Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties
David De Jong's new book is brilliantly written, provocative, and necessary.
The photo stops you. It's a black-and-white head shot of a 35-year-old man with jet black hair. He's handsome, and he's staring straight at you. He's wearing an impeccable suit; his collar is crisp; his tie smooth. He looks like a relentless contract killer in a Warner Brothers gangster flick, or an even more relentless cop, hot on the trail of Jimmy Cagney. He looks so very well groomed, but he clearly seethes with rage. The thinnest veneer of remaining civilization or the last shred of self-preservation prevents him from beating to a pulp the photographer taking his picture. The year is 1935. The location is a Nazi concentration camp in Germany. The man is a Jew.
He's Adolf Rosenberger, and he co-founded Porsche. His two German, non-Jewish co-founders would go on to immense wealth, power, and fame. Rosenberger's friend, Hans Baron Veyder Mahlberg, bribed Gestapo agents and got Rosenberger released from the concentration camp. Rosenberger had to run for his life. Ferdinand Porsche and Anton Piech would, after the end of World War II, send Rosenberger, then in the United States, begging letters. Rosenberger responded by sending his co-founders American chocolates, coffee, and thousands of dollars. They still managed to betray him, not once, but over and over; not in one way, but in many ways. After all, he may have been a German race car driver of Mercedes cars and a co-founder of their company. But he was a Jew.
Fritz and Johanna Heine were German Protestants. Fritz was a surgeon and a veteran. Johanna's brother Rudolf, an officer, had died fighting for Germany in World War I. Johanna inherited the majority share of the profitable manufacturing business founded by her father. In the 1930s, Fritz and Johanna "felt German, and were confident that the 'horrific Nazi episode' would soon be over." Though their two children left, Fritz and Johanna stayed in Germany. They were deported to the Lodz Ghetto in 1941, where Johanna was murdered. Fritz was murdered in the Chelmno death camp. Fritz and Johanna, and their children as well, were all Protestants, but their ancestors were Jews. The profitable company Johanna's father founded was "Aryanized" by Gunther Quandt, whose descendants are now among the richest people in the world.
Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties by Dutch finance journalist David de Jong was released on April 19, 2022, by HarperCollins. De Jong juggles a massive amount of data. Through brief but pointed diary excerpts, the reader plunges into the private thoughts and tenderest feelings of Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels. Though de Jong writes about world historical events, he marshals enough intimate details to vivify his scenes. They read like bestselling fiction. Money splashes across the page. There are mergers and gambles and stock manipulations. De Jong details German business leaders delivering death by a thousand cuts – all "legal" financial theft – to helpless Jewish competitors. He brings the reader up to date on Magda Goebbels' granddaughter, now a convert to Judaism and a jewelry designer.
Notes and index inclusive, the book is 381 pages long. It reads like a thriller. The narrative is propulsive. I could not stop turning the pages. De Jong is an exceptionally skillful writer. He seems, instinctively, to understand that his subject matter is enough to make any decent person want to scream, or throw his book against the wall, or toss a Molotov cocktail through a Porsche showroom. De Jong coolly delivers "just the facts," and chauffeurs onward, on this lux limo ride through Hell. This is a very serious book on deadly serious topics, but there's enough adulterous affairs, high-flying finance, international intrigue, courtroom drama, and historical sweep for it to make a great docudrama starring an intrepid reporter – de Jong – chasing a story that very powerful people would prefer never to be told.
I've read many books about Nazism, but this book gave me nightmares, and I say that in praise. Any decent person wants to understand how the Nazis could have committed the crimes that they committed. Other works have given us other answers. Defeat in World War I, the punitive Versailles Treaty, Depression, inflation, historical anti-Semitism, scientific racism, nationalism, propaganda, the use of technology, an oppressive state, anti-social sadists running the camps: all of these factors have been cited to explain the inexplicable horrors of Nazism. My friend Otto Gross wrote "Ripples of Sin" explaining his own parents' embrace of Nazism after childhoods of struggle and injustice.
Nazi Billionaires provides an answer perhaps more horrifying than all the rest. De Jong's main characters were mostly quite wealthy, comfortable, and powerful before Nazism's rise. Most of them didn't display previous problems with Jews. At least two of them had had intimate Jewish business partners. One was the son of a man who was a friend to the Jewish Rothschild family. One had a Jewish mistress; he left his fortune to his Jewish children, children whose Jewish grandfather had been murdered by Nazis. That family is behind Krispy Kreme donuts and Panera Bread. These wealthy and powerful men and women, variously, volunteered to join the SS, or helped build concentration camp annexes, or worked slave laborers to death, and fleeced utterly vulnerable Jews, for no reason other than to increase their own already abundant wealth and power. Ideology didn't drive these men. Desperation didn't motivate them – they weren't desperate. Ethnic hatred didn't make them mad. They just did what was easy to do under the circumstances to make themselves a bit richer. That "normal" people could commit horrible crimes because it was easy to do so is the stuff of nightmares.
Even after Nazism's fall, they cheated and lied and betrayed the dead Jews and other European slave laborers they had already fleeced, brutalized, and worked to death, again, for no other reason than money, power, and fame. Reading this book might serve as a marvelous antidote to anyone believing in an essentially benign human nature. Whether one uses the term "original sin" or not, there is no denying that there is something unspeakably dark and ugly in the soul of mankind. Some of us overcome that satanic invitation, and others of us never think twice before saying, "Yes." These Nazi billionaires apparently never lost sleep over their own evil. In the final chapters of the book, de Jong reports how many of them lived into their seventh, eighth, and ninth decades, and died peacefully in bed.
De Jong follows most closely five German businessmen and their families: Gunther Quandt, an arms manufacturer whose descendants inherited BMW; Friedrich Flick, an industrialist who would become the richest man in Germany and the largest shareholder at Daimler Benz; August von Finck, Sr, a banker; Ferdinand Porsche and his son Ferry and his son-in-law and business partner, Anton Piech; and Richard Kaselowsky and his stepson Rudolf-August Oetker, of Dr. Oetker foods. Gunther Quandt's second wife, Magda Friedlander, went on to marry Joseph Goebbels. Quandt's son Harald was close to his mother Magda and his step-father Goebbels and he spent a great deal of time in their household.
The book opens in 1933, when Hitler summoned German businessmen to a meeting to tell them that "Private enterprise cannot be maintained in an age of democracy." Hitler demanded money, and he got it. Any thinking German had every reason to know, in 1933, what Hitler was about. Mein Kampf, full of anti-Semitic hatred, had been published in 1925. Most of the businessmen de Jong covers were not "ardent Nazis." They were, rather, "simply calculating, unscrupulous opportunists." They regarded Nazis as "loud, violent, boorish, brutish, uniformed curiosities from the uneducated and impoverished hinterlands." "Giving money to Nazis," one later complained, "was rather like shedding blood in the presence of sharks." Goebbels denounced Quandt as "a tactless lout. The typical capitalist. A citizen of the worst kind … a brutal capitalist." In January, 1936, Himmler gave the businessmen a guided tour of Dachau. They knew what they were getting into. All of the businessmen at the 1933 meeting "became members of the Nazi Party, or the SS, or both."
The Nazis really needed money in 1933. The businessmen summoned to supply it were rich and powerful; were they not, they wouldn't have been at that meeting. How might history have gone differently if they had withheld funds, sabotaged their businesses, left Germany, worked for Nazism's enemies? One can only guess. "I was raised to be unconditionally loyal to the state," Gunther Quandt would later write.
Johanna Maria Magdalena Ritschel Friedlander Quandt Goebbels, known to history as Magda Goebbels, Nazi Germany's unofficial first lady, is an especially confounding character – or lack-of-character. Her stepfather, or, according to some historians, her biological father, Richard Friedlander, was a Jew who died in Buchenwald. For her divorce from Quandt, Magda chose a Jewish law firm. She had an affair with Haim Arlosoroff, a prominent Zionist. After Magda became involved with Goebbels, Arlosoroff was mysteriously assassinated in Tel Aviv. He had just returned from a 1933 trip to Germany to negotiate the release of tens of thousands of Jews to the land of Israel.
How did this woman, who was related to, grew up with, contracted with, befriended, and made love to Jews, become Nazi Germany's unofficial first lady? De Jong paints a portrait of a courtesan who made her way in the world by pleasing powerful men, and lots of them. She knew she was lacking something and so when Kurt Ludecke, a "jet-setting playboy" and Nazi recruiter, seduced her, she latched on to Nazism to give her life meaning. In turn, Hitler and Goebbels latched on to, competed for, and celebrated her, right up to the point where she murdered her six children in the bunker shortly before she and Goebbels committed suicide. Her son Harald was her only child to survive; being in the Wehrmacht was safer than being around Mama Goebbels. Along with his half-brother Herbert, Harald inherited the Quandt fortune.
German businessmen capitalized on Nazism's Aryanization demands. They attacked Jews and Jewish-owned businesses and used the law, such as it was in Nazi Germany, to gain assets at bargain basement prices. Nazis inventing bogus charges to plunder Jews. One Jewish businessman was charged with "excess profits." Adolf Rosenberger was accused of "race defilement" because he had dated a non-Jewish woman. Of course, both Joseph and Magda Goebbels had had affairs with Jews, and Goebbels would go on to a lengthy and intense extramarital affair, one approved by his wife, with a forbidden Slav, Lida Baarova. August von Finck Sr., was the son of a man who was good friends with Jewish banker Albert von Rothschild. This did not stop von Finck from Aryanizing a Rothschild bank.
Ferdinand Porsche and Anton Piech rushed to take advantage of Rosenberger, not because he was Jewish, but simply because doing so improved their own bottom line. "I don't accuse Mr. Porsche and Mr. Piech of personal anti-Semitism … but they used my membership as a Jew to get rid of me cheaply," Rosenberger would later state. At least one mogul had at least one recorded moment of awareness. Richard Kaselowsky, CEO of Dr. Oetker foods and himself a Nazi, advised his son not to take an Aryanized lake villa. "Tears stick to this house," he said. The son bought the villa anyway, and some more Aryanized Jewish property adjacent to it.
De Jong traces the development of the Volkswagen, the "people's car," by Ferdinand Porsche. Porsche had Czechoslovak citizenship. Hitler decided that "a citizen of a despised Slavic country could never design the German people's car." Porsche suddenly found his citizenship changed to German. Volkswagens were built on Aryanized land that had belonged to Jews. The land is today the site of Porsche headquarters.
Some, seeking meaning, might come away from the story so far and say, "Well, Jews can never trust non-Jews. Anti-Semitism will always eventually rear its ugly head." Applying that moral to this awful history might almost be more comforting than the truth. Nazi billionaires were quite happy to exploit any human life, Jewish or non-Jewish.
According to the "Forced Labor 1939-1945" website, forced and slave labor in Nazi Germany was one of the biggest forced labor projects in world history; Nazis made use of an estimated twenty million forced and slave laborers from at least 26 countries. In comparison, the Atlantic Slave Trade is estimated to have trafficked around twelve million slaves; about 388,000 of those arrived in North America.
Workers, including women and young children, came from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, from France to Russia, from Denmark to Greece. Slavs were the most frequently exploited and often, after Jews, the worst treated. Millions of forced and slave laborers died, some while contributing to the greater glory of Porsche, BMW, Siemens, Daimler-Benz, and Dr. Oetker foods. De Jong's own Dutch, Protestant grandfather was one of these laborers. He was, de Jong tells, about six and a half feet tall. Upon release, he had TB, he weighed ninety pounds, and he was near death.
Workers were forced to handle toxic materials without any sort of protection. The pain and suffering of lead poisoning and other scourges preceded death. Polish and Russian women who arrived pregnant lost their newborns to German institutions, where the babies were so neglected that a witness described them covered with insects. Hundreds of babies died. Foundry workers had to endure temperatures of 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Female workers were sexually assaulted. As the Red Army approached from the east and Americans and other Allied troops approached from the West, forced and slave laborers were simply killed, or sent on marches that killed them. In at least one case, Nazis burned workers alive.
After Germany's surrender, German businessmen made like Sergeant Schultz on the old TV show "Hogan's Heroes." Their claim became, "I see nothing." To their new Allied masters, they insisted that they were never Nazis, that they in fact opposed Nazism and helped Jews. "I never read Mein Kampf and I didn't know what it said," one claimed. "If only I had known!" Forced and enslaved workers, they claimed to their Allied judges, had been housed in rooms "almost too beautiful" and they all looked "well-fed."
A "Persilschein" or Persil ticket was named after a laundry detergent. A Persilschein was a statement meant to wash clean its possessor of any stain of Nazism. The most valuable Persilschein was a statement from a Jewish person. The very German businessmen who had, without conscience, bled Jews dry before their exile or murder in a death camp suddenly tried to dig up surviving Jewish acquaintances to polish their own reputations.
The Allies made some attempt to bring Nazi-collaborating businessmen to justice, but a new threat loomed on the horizon, and the mission to bring Nazis to justice slipped to a second tier concern. President Harry Truman, concerned by the Cold War and the threat posed by the Soviet Union, wanted West Germany as a bulwark. The businessmen could breathe a sigh of relief.
In some cases, more ignominious methods were used to get war criminals off. One prosecutor was blackmailed for his homosexuality. His Nazi defendant got off. Bribes were paid; evidence disappeared. Americans handed cases over to Germans. Germans who themselves were guilty of Nazis crimes were not about to condemn men whose only difference from themselves was that the accused profited more extravagantly than did the members of the jury. In short, with few exceptions, the bad guys were "entbraunt," meaning they lost their tan. Nazis uniforms were brown, and to be entbraunt was to be de-Nazified, in these cases, without any justice having been carried out.
The Nazi billionaires went on to doing what they did best: making more money. In that endeavor, they hired other men with Nazi pasts. Porsche, for example, hired Joachim Peiper, who "commanded the SS tank unit responsible for the Malmedy tank massacre in 1944, in which eighty-four American prisoners of war were murdered." Rudolf-August Oetker channeled money from his food company to financially support the SS officers who carried out that massacre of Americans. Stille Hilfe, or Silent Help, an organization to aid Nazis, received other money from the Dr. Oetker, de Jong suggests.
De Jong leaves the reader with the impression that any moneys paid out to Jews and forced and slave laborers was too little too late given too grudgingly and after too much litigation. "Friedrich Flick … among the world's five richest people … refused to ever pay a cent in compensation to those who performed forced or slave labor at factories and mines he controlled." Meanwhile, the Nazi businessmen's direct descendants and beneficiaries of despoiled Jews and forced and slave laborers remain among the wealthiest people in the world. One, Verena Bahlsen, said, "I want to make money and buy sailing yachts." "We treated them well," she said of Polish and Ukrainian women who worked for her company. I don't know if I've ever purchased Bahlsen cookies, but I know I never will in the future.
When confronted with the Nazi history of their fortunes, heirs have taken various routes. One is to appoint a commission to study that history and produce a report. The reports tend to be long, German-language publications that get little attention. Another route is to donate to a Holocaust-related museum. De Jong protests that these measly gestures are accompanied by falsehoods. Company patriarchs are whitewashed in company documents. The patriarchs are praised for their financial wizardry but not acknowledged as war criminals. De Jong is opposed to renaming foundations and landmarks. He wants the names to stay; they are part of history and whitewashing history removes the necessary lessons humanity might learn. Rather, de Jong demands complete transparency. When Nazi Billionaire money is used to underwrite, say, a museum exhibit addressing the Holocaust, the backstory of that money must be included in the museum program.
Back to Adolf Rosenberger, the man whose black-and-white headshot, taken in a concentration camp, says so very much about injustice and outrage. In 1976, nine years after Rosenberger died, Ferry Porsche published We at Porsche. In the book, Ferry Porsche not only makes disparaging comments about Adolf Rosenberger, he makes pointedly anti-Semitic comments. He accuses Rosenberger of trying to "profit" from having been "persecuted" by "Nazis." Ferry Porsche is not alone. Quite a few anti-Semites allege that Jews exhibit greed in their attempts to receive even just nominal compensation for the incalculable injustice they suffered. This anecdote is just one of many jaw-dropping moments in a thoroughly excellent and necessary book.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.