The complicity of the CEOs
A conversation with journalist David de Jong about the secret Nazi pasts of many of modern Germany's great fortunes -- and his warning for American business leaders
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler admiring a model of the Volkswagen car with the designer Ferdinand Porsche (left), 1938.
The journalist David de Jong has just published a devastating investigation detailing the complicity of some of Germany’s biggest industrial fortunes in its Nazi past.
Germany has long been the great exception to the rule that countries don’t atone well, memorializing and confronting the sins of the Nazi era and drilling into young people born decades afterward the unique historical baggage and responsibility of that legacy.
Except, de Jong writes in his painstakingly reported new book, for one gaping hole in that reckoning and truth-telling: Germany’s billionaires, then and even unto this day.
And while drawing parallels between that episode of history and anything since is perilous, de Jong, in our conversation, told me that the history of German tycoons’ cynical embrace of Nazism should offer a warning to American business leaders (whom he also covered, for Bloomberg) contemplating how long they can continue doing business with the anti-democratic, hate-propelled movement of Trumpism.
De Jong’s book is Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties, and our conversation about it is below.
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“To pervert and whitewash history”: a conversation with David de Jong
I want to start by going back by a decade when you began as a Bloomberg reporter with a billionaires beat covering the Waltons, the Kochs, and others. What were you finding in that work? What were you uncovering, and how did you go from that to German billionaires and Nazi fortunes?
I was hired at this new Bloomberg team in late 2011 which covered billionaire fortunes and family-owned, non-stock-exchange-listed companies and family offices. It was ironic that Bloomberg started this team at the time because, of course, it was around Occupy Wall Street when the team emerged. Zuccotti Park was dismantled overnight -- and quite violently -- the week I started. Michael Bloomberg was the mayor and New York City's richest citizen at the time, too. Two months in, I was asked if I could cover the German-speaking countries because I'm Dutch.
In the summer of 2012, I came across this one very vague-looking website of something called the "Harald Quandt Holding," which said that it oversees 18 billion in assets but didn't say anything else. I looked into who Harald Quandt was, and it turned out he was the son of Magda Goebbels from her first marriage to this industrialist called Günther Quandt. And I started reporting. I started writing these stories for Bloomberg, which mixed the historical with financial and business interests and the continuing business interests of these German families.
I ended up writing this book, in particular, because of the multi-billionaire branch of the Quandt family that controls BMW today. Through BMW, they use global philanthropy and media prizes to whitewash the legacy of their father, Herbert Quandt, Günther Quandt's oldest son. He saved BMW from bankruptcy, but he was also a Nazi war criminal. There's a similar story behind Porsche, too.
I found that Porsche and BMW were the ones that continue to whitewash their histories by celebrating the business success of their patriarch but not being transparent about their war crimes or their affiliations, such as being voluntary SS members. I found that astounding in a country that has, for the most part, done a great job at reckoning for its Nazi-era crimes and the Holocaust in many aspects of society.
You’re arguing that Germany has, in general, reckoned and atoned, but there is a billionaire-sized hole in that process.
Growing up, I remember some Jewish friends of mine saying, "Don't buy an Audi or Volkswagen because you may be paying the pensions of workers who were Nazis when they were young." But what you're detailing in the book is far more nefarious than just that anxiety that some 80-year-old Nazi foot soldier might financially benefit from buying a car. You're suggesting some of the biggest companies in Germany today only exist to an extent because their leaders decided to be complicit in fascism. Can you explain that degree of complicity and how it goes beyond that idea of merely funding pensions?
The five families I write about were all complicit in three main ways. They benefitted from the Nazi regime through mass weapons production, the rearmament Hitler initiated in 1934, followed by "Aryanization," which was a terribly euphemistic term meant to denote the expropriation of Jewish-owned businesses and other assets. Whether it was real estate, a company's shares, art, or jewelry.
Third, they profited from the mass forced and slave labor program that Hitler initiated in 1941. Millions of Europeans were deported to German factories and mines, where they were forced to work under the most horrific of circumstances.
The book is also trying to dispel the notion that these families laid the foundation of their fortunes during the Nazi era.
Except for the example I give of the Porsche-Piëch family, all of the families were extremely wealthy by the time Hitler seized power. There's a continuation of money and power. These families have been incredibly wealthy for 150 years and continue to be Germany's wealthiest families today. It was really the Porsche-Piëch family that laid the foundation of their fortune during the Third Reich.
Ferdinand Porsche designed the Volkswagen and convinced Hitler to put it into production. Porsche and his son-in-law Anton Piëch led the Volkswagen complex in central Germany, which had satellite concentration camps on its grounds. Many forced labor camps and tens of thousands of people were used and exploited to mass produce weapons. And the Volkswagen wasn't put into production until after the war.
His son, Ferry Porsche, ended up designing the first Porsche sports car in 1947. He was also a voluntary SS officer, which very few people know. He applied to the SS in 1938 and entered in 1941. He hired many former high-ranking SS officers in the 1950s and ’60s at Porsche.
Did you find any counterexamples in your reporting of big companies that refused to be complicit and still exist today?
It was extremely difficult. I found one example with the company Bosch. It's a massive, electrotechnical conglomerate that still exists today. Robert Bosch, its founding patriarch, was a very progressive man and, through mediation, tried to prevent Hitler’s invading Poland in 1939. He took care of his employees. He was very progressive when it came to labor standards, payment, and even unionization. He even funded the resistance. He was the one example I came across of somebody funding, through his right-hand man, the resistance against Nazis. He was deeply anti-Hitler and deeply anti-Nazi. But by the time he died in 1942, even he ended up using forced labor in his companies, which were also retooled as weapons factories.
There's another example. Fritz Thyssen was one of Hitler's earliest backers, one of the few industrialists who backed him from the mid-1920s onwards. But in 1939, he turned against Hitler.
After Hitler invaded Poland, he fled Nazi Germany and went to Paris, where he had this American journalist write up a whitewashed, hagiographic memoir called I Paid Hitler. You can still buy it. He describes how he was one of Hitler's industrial backers. Fritz Thyssen got arrested after Germany invaded France and was sent to a concentration camp. His steel conglomerate, Thyssen, which was one of the largest at the time, was expropriated and was given to the right-hand man of Friedrich Flick, one of the main characters in my book.
Other than Robert Bosch, who was anti-Hitler but was still complicit, and Fritz Thyssen, who was very pro-Hitler but turned against him, I didn't come across any major German industrialist who stood up against Hitler or left as an act of resistance.
You were working on this book during the Trump era in America. Although there are enormous differences, there is a dynamic of monied interests and powerful people in America who, deep down, don't like Trump and recognize the barbarism that he represents, but who nonetheless went along with him to get their tax cut.
How much of what you witnessed with big business in America during the Trump era struck you as running parallel to what you were writing about in this book?
I saw many parallels. You are the first one to ask about this. I've always been wary of making these comparisons, but I saw many similarities in the German businessmen who weren't fans of Hitler. They called themselves establishment conservatives, which can easily translate into establishment Republicans -- if those are still around today. But these establishment conservatives only started backing Hitler once he had seized power and once they saw billions flowing into their coffers for rearmament. I noticed a similar falling in line after Trump was elected in 2016 with America's business establishment.
There were some resignations from Trump’s economic advisory council in 2017. But for the most part, many business leaders stayed. Finance, real estate, many players in the tech world, and American business at large ended up profiting greatly from the tax advantages that the Trump administration implemented. It was all geared towards benefiting those who were already the wealthiest, which was what unfolded with Hitler's policies between 1934 and 1939.
There are very few exceptions. I moved to Berlin in October 2017. I witnessed the first ten months of the Trump administration in the United States from Europe. It was uncanny that while I was researching and writing this book, it all came down to the amorality of the businessmen. Because that is, in the end, the bottom line.
I wonder if you were finding that the logic of business cannot grapple with the idea of evil or barbarism. In other words, there is no evil sufficient to shut the gears of business from calculating in business’ way.
Business can transgress into crime, but the rearmament policies by themselves are not criminal. That's just production and capitalism. It's only when you see these expropriations done under the veneer of normal business transactions that you start to see the slippery slope towards what ends up becoming the use of concentration camp inmates in the Volkswagen and Quandt factories.
It starts with rearmament. It goes from capitalism and transgresses into criminal behavior. But you're right: there isn't this notion of criminality within capitalism. It's just capitalism. It's just making money. It's profiting and benefiting by any means possible. In the end, it transgresses into war crimes and crimes against humanity.
In the first part of the book, you detail the era leading up to the Holocaust and the complicity commonplace during those years. But then you write about this moment after the war when the United States and the other Allied powers had to decide who could be reinstated, who could rebuild and who couldn't.
There was a cynical and pragmatic choice that the Americans and others made to allow some of these complicit businesses and businesspeople to come back. Tell me about how that choice unfolded.
It was a policy decision made by the Truman administration in 1947 just as the Cold War emerged. There was this talk of holding a mass industrialist trial and putting all of the big businessmen, financiers, and senior executives on trial in a successor process to the main Nuremberg trials. This would have all been under Allied purview, but that idea was scrapped. Instead, it was put under the American purview, with 12 successive Nuremberg trials in which three industrialists were put on the stand.
They included Friedrich Flick and his associates, Alfried Krupp and his associates, and the board of IG Farben, which was, at the time, the largest chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerate. IG Farben ended up being the only large company that got broken up and separated into two companies by the Allied powers.
The Cold War emerged while the trials were going on. The policy decision prompted an accelerated handover of hundreds of thousands of suspected Nazi perpetrators and sympathizers back to the jurors in what became known as the "Denazification trials."
It was a flawed legal process that ended up seeing millions of Germans go scot-free for their crimes and sympathies. They were being judged by their fellow compatriots, who had no intention of penalizing them for sympathies they very likely had had themselves.
It was also a policy decision to rebuild West Germany and use it as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and encroaching communism. That ended up allowing the main characters in my book to seamlessly reestablish themselves in West Germany with the consent of the United States government.
The U.S. made this calculated move, essentially saying, "We need an economically and politically viable West Germany to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. It's the key industrialized nation in Europe. We need its democratic and economic might." This decision led to the economic and political continuation of many of the Nazi power structures. Much was kept in place.
We know the phrase "too big to fail." These guys were deemed too big to jail.
Yes, absolutely. They could have put many more on trial and in jail, but that's only one part of the story. Because then the 1950s came along, the Korean War broke out, and the Cold War was fully raging. Truman appointed John J. McCloy as the first high commissioner for occupied Germany. McCloy ended up commuting the sentences and reinstating the assets of industrialists and commuting the death sentences of many high-ranking SS officers who slaughtered hundreds of thousands.
It was a total appeasement decision because the Defense Production Act was enacted in the United States when the Korean War broke out, and most of the production factories were needed for the war efforts. They needed West Germany to produce consumer goods, which caused a massive economic boom in Germany and subsequently in Europe, too.
I went to the McCloy archives at Amherst, where I found that many of his documents are still classified. In what writing of his I was able to see, I found no moral or logic behind the decision other than political expediency.
I have an interest in how billionaires use philanthropy to launder their reputations. But I didn't know the history you recount of this specific varietal of reputation laundering in Germany. Can you explain how philanthropy has been used strategically by some Nazi-tainted fortunes in Germany to cleanse their name?
This is the pattern, again and again: A reclusive heir gives his first and last press interview -- a mea culpa. The findings generally say that the patriarch used concentration camp labor, stole companies from Jews, or mass-produced weapons. The details are always different, but it's the same broad outline and same kind of story.
But nothing changes after the study gets published. The companies continue maintaining their global charitable foundations in the name of these patriarchs without mentioning their war crimes or Nazi affiliations. They celebrate their business successes. They only say, Herbert Quandt saved BMW from bankruptcy in 1959.
The BMW Herbert Quandt Foundation follows this model. It "inspires responsible leadership" in the name of a Nazi war criminal. The Quandt family commissioned an academic study that was published in 2011. The BMW Herbert Quandt Foundation was established in 2016.
The study brought all of that to the fore, and they didn't do anything with it. Not only do they have the foundation; they have the Herbert Quandt Media Prize where four of Germany's most prominent journalists get to serve on its board and get featured on the website. They have a whitewashed biography of Herbert Quandt on their website. They ignored it until I asked about it in June 2021.
Three months later, overnight, they replaced the biography with a more transparent version. It still omits most of Herbert Quandt's war crimes, but it at least alludes to his responsibility for battery factories in Berlin, which used thousands of forced and slave laborers.
But at the same time, the Ferry Porsche Foundation had the audacity to fund Germany's first professorship in corporate history in 2018. They put out the statement saying, "If you don't know where you come from, you don't know where you're going." The Porsche family has never spoken on Ferdinand Porsche's war crimes or Ferry Porsche's voluntary membership in the SS and his affiliation with high-ranking SS officers.
There is a real exploitation of philanthropy and using it as a way to pervert and whitewash history. It's a nefarious but simultaneously subtle way of doing so, where they keep these stories contained to Germany through these studies because they're never translated to other languages. They can point to the studies and say, "Well, all the details are in this 1,200-page study in dense academic German."
It also begs the question, who exactly is this reckoning with? The victims of Nazi Germany were, for the most part, not German. The surviving forced slave laborers and their heirs don't have access to these studies. They don't have access to the details of what happened to them because they're never translated into other languages. These families also rely on this notion of collective guilt in Germany, where they say, "Your father was in the Gestapo, too. Plus, we're powerful and you're not. So who are you to point your finger at us?"
There is no actual reckoning for Germany's most powerful families and their companies. They just pay lip service to it.
Harvard University just announced they will dedicate $100 million for "reparative action" to address the university's ties to slavery. Other American universities have made similar moves. Do you see this as a similar kind of posturing without substance, or do you think some of those reckonings are more serious?
In some ways, I see the U.S. going through an accelerated process of starting to come to terms with its past with slavery and other injustices over the past centuries.
In a way, Germany is more resistant to change at the top level. There is more of a power structure in place in Germany, both economically and politically. It's more old-fashioned. It's more rigid and less flexible. There is more of a concentration of power and money. That's where power unquestionably resides. In the U.S., there is more protest and action, and the press is more powerful. People speak up more.
It's divided into echo chambers, completely polarized, and a mess, but there's more of a sense of action than in Germany. So in a way, Germany has done a better job at reckoning with its Nazi past in many aspects of society, but not when it comes to the country's most powerful. In the United States, the most powerful are held accountable more than they are in Germany.
What do you think justice would look like on the issues you have written about?
I'm arguing for, at the bare minimum, historical transparency by these global foundations. If you want to continue to maintain foundations under the names of Herbert Quandt, Ferdinand Porsche, Friedrich Flick, then at the bare minimum, the public should expect historical transparency when it comes to their business successes, their war crimes, their Nazi affiliations. If they don't want to do that, they should rename their foundations, corporate headquarters, and media prizes. That is minimal justice.
In terms of restitution, such as compensation for forced laborers, those debates have been settled. There was a controversial agreement between the United States and Germany under Gerhard Schroder in 1999, where Germany's biggest companies avoided class-action lawsuits in the United States from surviving forced and slave laborers. They did so by establishing this foundation that compensated forced and slave laborers without admitting any culpability or wrongdoing. In a way, they were still just paying lip service. The payouts were done between 2001 and 2006 and at most surviving slave laborers were paid $10,000.
Today these heirs to the Nazi billionaires remain in their fathers' and grandfathers' shadows. They derive their entire identity from their fathers' and grandfathers' business successes, sit on these enormous fortunes, and control swaths of the global economy. Many of them seem so detached from reality. They’re surrounded by these yes men and women. They're never confronted by how much of a slap in the face it is to surviving forced and slave laborers that their patriarchs who abused and exploited them are still celebrated today.
I think many Americans would read your book and wonder, Does David think I shouldn't buy a Volkswagen? Does David think I shouldn't buy a Porsche if I'm having a midlife crisis?
How do you think about the somewhat provincial yet practical question of whether regular people become complicit by buying from these German companies?
They're not complicit, but they should be aware. Consumers should take these facts and stories in my book and make their own decisions from there. But what I do think is that people should be aware that the money they spend on these products, whether it's cars or coffee or whatever could end up as dividends for these families and go towards maintaining these foundations, media prizes, and corporate headquarters in the name of these Nazi war criminals. People should be aware of that.
We had four years of Trumpism, but it's not gone. There's a real question about it coming back in 2024. I imagine some, if not all, of the big CEOs and billionaires are privately wrestling with it and wondering, Is there some moral limit? We haven't really seen one for most of them yet.
Based on this very extreme experience in Germany, what warning would you give to American business leaders and billionaires about how to think about the problem of fascism on the rise in America and the eternal pragmatism of the businessperson?
Don't let short-term profits guide your political decisions.
It's an extremely naive warning, but they should be mindful of history. I'm not only talking about the four years of Trump. Throughout American and German history, we've seen the complicity between business and politics and the horrific effects it can have on a global level. Be mindful of history. Let history guide your decisions.
David de Jong is an investigative journalist who previously covered European banking and finance from Amsterdam and hidden wealth and billionaire fortunes from New York for Bloomberg News. He is the author of the new book, “Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties.”