Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties David de Jong William Collins, €20
The great film director Billy Wilder once said of 1930s Germany that the optimists ended up in the gas chambers, while the pessimists ended up with houses and swimming pools in Beverly Hills.
Wilder made this remark in 1945, and he knew what he was talking about, having fled Berlin in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power.
Wilder’s wry, portentous postscript of what unfolded in Nazi Germany should have found room to address opportunists too – those from the capitalist classes who happily went along with the programme of the newly-appointed German chancellor, even when the Third Reich descended into war-mongering and fascistic, genocidal madness.
The stories of the opportunists are at the heart of David de Jong’s fascinating book, Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties, in which he traces several family trees where vast financial gains were made under Hitler’s reign.
Many of the present-day branches remain grafted to the trunk of elite German society thanks to their inherited wealth.
Readers are likely aware of Volkswagen’s formation under the Nazi regime – Hitler laid the foundation stone of the factory near Wolfsburg in 1938 – but what of other German business dynasties that flourished during the Third Reich, garnering global fortunes and influence enjoyed to this day?
Any gaps in awareness are filled by De Jong – as he points out, these histories have almost never been told to an audience outside Germany.
De Jong, a former Bloomberg News journalist, assiduously documents the stories of many powerful families and their links with Nazi Germany: the Quandt business empire which owns BMW, with the family descended from Magda Goebbels, who was the unofficial “first lady” of the Third Reich; the Flicks, former owners of Daimler-Benz; the von Fincks, a financier family who co-founded Allianz and Munich Re; the Porsche-Piëch patrimony who control Volkswagen and Porsche; and the Oetkers, who have a global empire of foods, beers, baking ingredients, and luxury hotels.
“Some of these tycoons were ardent Nazis,” writes De Jong. “But most were simply calculating, unscrupulous opportunists looking to expand their business empires at any cost. All of them became members of the Nazi party, or the SS, or both.”
De Jong rightly emphasises that in 1933, at the beginning of Nazism, most of the heads of these families were already established in business, and independently wealthy.
Yet they decided to collaborate with Hitler’s regime in the years leading up to and including World War II; enriching their companies in weapons manufacturing, the use of slave labour, and seizure of Jewish-owned businesses, estates or land in Nazi-occupied territories.
From his own investigations, and extensive use of archives, biographies, diaries and memoirs, and the work of historians and journalists who have gone before him, De Jong has painstakingly compiled the paper trail of tainted wealth acquired by these titans of industry and finance.
Questions also arise from the book on how the victorious Allied forces dealt with the sins of these fathers following the war, as the victors allowed most of the German businessmen to pick up where they left off after raps on the knuckles.
There are parallels here with Italian fascists being allowed by the Allies to sink back into that country’s establishment after the fall of Benito Mussolini.
De Jong compiles a compelling and enlightening read, nimbly moving through the many financial machinations, while never losing sight of the terrible human costs of the murderous regime.
His work raises important moral and ethical arguments on a dark legacy hiding in plain sight – how to account for and provide restitution for this blood money?
The author approached members of the families, but they declined interviews. The families pointed out they have already commissioned academics to compile reports of their patriarchs’ business during the Third Reich.
The public would have to seek these out, though, and read German. De Jong has done the leg work for us and his book drags a soiled corner of German history under the spotlight again.
As he says: “Many German business dynasties continue to sidestep a complete reckoning with the dark history that stains their fortunes, and so the ghosts of the Third Reich still haunt them.”