The “Dark Legacy” of the Nazi Billionaires

Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties, by David de Jong (published April 19, 2022 by Mariner Books)

In the newly released and fairly jaw-dropping Nazi Billionaires, Dutch journalist David de Jong, a Bloomberg News reporter on wealth and finance, profiles five German-Austrian families (the Quandts, Flicks, von Fincks, Porsche-Piëchs, and Oetkers) whose fortunes were enriched by forced labor, including of concentration camp prisoners, during the Third Reich. All of them have in some way tried to edit or outright deny that past, although as de Jong explains, it’s a “dark legacy [that] remains hidden in plain sight”.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, “These histories have never been told to an audience outside Germany.” This is simply mind-blowing to me, and although I had a little bit of background info about some of the families, and I do think some of the facts, like the story of how Volkswagen developed, are at least a little more widely known, but the majority of this was completely new to me.

It’s particularly shocking because the connections these business families have, spread throughout modern Germany — and by extension, the entire world — became even more tangled as the descendants’ business dealings grew more complex with the expansion of their companies and empires. It’s hard to live in Germany today and not have a connection of some kind with at least one of their businesses.

I found the Quandts’ sections the most compelling, with de Jong filling in the detailed backstory of Magda Goebbels, wife of infamous Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Magda was previously married to Günther Quandt, and the drama of their relationship as well as that of Magda’s later relationship with Goebbels is darkly fascinating. I never knew that the Goebbels were purposely held up by Hitler as an ideal Nazi marriage, as Hitler himself refused to marry since he considered himself “married” to the German people (gross). This also presented a different perspective, from Magda’s best friend, on her horrifying decision to murder her children in Hitler’s bunker as the Red Army approached. This ended up feeling like a fresh take on a history I felt like I’d read a good deal of already.

The Oetker family was the most alarming to me, as anyone who’s visited a German supermarket will know this name and recognize the ubiquitous Dr. Oetker products: it’s the most recognizable brand of frozen pizzas in Germany, and they also make an extensive line of packaged foods, like pudding mixes (which were supplied to the Wehrmacht) and cooking ingredients like baking powders.

The connection between business and the Nazi regime began with Hitler being left “speechless” at the kind of “power big business wields.” The narrative switches between the families and their industrialist leaders as the preceding and then the war years progress, covering their personal lives to how they became entangled with the Nazi war machine, whether by helping to fund Hitler, supplying the Wehrmacht with arms and machinery, or taking advantage of slave labor, and then following how each company was dealt with after the war ended.

I did find parts of this a bit tough-going, so more dense around the business specifics with less of a readable narrative arc. The minutiae of German business dealings and intercompany business was less captivating than the personal histories and narratives.

The overarching theme here is that despite Germany’s national culture of remembrance and reckoning with its Nazi past, big business has not been held to the same standards, especially when the Americans had the postwar goal of rebuilding an economically strong Germany as a bulwark against the threat of Communism from its eastern borders.

But this behavior had consequences, in that, as so often happens, the rich and powerful think they’re immune from punishment for their misdeeds or even from having to acknowledge them. Early in the book, de Jong tells the story of a very recent scandal courtesy of Verena Bahlsen, the heiress to and primary shareholder of a popular cookie company. Bahlsen’s careless attitude and uninformed ideas about history are far too prevalent, even today, in a country that’s done a better job than most at addressing its dark history. It’s about time a history like this was written for English-speaking readers.

This makes a great companion read to David Enrich’s Dark Towers: Deutsche Bank, Donald Trump, and an Epic Trail of Destruction, or to Giles Milton’s Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World, which covers more about the fraught last days of the war from Berlin and the immediate aftermath.

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

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9 thoughts on “The “Dark Legacy” of the Nazi Billionaires

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  1. This sounds like a book with information that everyone should know yet is hard to stomach. It’s so sad that the wealthy are often implicated in the worst forms of human and/or environmental exploitation. Greed seems to fuel far too many empires. Thanks for the review.

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  2. I have to read this, but won’t be able to buy anything now with a clear conscience…already feel bad about so many German brands

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    1. I know what you mean, and this makes it even worse. Dr. Oetker is so ubiquitous there it’s hard to avoid. Some of its really good to know though – like that the heiress to Bahlsen cookies is awful, at least I know never to buy those now!

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    1. I agree, I’d rather know but they do make it difficult! Volkswagen was also a surprising one – they’re often getting in trouble for one thing or another in Germany even now, but I’m not sure I realized how deeply tied their very foundation was to Hitler and the Nazis. It’s all very gross.

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