Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties by David de Jong

Susanne Klatten, Germany’s richest woman, in 2008 looked back to her Nazi-sponsoring forebears and said with filial devotion: “I will never lose respect for my father. No one can judge what it was like to live back then.” Her dad was Herbert Quandt, a scion of the dynasty that managed, owned — and still owns — huge industrial interests, including a lion’s share of BMW.

In the Nazi era Herbert worked with his own father on the hugely profitable pillaging of occupied Europe. Paterfamilias Günther Quandt was among the earliest bosses to remove Jews from the boards of his companies. He bought out Jewish company owners at knockdown prices, and employed slave labor.

It was not that the Quandts were ideologues. They were merely committed to increasing the family fortune, and knew that the best way to achieve this was to work in partnership with Germany’s rulers. So consuming was this ambition that, in the words of the historian Joachim Scholtyseck, it “left no room for fundamental questions of law and morality”.

Rudolf-August Oetker, whose family owned a food and catering conglomerate, felt the same way. Oetker lived on until 2007, and at his death aged 90 left a global empire with annual revenues of $15 billion, which was divided between his eight children from three marriages. Not a bad final divvy from a former Waffen-SS officer, partly trained at Dachau concentration camp.

It was not that the Quandt dynasty were ideologues. They were merely committed to increasing the family fortune.

The message of this angry book is that war crimes paid; that service to one of the worst causes in human history today keeps the descendants of a score of tycoons in castles, boats, ski chalets, Impressionist paintings and cocaine.

David de Jong thinks this stinks, and of course he is right. A Dutch former Bloomberg financial journalist, he catalogues the misdeeds and riches of the Quandts, Flicks, von Fincks, Porsche-Piëchs and Oetkers, names that still disfigure the social pages of smart Europe.

Their granddaddies were in at the start. In 1933 Günther Quandt, together with the steel magnate Friedrich Flick, the Bavarian finance mogul Baron August von Finck, the steel king Gustav Krupp von Bohlen and a dozen others, gave millions of marks to fund the election campaign that gave Hitler his first and last claim on a popular mandate.

In July 1935 Adolf Rosenberger, a co-founder of Porsche, sold his 10 percent of the company cheap to Ferry Porsche, although this sacrifice did not spare him, as a Jew, from persecution. The Flicks and von Fincks likewise gained rich pickings from pursuing “Aryanization” opportunities, buying up Jewish assets at fire-sale prices.

In 1945 scarcely any of those tycoons, their proximity to Hitler confirmed by innumerable photographs, paid much of a price. Rudolf-August Oetker was “denazified” by an internal subcommittee of his own company, and two years later was back at its helm. Flick, in the dock at Nuremberg, portrayed himself as a victim of the Nazis and friend of the anti-Hitler resistance.

This farcical defense did not spare him from a seven-year jail sentence. He was released in 1950, still master of a fortune. After a few years of financial conjuring he became West Germany’s richest man. Flick dismissed his jail time as silly American moralizing.

The Flicks and von Fincks gained rich pickings from pursuing “Aryanization” opportunities, buying up Jewish assets at fire-sale prices.

Today, some of that generation’s beneficiaries display less embarrassment than others. In 2019 Verena Bahlsen, 26-year-old heiress to a vast biscuit empire buoyed by Nazi-era forced labor, made a defiant platform appearance at a marketing conference. “I am a capitalist,” she said. “I own a quarter of Bahlsen and I am happy about it too. It should continue to belong to me. I want to make money and buy sailing yachts from my dividend and stuff.”

What about the Nazi connection? She shrugged to the tabloid Bild: “That was before my time and we paid the forced labourers exactly the same as the Germans and treated them well. Bahlsen has nothing to feel guilty about.”

This travesty of reality — Verena’s grandfather and great-uncles were Nazi Party members who donated to the SS and mercilessly exploited Hitler’s victims — caused a public storm in Germany. It is doubtful, however, whether the heiress regretted anything save rashness in proclaiming her lack of shame.

It is impossible to fault de Jong’s fierce indignation in this book. He must be right, to urge that the descendants of Hitler’s tycoons should admit their ancestors’ criminality, as some do not. But what else does he want? For them to surrender their ill-gotten inheritances to good causes?

The message of this angry book is that war crimes paid.

There are relatively few exceptions to Balzac’s assertion that behind every great fortune lies a great crime. Today’s British aristocracy is rich in upstanding stately home owners whose forebears paid the builders’ bills out of profits from oppressing the weak. Although slavery is back in the news, with the passage of centuries and collapse of historical education, we forget most of the misdeeds of earlier generations.

The important truth about the Nazi billionaires is that, in the immediate postwar era, the Western Allies were feeble about rooting out Hitler’s associates in horror, including the industrialists in this book. In the post-1945 climate of moral exhaustion, the Allies lacked the stomach for the thousands of executions that would have been necessary to punish all the guilty. Moreover, as the Cold War got underway German economic revival was deemed a vital Western interest. To achieve this, such horrible people as the Flicks and Quandts were needed.

Finally, depressing as is this admission, the rich can almost always buy their way out of trouble, and even war crimes. It is not realistically possible, in 2022, to exact retrospectively the retribution that was not imposed in 1945. St Moritz and St Tropez, together with the nasty and absurdly expensive Mayfair members’ dining clubs, will continue to be thronged with the heirs and heiresses to evil, jostled by their modern kin, children of the Kremlin oligarchs.

Sir Max Hastings is the author of several works of history, a columnist for The Times of London, and a former editor for The Telegraph