Breaking the Silence BMW's Quandt Family to Investigate Wealth Amassed in Third Reich

Germany's wealthy and reclusive Quandt family, a major BMW shareholder, has gone on the defensive. For decades the family repressed its Nazi past, but a new documentary film provides new photos of old revelations that have prompted the Quandts to confront their own history of using slave laborers in factories during World War II.

It is difficult to ignore the stories of former forced laborers during the Nazi era. Their memories are painful to listen to, even when they are presented calmly and without any finger-pointing. One former forced laborer telling his story today is Carl-Adolf Soerensen, a former Danish resistance fighter who was deported in 1943 and sent to a satellite concentration camp in the Stöcken district of the northern German city of Hanover and forced to work in the adjacent Afa battery plant.

"I arrived here with 40 comrades," says Soerensen, now 82, in a documentary produced by the northern German public broadcaster NDR. He and his fellow slave laborers assembled batteries for German submarines in the Afa plant, which was owned by German industrialist Günther Quandt. The men handled toxic heavy metals without any protective gear. Six died in the first three months alone, says Soerensen.

According to Soerensen, men from the SS told him that inmates at Stöcken couldn't expect to survive more than six months. Most succumbed to lead poisoning. Soerensen, now an old man, looks tiny as he stands in a meadow on the site of the former camp and tells his story.

It took two NDR authors five years to complete the research for their documentary film, "The Silence of the Quandts." It is an impressive film, one the German national television network ARD ought to be proud of. Instead, though, ARD chose to hide the film the way a vegetable vendor might cover up his wilted produce. The film, which was not announced in program guides, was aired on a Sunday night two weeks ago -- at 11:30 p.m.

Advance copies of the film were sent to only a handful of journalists, while the network quietly suggested to others that it might be worth their while to watch the portrait of actress Inge Meysel that was in fact scheduled for the Sunday night time slot. The topic only gained momentum last week when the press reported on the program.

NDR was apparently intimidated by the powerful and wealthy Quandt family, which today is a major shareholder in BMW, Altana, a chemical group, and many other companies. It was feared that the family could prevent the broadcast by securing a court injunction against NDR.

Amid all the secrecy, the widely dispersed Quandt clan, the descendants of former "Leader of the Armament Economy" Günther Quandt missed the film's initial broadcast. It was only after the fact that Günther Quandt's daughter-in-law, Johanna Quandt, her children Susanne Klatten and Stefan Quandt, as well as other family members, watched a recording of the program.

According to a family friend, it was apparently a nightmarish experience for many family members. Nevertheless, instead of considering their legal options, family members were more concerned about damage control and how best to protect the Quandt family's image.

The documentary wasn't exactly new information to them and other viewers. Their company has been mentioned for years in various studies on the Holocaust and the Third Reich. Journalist Rüdiger Jungbluth was the last to draw on the results of many of these studies to write his biography of the Quandt family.

Graphic: The Quandt Family Tree

Graphic: The Quandt Family Tree

Jungbluth's book was published five years ago, but reactions remained muted. A book is easy to set aside, but images remained permanently etched into one's consciousness. One of the indelible images in the NDR documentary is of former forced laborer Theophilos Mylopoulos, who talks about how the prisoners were whipped at the Quandt family's battery factory, were denied water and were forced to drink out of toilets.

But some of the Quandts were even more stunned by the appearance in the film of one of their own family members, Sven Quandt, who said: "We must finally try to forget this." He once inherited a fortune that consisted primarily of stock in Varta, which emerged from the Afa battery company. But Sven Quandt didn't want to be reminded of Afa's history. The manager of a car racing team who once took part in the Paris-Dakar rally, Quandt added: "Every family has its dark sides."

It isn't hard to imagine that some of his relatives would have liked to crawl under a rock as they watched him in the film. But they themselves are not entirely innocent when it comes to shaping the image of a generation of unscrupulous heirs without stories of their own.

Johanna and Stefan Quandt, as well as Susanne Klatten, who together own more than 46.6 percent of the shares in BMW, have literally cultivated their silence and have turned down all interview requests for decades -- certainly out of fear, at least in part, of being overtaken by the grim past of a prior generation of their family.

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