Interview with Author David de Jong
The eight decades since World War II ended have seen intense hunts for the Nazis who made the Holocaust possible. From the prisoner justice which saw hundreds of Nazis killed in the early months after the war, to the past 30 years which saw Western countries deport dozens of naturalized citizens who failed to reveal their sordid past, those who spent the war years propping up the horror of the concentration camps were not sleeping easily.
The last frontier are the money men who made Hitler’s rise possible. In what author David de Jong says is the first book of its kind, his Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties exposes the industrial families who enthusiastically got behind the Fuhrer’s racist xenophobia and did not flinch when that turned into a final extermination solution.
This is not merely about the IG Farbens and Siemens which exploited slave labor, but the billionaire industrialists who drastically transformed their factories to do Hitler’s bidding and who donated millions of reichsmarks to the Nazi party to allow it to compete in elections in 1933.
De Jong, a Dutchman who began his research as a Bloomberg investigative reporter working in New York, currently lives in Tel Aviv on assignment for a Dutch financial newspaper. His grandparents survived the war — his mother’s parents as Dutchmen and his father’s as Jewish Holocaust survivors.
German industrialists are held in reverence by the public. They are rarely seen, hardly ever give interviews, and wield tremendous power. They are indeed above the law.
The microscope turned on them about three years ago, when Verena Bahlsen, the 26-year-old heiress to Germany’s most famous biscuit maker, told a conference how proud she was of her wealth. “I am a capitalist,” she told the stunned audience. “I own a quarter of Bahlsen and I am happy about it. It should continue to belong to me. I want to make money and buy sailing yachts from my dividend.”
When questioned about her bragging, given that Bahlsen used forced labor during the war, she refused to back down. “That was before my time,” she claimed, “and we paid the forced laborers exactly the same as the Germans and treated them well.”
It was the shot heard around the world. Global headlines denounced her, and Der Spiegel launched an investigation into the Bahlsen family history. The facts they uncovered confirmed that her grandfather and his sons had joined Nazi Party and donated money to the SS, Hitler’s paramilitary.
The Bahlsen family went into damage control, hiring a historian to compose a report on the family’s Nazi-era activities. The report was a whitewash, but it saved the dynasty’s reputation.
“The announcement worked,” de Jong writes, “and the controversy faded.”
The book begins with a meeting called less than a week after Hitler won elections to be chancellor. He still faced elections for Reichstag, the German parliament, weeks afterward and he was eager to get a majority — but he had no money. So he arranged the meeting with some two dozen of Germany’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen. Gunther Quandt, whose company later became the BMW carmaker, was there, as was Kurt Schmitt, the CEO of the Allianz insurance company and a representative of the Krupp family.
By the time the meeting ended, three million reichsmarks were pledged.
“Great thing!” wrote Joseph Goebbels, the future propaganda minister, in his diary that day. “I immediately alerted the whole propaganda department. And one hour later, the machines rattle. Now we will turn on an election campaign.”
The money was ultimately unnecessary for this purpose; Hitler found an easier way to bypass democracy — the Reichstag building mysteriously burned down, Hitler blamed the Communists and imposed martial law, ruling by fiat for the next 12 years.
But those industrialists — the Nazi billionaires, as de Jong refers to them — became celebrated Nazis over that time. After the war, they escaped punishment, with the American occupation authorities preferring to allow them to retain their power and positions as a bulwark against the Soviets.
Today, many of the heirs to that money are celebrated around the world for their philanthropic endeavors, charitable foundations, and annual prized awarded to media personalities — and these are named for their Nazi ancestors. In one melancholy twist, the granddaughter of Magda Goebbels, Joseph’s wife, has a plaque honoring her in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
De Jong takes apart five dynasties — the Quandts, who started off in textiles, expanded to steel and munitions, and whose heirs now control BMW, Mini, and Rolls-Royce; the Flicks, who had holdings in companies involved in coal, steel, and Daimler AG; the von Fincks, bankers and insurance titans; the Oetkers of global baked goods, pizza, and pudding fame; and the Porsche-Piëchs, founders of Porsche, and owners of Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley, and Lamborghini.
Millions of households which suffered greatly from German aggression 80 years ago, including many Jewish families, unquestionably purchase goods made by companies which have never conceded their despicable past. BMWs roll down the streets of Boro Park and Yerushalayim, Bayer’s aspirins are in most medicine closets, Hugo Boss are a choice shirt for children, and Dr. Pepper is a common sight at melaveh malkahs.
De Jong wants these capitalist dynasties to own up to their past and end their opposition to memorializing the slave laborers who toiled in their companies during the war.
You write in the introduction that your father encouraged you to fight Nazism through humor — you always made fun of them.
It’s interesting, in the Jewish community here in New York…
You’re from Midwood, right?
Yes. How do you know?
I’ve been there.
Oh, you’re familiar with the Orthodox community?
I’ve interviewed David Werner for Bloomberg. We got lucky. I think it was the one interview he did.
As I was saying, it’s interesting that in the Jewish community, there’s no official boycott, but there are many people who have an informal boycott of German goods, German-made products. It’s obviously impossible today, though, because everything works through conglomerates and parent companies.
You basically make that same point in your book. For example, I never knew that Dr. Pepper is ultimately owned by a German company. Is this money still from that earned through forced labor or by supporting the Nazis during the war?
You can’t say that directly. The money that is used today can’t be tied that directly to the slave labor during World War II, during the Nazi era, or the expropriation of Jewish-owned assets. What you can say is, and that is what I write about, that these companies benefited from the Third Reich, from the Nazi regime, and the Allied Forces allowed them to continue to keep their assets in West Germany after the war. So there certainly is a continuation.
You go even further than what I thought I knew about German industrialists during World War II. You write that a couple of days after Hitler took office, when he still did not have dictatorial power, he called a meeting of all top German industrialists and asked them for money for his electoral campaign, and they gave him what he wanted. This is different than the conventional wisdom, which was that once he took over, they felt that they had to listen to him because he was a dictator. According to your book, they actually put him into power.
Yes, to an extent. I mean, when they were asked to sign over German democracy, they all paid up — because that’s what it basically comes down to. The money they spent on that election campaign ended up being irrelevant, because a week later, the Reichstag burned down in Berlin and all rule of law was suspended. But when they were asked to pony up to end democracy, they had no qualms about doing so.
You write about one industrialist family which literally became part of the Nazi regime — Magda Goebbels, the wife of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister.
Right. Magda Goebbels, who was later called the first lady of the Third Reich, was first married to this guy called Günther Quandt, who was the patriarch of the German industrial empire, which later turned into the BMW car manufacturer. But the marriage ended up in divorce — they had one son together, Harold — and then Magda ended up marrying Joseph Goebbels, and they became the most powerful couple in Nazi Germany. They also became the most radical, and they killed their six children in the Führerbunker on April 30, 1945, before committing murder-suicide together.
And a step-granddaughter of Goebbels is today one of the leading executives of BMW?
No. That is from the other branch of the Quandt family. Their cousins are the descendants of Magda Goebbels.
You have a fascinating incident in your book, which I remember being in the news at the time. You write of Verena Bahlsen, an executive in Germany’s most famous cookie company, who said it was time for Germans to move past the war. The scandal that erupted cascaded into many German companies delving into their activities during the war. For some, it turned out to be a delayed reckoning, while for others it was a whitewash.
Yeah. It wasn’t so much the scandal that cascaded — it was just the most recent example, in a long line of examples in the past few decades, where families are preparing for a reckoning with their Nazi histories, even though they’re technically continuing to whitewash it. I mean, they commissioned these academic studies, in which they have historians investigate it, but then they don’t do anything once the fact comes out that their patriarch or their grandfathers or fathers were Nazi war criminals. They don’t show it anywhere.
So today, you have BMW and Porsche maintaining global foundations in the name of Nazi war criminals. They are celebrating their business successes, but not showing their war crimes. That’s the reason I wrote the book, as an argument in favor of historical transparency.
You even have a picture of a member of these Nazi families posing in a Jewish museum in Israel.
Right. In the epilogue of the book, where I visited the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the last names of two of the families I write about are there as donors to the museum. They are part of this donor group called the German Friends of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and it’s a granddaughter of Magda Goebbels who’s on the wall at the museum. Then there’s this other woman, a Flick heiress, who has never said anything about the dangerous fortune she inherited. And they donate to Israeli museums.
Are these names still there today?
Yes, they are still there.
What does that tell you about the war crimes that go on today? Can these things be so easily forgotten?
I think the words are “conveniently” forgotten. When it comes to money and power, people conveniently forget things, because they like when these people become donors to museums, they like receiving people’s money, regardless of their family history.
I once interviewed Eli Rosenbaum, the head of the Office of Special Investigations, which was responsible for Nazi hunting at the Justice Department. He mentioned the difficulty in going after Nazis even as late as the 1970s and 1980s, because the State Department was heavily invested in the 1950s and 1960s in helping the Nazis escape when they needed their help in fighting the Cold War. And you make the same case here about how US authorities allowed the German industrialists to keep their money and power because it helped them fight the Soviet Union.
Yes, it was a politically expedient decision. The Cold War was raging, and the Americans needed a strong, democratic, and economically viable West Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and against encroaching communism, so most of the war criminals or suspected war criminals were let go.
What about the Russians? Did they do the same in East Germany?
No. When they suspected that somebody was a Nazi war criminal, they just killed them.
Even the industrialists and moneymen?
They had all fled to West Germany, so they survived.
What is one of the most surprising things you came across during your research for this book?
Firstly, the way it’s being whitewashed today by global companies like BMW and Porsche. And secondly, the scale of their crimes. I underestimated how many forced and slave laborers these company used, how many companies owned by Jewish business owners or by people living in Nazi-occupied territories they stole or how they stole their assets. I think I underestimated just the sheer scale of it all.
You write that with Porsche, the German industrialist who took it over stole it outright from the Jewish co-founder. The Jewish industrialists did not get the same courtesy in 1933 that these Nazi men got in 1945 from the Americans.
Exactly. After Adolf Rosenberger was pushed out of the Porsche company, he fled to the United States and settled in Los Angeles. I mean, there was restitution and there were legal proceedings that happened because he tried to get his stake in the Porsche company back after the war. But his lawyer signed away his rights when he settled with the Porsche family.
Did you ever deal with the ethical dilemmas of this? I understand that after World War II, the Allied powers felt that the reason Germany turned belligerent and started the war was because after World War I, they were stripped of everything — they had to pay huge amounts of money in reparations, their colonies were stripped away, their leaders were imprisoned. The Allies felt it was best to allow Germany to rebuild, by allowing the industrialists to keep their companies and allow the economy to continue as normal. Were they right?
That’s a very interesting question, actually. You’re the first one to ask that. It was a dilemma, right? Can you imagine what would have happened if they would have left Germany unbuilt? We probably would be facing a Soviet-occupied Europe until 1990. I don’t know. I never thought about that.
I understand to an extent why they did it. But by doing it, they let off hundreds, thousands, if not tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Nazi war criminals. So that was the call the American government made by handing the suspects over to Germany, which of course had no interest in judging their own compatriots.
It’s a massive dilemma. Can I imagine an alternative reality? No. But it was a very politically expedient decision.
Did these Nazi families — I don’t know why I call them Nazi families, but you call them Nazi billionaires, so I will too — did they engage in political activity after the war in a way that helped the Nazis escape?
They just stuck to rebuilding their companies and that’s it.
Right. They were businesspeople, and that’s it. These people were for the most part opportunists. They were not ideological Nazis; they joined the Nazi Party because that was expected of them and they did what they were told. They abided by the rules. These people would have thrived under any kind of regime.
They are the biggest political donors in Germany today, like the Quandts and the Oetkers. They mostly give to the Christian Conservatives, which is Angela Merkel’s party. But no, they didn’t help Nazis escape. I mean, their patriarchs associated with high-ranking SS people after the war, and many of the patriarchs continue to be far-rightwing individuals.
Well, actually one — Rudolf August Oetker, patriarch of the Oetker baked goods empire — funded the Stille Hilfe (“silent help”) group, which helped SS officers escape to South America. So I guess I do have one example where they did donate to help Nazis escape. But in general, no.
Take the example of what you write about the Nazi billionaires and apply it to a different conflict — Iraq, for example. After the American invasion in 2003, they also did the same thing with de-Baathification, removing from power everyone affiliated with Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Look at Russia and Ukraine. You could argue the same about the Russian oligarchs. Most of these German industrialists and financiers made their money during the Weimar Republic, in the 14 years of economic and political volatility which led up to Hitler seizing power in Germany. They fell in line with Hitler because they wanted economic stability; they wanted their companies to thrive and they wanted to increase their fortunes.
You saw the same with the Russian oligarchs, who initially got their stakes in their companies under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s when Russia first became democratic, and then they consolidated their power under Putin. They made this devil’s pact with Putin, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. I think that’s a better comparison.
According to the theme of your book, if something were to happen and the Putin regime were to collapse, one prime target should be the oligarchs.
Well, that’s already happening. They’re getting hit by sanctions everywhere.
What in your background got you to focus on this topic? Obviously, both of your grandparents were victims of the Nazis — you even have Jewish blood, your father is the child of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Did they ever talk about Nazi money, Nazi billionaires, when you were growing up?
No. What I write about in the introduction of the book is that growing up in the Netherlands, the five-year occupation by Germany during World War II is very much etched in our national conscience. So it was part of my childhood, just like it was for tens of millions of other Europeans who were occupied and enslaved — and, you know, six million Jews who were murdered.
But that didn’t lead me to write the book. It just informed me growing up in the Netherlands, having this relationship with Germany as our neighboring country. It made me kind of skeptical of the Germans, just like my grandparents were after surviving all of that.
But it was really once I started as a reporter at Bloomberg in New York that I started digging into the subject, and I really saw how these very powerful German industrial families are whitewashing the histories of their patriarchs. That’s why I wanted to write the book.
You just said that these families are very powerful. Did you get any blowback from them since this book was published?
No, nothing. It’s been complete silence.
Is this the first independently written book which came out about this subject?
Yes, I would say so. At least for the last five decades.
Any plans for a German translation to get a more targeted audience for your book?
It was published in German a week ago. The German translation came out, and I’m going on a book tour in Germany.
The first review in Germany was very positive. So we’ll see what’s going to happen.
How do Germans view this subject? Is it like the way Americans look at the issue of reparations for slavery, or is this something which has a widespread understanding that Germany has to confront its past and make up for its crimes in a way that is commensurate with what they gained off the war?
Germany is a country which very much deeply deals with it. It’s the richest families which are completely out of step with what’s going on, with the reckoning that German society has done over the past five decades. These billionaire families don’t want to do that. They have massive business interests.
Also, their heirs — they derived their entire identity from the money and the business success of their fathers and grandfathers had. If they disavowed their fathers and grandfathers, who are they? What’s left of their identity? There’s nothing they have left identity-wise.
These people are also powerful. They lean on this notion of collective guilt in Germany, so if somebody points a finger at them and says, “You know, your father was a Nazi war criminal,” they point right back and say, “But your father was in the SS. Plus, we’re powerful and you’re not, so who are you to talk to us?”
In Germany, still today, power is far more unquestionable than it is in the United States, for instance. In the United States, you can much more easily be held accountable than in Germany, especially when it comes to business.
What would you want the natural outcome of your book to be?
By a bare minimum, we can expect historical transparencies from these global consumer companies like BMW and Porsche. If they want to maintain global foundations and media prizes and corporate headquarters in the name of these Nazi war criminals, then at the very least they should be transparent about their crimes and not whitewash it.
If they don’t want to do it, they should at least rename their foundations, their media prizes, and their headquarters. Because it’s a slap in the face to surviving forced and slave laborers. These men are still being championed today.
There was an article a few months ago in the Forward how there are about 1,500 monuments and statues around the world honoring Nazis.
Yes. I know. I’ve been in contact with the guy who wrote the article, Lev Golinkin, a Ukrainian who lives in Jersey. He did a great job.
You make the same point in your book about these families. Do these families and foundations honor their Nazi patriarchs because of a lack of awareness, or is it deliberate?
They have huge business interests. I think they think that by not being transparent, they protect their brands and their business interests.
I would argue that by being transparent, by owning up to these crimes, they would actually be respected, especially in this day and age. But I think that these people are far removed from reality. They’re surrounded by yes men and women. They’re not really in touch with reality.
When did you start writing this book?
It took me four years to write this book. I moved from New York to Berlin in late 2017 and I started writing this book in May 2018, so it’s been exactly four years.
What brought you from the Netherlands to New York to Israel?
I was born and raised in Amsterdam. I moved to New York to do my master’s, got a work permit, and I started working at Bloomberg with this investigative team that covered things like billionaire fortunes and hidden wealth.
You had the billionaire beat.
I did that for six years and I got the idea for the book, and then moved to Berlin and spent four years writing the book. I’m living in Israel now, and I’m still a financial reporter — I’m writing about the Middle East for the Dutch Financial Daily, which is a Dutch newspaper. So I’m still a financial and business reporter.
During the time you wrote the book, did you ever hear a current events news item and say, “Oh, we have to learn the lessons of history in order not to repeat them.”
Definitely. I think this was the case with a lot of events in the United States from 2016 to 2020, the way the business community fell in line with Trump and some of the policies he enacted. Especially from the perspective of Germany, it was very much seen as kind of dictatorial.
Trump obviously is not Hitler.
No, not at all. But that is not what you were asking. I’m not comparing it, obviously.
You’re saying that industrialists tend to line up with anybody in power to preserve their business interests.
That’s true. But some regimes have democratic tendencies while some have dictatorial tendencies, and you’re asking me if I saw parallels. This is what I saw.
What are your future plans? Living in Israel?
I’m living in Israel. I mean, I didn’t do aliyah, but I’ll be here for at least the next four years, reporting on business and finance in the Middle East. It’s a fascinating time to be in Israel, following the Abraham Accords, which I would argue is one of the good things that happened. It’s also much easier now to cover the entire Middle East from Israel.
Your partner is German. What does she say about your book?
She very much carries the German guilt on her shoulders. She learned Hebrew and Arabic and she likes to study theology. She fully supports my endeavors and she was a great critic.
The reason we moved to Israel is because she is the correspondent for Israel and the Palestinian territories for the German public broadcast, which I always joke is the hardest job in journalism. I mean, can you imagine being the German correspondent for Israel? You really can’t make any mistakes, right? Because you have such a loaded history.
She’s very mindful of German history. It’s a horrific history, and it is horrific what fascist regimes can do.
We have to learn the lessons of history. The problem is that we don’t learn history in order to learn its lessons.
Yochonon, I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s true.
I enjoy delving into history. You find that some of the same problems plaguing society today were also problems 2,000 years ago. But people don’t recognize it. You need a public forum to tell people that this is what happened then and this was the outcome, which is why I’m glad to see your book.