Book Review | Very, Very Dirty Money

Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties
By David de Jong
Mariner Books, 400 pp., $28.99

The stories that David de Jong first reported for Bloomberg News and now recounts in his book Nazi Billionaires document the sordid embrace of the Nazi regime by Germany’s wealthiest industrial dynasties and those dynasties’ continued prosperity today. They are a vivid illustration of a systemic symbiosis of the lust for power and the lust for wealth.

The existence of that symbiosis during the Nazi years is hardly surprising—indeed, the collaboration of Nazis with industrialists was a talking point for East German propagandists—but the wealth of detail that de Jong assembles has the power to shock even readers who thought they understood the main elements of the story. The Nazi Party, when it first came to power in the 1930s, needed the financial support of the families who owned everything, from mines, steel mills and auto works to companies that made textiles and food items. The industrialists were, in turn, favored in the process of “Aryanization,” the ouster of Jews from the German economy. Jewish companies were gobbled up at artificially low prices. Their owners had precious little bargaining power; it was either sell or face imprisonment and possibly torture. Jewish managers and partners were likewise forced out of gentile-owned companies.

It’s the examples, with their familiar names, that are most striking. Adolph Rosenberger, a Jewish race car driver, was one of three cofounders of Porsche, the only Jew among them. He was pushed out and paid off with exactly the amount he’d invested when the automaker was a startup. Some years later, after Rosenberger had fled first to Paris and then to Los Angeles, and the Germans had lost the war, his erstwhile partners offered to settle his claims against them with a choice of gifts: some cash and either a sports car or a luxury version of the VW Beetle. (He chose the Beetle).

The ability of select families to expand their economic empires with stolen “Aryanized” business interests in the years leading up to the war was only one aspect of the symbiotic relationship between the Nazis and German industry from the time they came to power in 1933 through the end of the war in Europe 12 years later. From the start, the Nazis were intent on rearmament, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, which disarmed Germany after World War I. The industrialists would manufacture the weapons and stood to make gargantuan profits. When the war actually began and the German workforce was depleted by conscription, laborers from conquered lands were placed at industry’s disposal: Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Russian POWs and more. Some were considered “forced” labor and were paid nominal wages for working and living in squalid conditions. Others were pressed into slave labor, which was unpaid and often fatal.

Günther Quandt. Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-b03534/dorneth/(cc by-sa 3.0 de)

The Porsche-Piëchs (Ferdinand Porsche and his son-in-law Anton Piëch and their progeny) are one of five dynastic clans whose dealings with the Nazis are documented by de Jong in this compelling and important book. The others are the coal and steel baron Friedrich Flick; the private banker August von Finck Sr.; the Oetker family, known throughout Germany for Dr. Oetker’s baking powder and pudding mixes; and the industrialist Günther Quandt.

The Nazi Party, when it first came to power, needed the financial support of the families that owned everything.

All of their stories display at best a heartless opportunism, the use of involuntary labor and often an expressed enthusiasm for the Nazi project of conquest, enslavement and genocide. All faced a less than vindictive reckoning after the war. In 1947, a tribunal convicted Flick of war crimes, but by 1950 he was free and by his death in 1972 was considered the wealthiest man in West Germany.

All the families prospered in the postwar period; Porsche collected royalties from sales of the VW Beetle in the United States, which was being marketed with pioneering, humorous advertising that helped dispel concerns that the car’s development had been a favorite project of Hitler’s. The period of tribunals and German de-Nazification proved to be brief and navigable, a season for self-revisionism and dishonest assertions of having had only distant connections to the Nazi leadership. The Oetker heir, August Oetker (his father was an SS officer), owns 12.5 percent of the family business and, according to Forbes last year, is worth $2.8 billion.

The challenge facing de Jong in this book, perhaps an insurmountable one, is keeping the reader tuned in to the systemic symbiosis demonstrated by those five intertwined stories when one story among them eclipses all the others by virtue of its operatic scale, its mix of lust for wealth and power with plain old-fashioned lust, its quintessentially Nazi theatrical manipulation of mass media and its unfathomable gothic finale.

Magda Goebbels. Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-r22014/(cc by-sa 3.0 de)

In 1920, Günther Quandt was a textiles magnate and a very rich widower when he met a 20-year-old college student named Magda Friedländer on a passenger train and offered the evidently irresistible Magda a seat in his compartment. Friedländer was the name of her Jewish stepfather, who had adopted her and was by then divorced from her mother. Quandt was twice Magda’s age, with a son from his first marriage, and he was smitten. Magda apparently figured he was a better deal than her more age-appropriate lover, a Zionist law student named Haim Arlosoroff.

Joseph Goebbels. Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1968101-20a/Heinrich Hoffman/(cc by-sa 3.0 de)

After a few years of what she found to be a boring marriage—it produced one son and was punctuated with occasional affairs—Magda and Günther divorced, and she went on to live comfortably off the settlement. Attracted to Nazism, Magda pursued and married Joseph Goebbels, soon to be Hitler’s chief propagandist. The Führer, too, took a liking to Magda, and throughout the war years she often served as a First Lady of the Reich for the bachelor leader. Her photogenic family with Goebbels became the nationally known, idealized German family: husband Joseph, a prominent government minister; wife Magda, a loving and fecund spouse who ran the household (six children plus her son Harald Quandt). Both committed infidelities, but Hitler himself urged them to remain married, since their image with the public was so important.

Magda remained in regular contact with her ex-husband Günther. He would later minimize his attraction to the Nazis and claim he never shared the antisemitism of Goebbels and Magda (who, according to other sources, had worn a Jewish star during her early fling with Haim Arlosoroff). While his relationship with Magda entailed contentious custody disputes over their son, and while Günther’s chances in court were limited by Goebbels’ presence on the opposing side, thanks to the Nazis Günther had “a good war.” De Jong writes:

Günther’s weapons firm, DWM, was manufacturing millions of bullets, rifles, and Luger pistols for the Wehrmacht. Its stock price would soon skyrocket by 300 percent because of the war and the insatiable demand for arms. Overall, business was going so well that he could afford to buy more shares and would finally become DWM’s majority shareholder. His firm AFA was churning out thousands of batteries for Nazi submarines, torpedoes, and rockets. His textile companies made so many millions of uniforms … that, if lined up, the cloth could have spanned more than half the country, from east to west.

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When the war was lost and the Red Army approached Berlin, Goebbels and Magda were in the Führerbunker with Hitler and Eva Braun. They outdid the Führer and his deathbed bride by killing not only themselves but their six children as well. In a suicide letter to her son Harald, Magda explained that she did not want them to face the hatred the victors would show the children of Goebbels:

The world that will come after the Führer and National Socialism will not be worth living in, which is why I brought the children here as well. They are too good for the life that will come after us.

Magda had an SS dentist inject each of the children, hair brushed and dressed in white nightgowns, with morphine. “When they were in a drugged stupor,” de Jong writes, “Magda inserted a cyanide capsule in each child’s mouth and made sure they bit down on the glass.” She and Goebbels, who was Hitler’s designated successor, then took the cyanide themselves. Her act of infanticide bespeaks a madness shocking even among Nazis of the highest rank. Her ex-husband Günther had offered to take her children with Goebbels and assure their safety. She had declined the offer.

The Jews in Magda Goebbels’ life, it turned out, fared no better. Richard Friedländer, her onetime stepfather, died in Buchenwald in 1939; they had long been out of touch. Her young lover, Haim Arlosoroff, fled Germany for mandatory Palestine and there became a Labor Zionist leader who sought an accommodation with the Arabs and in 1933 negotiated a controversial deal with the Nazis that permitted some 60,000 German Jews to emigrate. A few days after returning from those negotiations, he was assassinated on the beach in Tel Aviv. A right-wing Zionist was convicted of the murder.

And the postwar history of Günther Quandt? Briefly arrested by the Allies after the war, he wrote a self-exonerating and, as de Jong shows, deeply dishonest autobiography. Like other dynasts accused of war crimes, he re-cast corporate acquisitions by Aryanization as lifesaving favors to Jews eager to leave Germany with some of their assets. All the accused seemed to produce Jewish former friends or ex-employees who testified that they were kind bosses back in the day. Günther Quandt was no exception. Soon he was back at work. As for any lasting damage to his family’s reputation, Harald, his son with Magda, and his older son by his first marriage went on to own most of BMW. In 2014, a German magazine ranked them and their descendants as Germany’s wealthiest family.

A gifted young German journalist who worked with me during a 1989 reporting trip to West Germany (as it still was then) told me the Holocaust story that anguished his family. No atrocities were involved. In 1938 his grandfather had bought a second house for a very low price, and the family had used it as a rental property for decades. His father and uncles, 1960s-era students, understood that the price could only have been so low because the sellers were Jews fleeing Germany for their lives; their father had been a Holocaust profiteer. There were arguments, but they were restrained. This was family, after all.

My German friend reckoned that only around 1980, as he was coming through school, was West Germany run by people who had not been adults during the war and whose instinct was not to forget and hope that others would be equally forgetful. He claimed no personal merit for his condemnation of Hitler’s enablers; he was of a generation that insisted on remembering because it was raised and taught to do so. The story of the house is an important reminder: Hitler’s billionaires possessed vast wealth but were small in numbers; the people who benefited economically from the Nazi era, admittedly with far fewer zeros on their fortunes, were much more numerous.

Robert Siegel is Moment’s special literary contributor.

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