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.
Von Julia Bonstein, Dietmar Hawranek und Klaus Wiegrefe

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.

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.

'Quandt Would Have Been Charged with the Same Offences as IG Farben Directors'

Even Stefan Quandt, an industrial engineer and a thoughtful person, has long repressed and downplayed the family's history. In one of his extremely rare public appearances, he described his grandfather Günther as an innovative businessman.

In a talk Stefan Quandt gave at the Technical University of Karlsruhe in 2001, he said that his grandfather "expanded our family's entrepreneurial thinking and action by investing in companies; his strategy was diversification." Quandt did not mention ugly words like arms production and forced labor in his lecture.

And what about Stefan's father Herbert, who, as the director of personnel for Afa during World War II, was partially responsible for forced laborers' working conditions? All Stefan Quandt had to say about him was this: "Perhaps my father's most outstanding entrepreneurial feat was to save BMW."

He was referring to Herbert Quandt's acquisition, in 1960, of a large package of shares in BMW, which protected the company against a takeover by Daimler-Benz.

Many people know about this part of the family history. Indeed, the story of the Quandts saving BMW became one of the legends of the postwar economic miracle. The question of how they came into the money to purchase the BMW shares was secondary -- at least until the ARD film posed it once again.

After a week of nonstop discussions and telephone conversations among the heirs, four family members announced last Friday, on behalf of the entire Quandt family, their intention to fund a research project in which a historian will examine the family's activities during the Hitler dictatorship. Even Sven Quandt no longer wants to forget. He too has joined the family's initiative.

The Quandts are one of Germany's last corporate dynasties that have not yet dealt with their past. They continued a deplorable tradition among German companies that had spent decades avoiding examinations of their past. Many companies purged the Nazi years from their internal history books, while their executives ignored the period in speeches to employees. The past, they hoped, would simply go away.

It was only in the late 1990s that most major German corporations changed their positions. Insurance giant Allianz, Deutsche Bank, Daimler-Benz, the VW Group, media giant Bertelsmann and others hired historians to examine the roles their companies played between 1933 and 1945. Threatened by class action lawsuits from the United States, most of these companies paid millions into the German Economy Foundation Initiative, a group formed in 2001 to compensate former forced and slave laborers. BMW and Altana, two companies in which the Quandts hold shares, support the project financially.

But the family has kept a low profile. The heirs have avoided the most important question in their own history: Do they owe a large portion of their fortune, which runs into the billions, to the brutal exploitation of forced laborers?

The Quandts' rapid rise to prominence began in the days of the German Kaisers, after a member of the family, which originated in the town of Pritzwalk in the eastern state of Brandenburg, acquired a textile factory. The German Reich needed uniforms for its soldiers. Even before World War I, the Quandts began building their fortune as a supplier to the German army.

The brutal four-year war allowed the Quandts to enter the club of German oligarchs. Millions of shredded uniforms had to be replaced. The fortune the family earned in the process enabled Günther Quandt, the head of the company for many years, to buy up an industrial empire after the war ended.

Quandt, a right-wing conservative, appears to have followed the rise of the National Socialists with detached sympathy at best. He met Adolf Hitler for the first time in 1931, when Hitler was trying to develop relationships with major industrialists. Quandt later described the opposition politician with his trademark brown uniform "as thoroughly average."

This sounds plausible for a widely traveled industrialist like Quandt, who had little in common with the Nazis' crude blood-and-earth ideology. His only connection to the Nazi "brownshirts" was of a private nature and dated back to the late phase of the Weimar Republic. When Quandt, a millionaire by then, divorced his wife Magda, she began seeing Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels. When the couple married in December 1931, Hitler was Goebbels' best man.

Magda gained custody of the son she and Günther Quandt shared, Harald, and then gave birth to six other children who didn't survive the war. In 1945, she killed her children and then herself in the Führer's bunker.

Despite the family connection, Günther Quandt apparently kept his distance from senior Nazis at first. Only after the Nazis won the elections in March 1933 did Quandt support the Nazi Party (NSDAP). He joined the party a few weeks later.

Quandt benefited directly from this opportunistic move. Throughout the German Reich, activists from the NSDAP's left wing sought to enrich themselves at the expense of the "corporate bosses." In early May 1933, Quandt was arrested on false pretenses. Although Goebbels wasn't fond of his wife's ex-husband, he put in a good word for Quandt, and told Hitler: "It is a bad idea not to allow the economy to settle down." Quandt was soon released.

In the space of a few short years, the compliant businessman became "one of the most important German arms producers," says historian Ralf Blank. In 1937 Hitler appointed him to the position of "Wehrwirtschaftsführer," or Leader of the Armament Economy, a title given to industrialists who played a leading role in the Nazi war economy, and rewarded him with handsome profits. Quandt's factories supplied Hitler's military with ammunition, rifles, artillery and -- very importantly -- batteries. Afa, the core of the Quandt industrial group, was able to produce batteries of sufficiently high quality to make both the submarine war in the Atlantic and, later, the launch of Hitler's "miracle weapon," the V-2 rocket, possible.

When German industrialists appropriated factories throughout Europe in the wake of Hitler's conquests, Quandt was one of the first in line, especially in what was then Czechoslovakia.

He failed on two occasions, and yet these cases were particularly incriminating because his actions were so perfidious. He attempted to take over a chemical company in Belgium, believing that the owner was a Jew (which wasn't true), which would have required him to forfeit his property. Quandt even submitted a formal inquiry to the relevant government agency. In Luxembourg, he sought to take advantage of a businessman's arrest by the Gestapo in 1943 and appealed to the Defense Ministry to allow him to acquire the majority of shares in the man's company.

But Albert Speer, Hitler's minister of armaments, saw no reason to step in on Quandt's behalf. The case, which has long been known, is described in detail in the film.

No one really knows whether Quandt was involved in Nazi crimes before the war. Author Jungbluth mentions an Aryanized company that became part of Quandt's weapons conglomerate. According to historians, Jewish forced laborers were used in at least one of Quandt's companies as early as 1938.

It is known that the family exploited thousands of forced laborers beginning in 1941. According to historian Ralf Blank's research, the Quandts also used slave laborers from concentration camps in at least three of their factories, in Hanover, Berlin and Vienna. Hundreds of these laborers died.

The working conditions were appalling, especially in the battery factories. The Quandt-owned Afa company was responsible for these conditions. A satellite concentration camp, complete with gallows and an execution area, was set up on the grounds of Afa's Hanover factory.

But historians also believe that Afa was not exactly keen on using forced laborers from the concentration camps. Instead, the company sought to retain its highly qualified German workers, many of whom were threatened by conscription into the armed forces. The company managed to fend off attempts by members of the SS, eager to turn a profit, to force Afa to use concentration camp inmates in its Stöcken plant until 1943, and even managed to do so at its main plant in Hagen until the end of the war. But Afa had no objection to the use of other forced laborers. The extent to which the Quandts' postwar assets were in fact derived from forced labor is another unresolved question.

No one can seriously claim that the family was unaware of what was going on in its factories. Günther Quandt's son Herbert was the director Pertrix GmbH, a Berlin-based subsidiary of Afa. The company used female slave laborers, including Polish women who had been transferred from Auschwitz.

To the surprise of many, Günther Quandt was merely classified as a "collaborator" after the war. The "Spruchkammer," a German denazification tribunal, lacked evidence that a satellite concentration camp had existed on the grounds of Afa's Hannover battery factory, and that its inmates had been forced to work in the factory.

One of the prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials, Benjamin Ferencz, now says that if today's evidence against Günther Quandt had been presented to the court at the time, "Quandt would have been charged with the same offences as (German industrialists) Flick, Krupp and the directors of IG Farben."

It will be up to the historians who have been hired to examine the family's history to determine whether Günther Quandt should in fact be placed on par with these other German industrialists. The Quandts plan to provide the researchers with files and documents from their archives and publish the results of the study.

The Quandt family's reaction, though long overdue, is surprising nonetheless -- especially for executives at the ARD television network. Despite the documentary's success, they have no plans to air the film before its scheduled broadcast date.

The film will be rebroadcast -- in a version that is 30 minutes longer -- but not until Nov. 22. It will air on NDR, a regional ARD affiliate, but the broadcast will certainly be less clandestine than the premier.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

Mehr lesen über
Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.