp on site so they could house more workers. 

Conditions for the workers were terrible. In the lead department of Gunther’s submarine battery factory at Hanover, they were given no protection from the metal’s poisonous fumes. 

Some had accidents with boiling hot lead and had to have limbs amputated, others got their limbs trapped in machinery. 

After the end of the war, both Gunther and Herbert were forced to undergo ‘de-Nazification’ — an often ineffectual cultural detoxification process — but were soon back running their businesses. 

German historians prefer to remember Herbert not for building concentration camps but for ‘saving’ BMW from bankruptcy in 1960 when he bought the struggling company with a fortune inherited from his father. 

The family haven’t been able to brush it all under the rug as a 2007 German TV documentary unhelpfully revealed the family’s little known Nazi connections and use of slave labour. Five days later, the Quandts commissioned their own investigation by a historian. 

The latter took four years to publish a report confirming the allegations but even then the family kept Gunther’s name on their HQ building outside Frankfurt. 

Meanwhile, Stefan Quandt, who insists his father was never a ‘convinced’ Nazi, still awards an annual journalism prize named after Herbert. 

It was only last October that the prize’s website was finally amended to mention his Nazi era activities but still leaves out that he built a concentration camp, snapped up Jewish businesses and used PoWs as virtual slaves on his private estate. 

BMW’s charity arm is actually called the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt and, likewise, its official website makes no mention of any connection with the Third Reich. 

A spokesman for the Quandt family has said the family had been transparent about its Nazi past. The same dogged reluctance to come clean can be found on the website of another of Germany’s most influential charities — the Friedrich Flick Foundation. 

Named after the industrialist who for decades controlled Daimler-Benz, Germany’s second biggest car maker (before selling it in 1985 to Deutsche Bank) the website somehow forgets to mention that he was a convicted Nazi war criminal. 

Friedrich Flick was one of the key industrialists of the Third Reich and one of its biggest arms suppliers. 

He also contributed generously to the funds of Hitler’s murderous SS. In return, he made a fortune buying Jewish companies dirt cheap and was able to use 48,000 forced labourers in his coal mines, steel mills and munitions factories. It has been estimated that 80 per cent of them died. 

Flick was convicted of war crimes in 1947 but served just two and a half years in prison. He was able to rebuild his business empire and became Germany’s richest man. 

The billionaire refused to pay a pfennig in compensation to the victims, and nor did his son and heir Friedrich Karl, whose six homes included a villa on the Cote d’Azur, penthouse in New York and a castle near Paris. The family remained tone deaf to Friedrich’s crimes. 

In 1992, GertRudolf ‘Muck’ Flick, his grandson, tried to create a professorship under the Flick name at Balliol College, Oxford, but only withdrew it after a public outcry. 

Banker August von Finck inherited controlling stakes in the Allianz and Munich Reinsurance companies and private bank Merck Finck. 

He gave millions to the Nazis in the 1930s, raising 20 million reichsmarks for Hitler’s art gallery, the Haus der Deutschen Kunst, which was built to show off Nazi-approved Aryan art and architecture rather than ‘degenerate’ Jewish or abstract art. 

Von Finck was handsomely rewarded when he was allowed to get his hands on Austria’s largest bank, which belonged to the Jewish Rothschild family. 

Von Finck would later claim he used his top level Nazi contacts to secure Louis von Rothschild from Gestapo custody when, in fact, says de Jong, two of the Jewish banker’s siblings paid $21 million ($385 million today) — the largest known ransom paid in modern history. 

Von Finck never renounced the Fuhrer — like Gunther Quandt and Friedrich Flick, he had been at that fateful 1933 election meeting when German big business put their money on the Nazis — and nor, it appears, did his son and heir August Jr. 

The latter sold Merck Finck to Barclays for a reported $370million (£230 million) in 1990, soon afterwards becoming a donor to the Far Right party Alternative for Germany. 

He died last year, leaving a $9billion (£7billion) fortune. Sometimes, the descendants of Nazi billionaires have appeared to have been genuinely ignorant of their guilt. 

According to De Jong, the eight children of ‘pudding prince’ Rudolf August Oetker of Dr Oetker fame didn’t learn about his Nazi past until historians revealed it in 2013. It must have been quite a shock. 

Rudolf ’s stepfather Richard Kaselowsky, who had run the Oetker family business before him, was a hardened Nazi and acolyte of SS chief Heinrich Himmler who helped fund his Lebensborn, the chilling Aryan breeding programme to create the ‘master race’. 

Kaselowsky would hand copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf to new employees and hung a portrait of the Fuhrer in his office. 

His stepson Rudolf August served as a major in the Waffen SS and venerated his stepfather. He later slipped earnings from Dr Oetker to Stille Hilfe (Silent Help) a secretive organisation set up to help SS veterans after the war. 

Germany’s admirable public reckoning with its Nazi past couldn’t be further from the silence and secrecy of its business ruling class. 

De Jong says they adopt a common response when confronted by Nazi-related allegations, which is to commission a respected historian to conduct their own study and then wait for the controversy to fade. 

The Bahlsen family, Germany’s most famous biscuit maker, did exactly that in 2019 when 26-year-old Verena Bahlsen provoked a national outcry. 

After boasting in a speech of being a proud capitalist who deserved her fortune, she told an interviewer her family firm had paid its Nazi army of forced labourers ‘exactly the same as the Germans and treated them well — Bahlsen has nothing to feel guilty about’. 

As Der Spiegel magazine revealed, it was almost comically wrong. Bahlsen had forcibly shipped in women workers from a Ukrainian biscuit factory, paying them a pittance and abusing them. But instead of being reprimanded by her family, Verena was promoted. y

She later gave an interview — in 2021 — in which she appeared to have shifted her position, saying: ‘We have failed for decades to create transparency about our Nazi history… And I have to push my family to talk about it.’ 

Even so, when it comes to even acknowledging their ugly debt to the Third Reich, let alone atoning for it, Germany’s arrogant industrialists still have a long way to go.

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