It was an inspirational tale: after watching the horror of the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938, a German man tore up his Nazi party membership card in protest and turned against the regime.
His Christian-based principles led to him being hounded by the Gestapo, sent off briefly to Dachau concentration camp and eventually dispatched to the eastern front.
In speeches, interviews and articles Germany’s most famous management consultant, Roland Berger, has cited the story of his father, Georg, as the inspiration that led the successful entrepreneur to set up a foundation and an annual €1m prize in 2008, dedicated to honouring “human dignity”.
“To this day, my father remains a moral role model for me,” he told Focus magazine in 2012. “He represents decency and courage.”
The only problem with this inspirational story was that it was not true. An investigation published by Handelsblatt has shown that Georg Berger was never the victim of the Nazis his son had painted him as, but a wartime profiteer.
Rather than joining the Nazi party for careerist reasons after Hitler had seized power in 1933, as Berger claimed in an interview with Süddeutsche Zeitung as recently as last September, Berger senior signed up for the National Socialist cause as early as 1931, and kept on paying his membership fee until 1944.
Berger was never the victim of the Nazis his son had painted him as, but a wartime profiteer.
Berger’s loyalty to the Nazi regime led Hitler to promote him to become a ministerial adviser in 1937, and later put him in charge of Ankerbrot – Austria’s largest bakery and a crucial wartime state asset – after its Jewish owners fled the country.
When Georg Berger did run into conflict with the Nazi party, historical records suggest it was not because of his moral principles, but because he was accused of illegally hoarding groceries during wartime, and carrying out costly renovations at his Viennese villa, which had been confiscated from its Jewish owners.
No records of his supposed arrest or imprisonment at Dachau could be found, said Sönke Iwersen, who runs Handelsblatt’s investigations team.
Carrying out costly renovations at his Viennese villa, which had been confiscated from its Jewish owners.
Over the weekend, the Roland Berger foundation announced it would postpone its awards ceremony on Monday, after this year’s recipients, the Polish human rights activist Adam Bodnar and a German anti-racism initiative, announced they would decline their prize in the light of the revelations.
Berger, whose consultancy firm has 50 offices worldwide and announces itself on its website as “the only leading global consultancy firm with non-Anglo-Saxon roots”, is the latest in a series of large German business owners who have recently revealed their founding families’ entanglement in the structures of the Nazi regime.
In March, one of Germany’s richest families donated €9.7m of their fortune to charity after discovering their ancestor’s antisemitism, avowed devotion to Adolf Hitler and use of slave labour during the second world war.
The Reimann family, whose JAB Holding Company owns a controlling stake in brands including Krispy Kreme and Dr Pepper, had themselves commissioned the historian who found that female slaves from Nazi-occupied eastern Europe were beaten and sexually abused at Reimann premises in Ludwigshafen, in the Rhineland.
In May, the heiress of the Bahlsen biscuit empire apologised for comments downplaying the hardship faced by people forced to work at the family business under Nazi rule.
Female slaves from Nazi-occupied eastern Europe were beaten and sexually abused at Reimann premises in Ludwigshafen.
“This was before my time and we paid the forced labourers exactly as much as German workers and we treated them well,” 25-year-old Verena Bahlsen, one of four children of the company owner, Werner Bahlsen, had told Bild.
Historians say that the approximately 200 forced labourers at the Hanover-based Bahlsen works, many of them women from occupied Ukraine, had to work in a “racial hierarchy” in often miserable conditions.
Berger, 81, a central figure in Germany’s economic postwar history, who advised the former chancellor Helmut Kohl on the privatisation of East Germany’s state assets and Gerhard Schröder on his economic reforms, has not questioned the researchers’ findings. Instead, he announced that he has hired two respected historians, Michael Wolffsohn and Sönke Neitzel, to examine his family’s history.
His version of his father’s biography, he said in an interview with Handelsblatt, had been based on his father’s own memories and those of relatives and friends. Accepting their version of events, Berger conceded, amounted to “unintended self-deception”.
“I want to know the truth – and then change the image of my father,” he added.