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New book examines the link between German business families and Nazi fortunes

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Germany's determination to never forget the atrocities of the Holocaust have been at the center of their postwar success. But the Nazi legacies of Germany's biggest car companies highlight the country's challenges to make good on that commitment.

David de Jong tells this story in his new book, "Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History Of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties," and he joins us now. David, welcome.

DAVID DE JONG: It's good to be here.

SCHMITZ: The backbone of Germany's economy is its car industry. And David, you've been reporting on the families who run Germany's biggest car companies for years, and you've written that you're shocked at what you've come to learn about them. Give us an example of what has shocked you.

DE JONG: During my decade of reporting on this topic, I think what shocked me most is the brazen whitewashing that still happens today by global consumer companies like BMW and Porsche and the families that control them who are maintaining global foundations in the name of their patriarchs, such as Ferry Porsche, who designed the first Porsche sports car, or Herbert Quandt, who saved BMW from bankruptcy. Their business successes are celebrated, but their war crimes they committed, or the Nazi affiliations they had, like being voluntary SS officers, are omitted on the websites of these foundations or to media prizes or to corporate headquarters these families maintain.

SCHMITZ: And there are real humans behind these car companies with clear and direct ties to Nazis, like the Quandt family, who you just mentioned, who owns a majority share of BMW. They are the richest family in Germany. And the grandfather of the current majority shareholders was close to Hitler and used labor from concentration camps in his factories, yet his family continues to defend him. Why?

DE JONG: It's - I think it's very hard for these heirs to distance themselves from their father and grandfather. They live in the shadow of these people. They didn't make their fortunes themselves, so their entire identity derives from the fortunes that were created by their father and grandfather, Gunther and Herbert. And to disavow the family patriarchs is basically to disavow their own identities. So that is my best guess because they didn't want to talk to me for the book.

You know, they drew their businesses from a corporate headquarters outside of Frankfurt named after their grandfather, Gunther Quandt. And they award an annual media prize, where some of Germany's most prominent journalists sit on a jury of, after all this became public knowledge.

SCHMITZ: And why isn't the German government holding these companies accountable?

DE JONG: The German government isn't holding them accountable because, I mean, that's not their - to what extent, is the question, is that their role? - or - and also, is that in their best interest, right? I mean...

SCHMITZ: Right.

DE JONG: ...These families are Germany's and Europe's, and to an extent, the world's most economically powerful business families. The BMW Quandts are the largest political donors to the CDU, Angela Merkel's party, and to the FDP, which is currently in government. So it is not, you know, in the interest of the German government to criticize these families for whitewashing their histories.

SCHMITZ: I live in Berlin and in my neighborhood, the streets and sidewalks are peppered with stolpersteine, which are stumbling stones, which are small stones in the sidewalk in front of houses where Jewish families were dragged out and sent to concentration camps. These are all over Germany. They are also criticized for being window dressing.

In the cases that you've investigated with the richest families who own Germany's largest car companies, what would be an acceptable acknowledgement? - are we looking at monuments, reparations? What do you think should happen?

DE JONG: I think at the bare minimum, the global foundations that these families maintain, and their companies, should be transparent about their history, at the very least. I mean, you learn about history by showing the good and bad. And by only showing that Herbert Quandt saved BMW from bankruptcy in 1955, but not showing that he planned, built and dismantled a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, or that he had the responsibility over battery factories in Berlin where thousands of forced and slave laborers were used, including female slave laborers from concentration camps, you learn nothing about the history. You know, that is, at the bare minimum, what we can expect from these families on a global level, not only on the German level, is historical transparency.

SCHMITZ: That's David de Jong. His new book is "Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History Of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties." David, thanks so much.

DE JONG: Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: After we spoke with de Jong, we reached out to the Quandt family for comment. A spokesman claims the family has been transparent about its Nazi past and donated millions to commemorate the fate of forced laborers from World War II. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.