Today’s German Economic Elites Have Strong Links to the Nazis
Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties explores the historical links between the Third Reich and Germany’s current captains of industry. It’s not just ancient history.
Over the past couple of decades, a malignant form of historical revisionism has emerged on the American right. Led by conservative political commentator and convicted felon Dinesh D’Souza, the Right has peddled a convenient fiction: that the Nazis, because their full name was “National Socialist,” belonged to the Left, and that Adolf Hitler was a product of “statism” gone awry.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as investigative journalist David de Jong demonstrates in his new book, Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties. According to De Jong’s thorough reporting, German capitalists supported the Nazis at every turn — and their legacy continues to this day, with the country’s economic elite still closely intertwined with Nazi war profiteers.
Many German billionaires, De Jong shows, are intertwined with the Third Reich, which extensively mobilized Germany’s industrial base and enslaved and murdered millions of Jews, Roma, and Slavs to deliver on the never-ending orders from the Reich’s military-industrial complex.
And to this day, Germany’s capitalist elite maintains close ties to Nazism. For example, the modern-day neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany party, cofounded by a former Goldman Sachs economist, received major campaign contributions from August von Finck Jr, a financier whose father had founded financial services giant Allianz and a major private bank, Merck Finck, and profited handsomely from the Third Reich.
This is far from the only example. Joseph Goebbels’s stepson and onetime protege, Harald Quandt, grew to become one of the leading industrialists of postwar Germany. The Porsche sports car company — the first producer of the Volkswagen — was founded in 1930 by Ferdinand Porsche, an Adolf Hitler confidante and war profiteer, in conjunction with Anton Piëch, who was Porsche’s son-in-law.
The Porsche/Piëch family’s full acquisition of Porsche and Volkswagen in 1935 was only possible through an Aryanization process that left Volkswagen’s Jewish cofounder, racecar driver and investor Alfred Rosenberger, with peanuts. De Jong reports that Porsche had 20,000 slaves provided to him by Hitler.
Such details aren’t simply ancient history. Until 2015, the supervisory board for Volkswagen and Porsche included Ferdinand Piëch, the grandson and son of the Nazi war profiteers who had founded and then Aryanized the company.
The family ties aren’t secret — many Nazi heirs, in fact, are quite brazen about their histories. One descendent, cookie heiress Verena Bahlsen, conceded in 2014 that her family had seven hundred enslaved Polish and Ukrainian captives working in their factories in World War II. But according to De Jong, Bahlsen wasn’t contrite about it, since she said her family had treated these slave laborers fairly.
“I own a quarter of Bahlsen, and I am happy about it, too,” said Bahlsen. “It should continue to belong to me. I want to make money and buy sailing yachts from my dividends and stuff.”
The Death of a “Hard Peace”
As De Jong illustrates, German capitalists worked hand in hand with the Nazis as they moved to take over the country.
After Hitler’s ascendancy in 1933, the Nazi-created Aryanization process was incredibly effective at solidifying the support of Germany’s capitalists for the Third Reich, whereby non-Jewish Germans received enormous blocks of shares, land, and art stolen from Jews for pennies on the dollar.
Germany’s capitalists didn’t need to be convinced of the need to rearm, as Hitler insisted. Only with a muscular, aggressive, and expansionist Germany did they believe they could take their rightful place at the capitalist world table.
After the Reich’s defeat by the Soviet Union at Stalingrad in early 1943, denying Hitler access to the all-important oil fields of Baku, the more sophisticated German elite — like those profiled in De Jong’s book — knew there was no chance, logistically, that the Axis could win the war in Europe.
Although De Jong does not state so explicitly, it is evidence like this that suggests the Final Solution, which involved murdering millions of Jews, was also inspired by Nazi capitalists working to eliminate future legal claims for their crimes and plunder.
While De Jong takes pains to restrict his analysis to Germany, it’s worth noting that powerful American industrialist Henry Ford also made campaign contributions to the Nazis in the early ’30s, as James Pool showed in Who Financed Hitler and Hitler and His Secret Partners.
At the end of the war, US treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau, who was Jewish, advocated a “hard peace” that would have forced accountability on not just the capitalists and financiers of the Third Reich but also a much larger section of its leading officers and indeed the German people as a whole for their support of the Nazis. Such a plan would have placed the Ruhr industrial center in the West under UN control and permanently deindustrialized the rest of Germany, turning it into an agrarian society, ensuring it could never rearm.
As De Jong notes in his book, US Army colonel George Lynch summarized the reasoning behind the “hard peace” approach when he addressed a small town of Germans who had sat idly by as the Nazis burned over one thousand concentration camp survivors alive in a locked barn ten days earlier:
Some will say that the Nazis were responsible for this crime. Others will point to the Gestapo. The responsibility rests with neither — it is the responsibility of the German people. . . .Your so-called Master Race has demonstrated that it is master only of crime, cruelty and sadism. You have lost the respect of the civilized world.
But those committed to putting a broad cross-section of Germany’s capitalists on the stand faced a massive uphill battle. “Rat lines,” or networks that allowed well-connected Nazis a chance to escape, were set up by alumni of the Third Reich working with the CIA and the British MI6, so that crucial witnesses to the atrocities would disappear to South America, to be retreived and used in future Cold War projects.
Other perpetrators were taken in by the US scientific community. As Annie Jacobsen notes in her 2014 book, Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America, Wernher von Braun, who oversaw horrific experiments on Jewish and Slavic prisoners, was soon installed as the scientific leader of America’s rocket programs and would eventually be considered the founder of NASA.
Jewish investigators at Nuremberg working to hold former Nazis to account were in a particularly difficult position, given the entrenched antisemitism in mid-century America and rising anti-communism, which meant that Jewish investigators could find their investigations caught up in a hazy bureaucratic churn.
The American and British military leadership of postwar Germany, meanwhile, was more interested in marshaling the might of German capital against the Soviet Union than seeking justice.
As De Jong notes:
As the Cold War commenced in early 1947, the Truman administration’s priorities began to shift from punishing Germany to enabling its economic recovery. In short, the United States wanted a bulwark against Communist expansion in Europe, and the western part of Germany, which had the potential to become Europe’s largest economy, might serve as the key to containing the Soviet Union and reviving the rest of the continent.
Swiss banks that were up to their ears in Nazi gold — some of it taken from the fillings of Jewish concentration camp victims — also vehemently lobbied against a wider trial and investigation of war profits in the aftermath of World War II, as former parliament member Jean Ziegler demonstrated in his excellent book, The Swiss, the Gold, and the Dead.
No wonder, then, that Morgenthau’s push for a “hard peace” was sidelined under Harry Truman in favor of a “soft peace” that advocated for a strong West Germany against the perceived Soviet threat. And the Nuremberg tribunal of German capitalists was reduced to a shell of itself as Wall Street reasserted control over the United States in the aftermath of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death.
One of the few capitalists who was convicted at Nuremberg, munitions industrialist Friedrich Flick, spent less than three years in prison. Flick, who had used 48,000 slaves provided to him during the war, never paid any compensation to his victims. After his release, he cobbled his businesses back together, ultimately becoming Germany’s wealthiest man upon his death in 1972.
Many, but certainly not all, survivors of slave labor received some very modest reparations, never more than a few thousand dollars. And none of the descendants of those who had been enslaved and worked to death by the Nazis received a penny in reparations.
Meanwhile, many of the big companies that played virtuoso roles in the Nazi war machine soon became larger and more prominent than ever before — including Deutsche Bank, BMW, and Allianz.
A Rising Neo-Nazi Threat
De Jong’s book is primarily historical and spends limited time analyzing modern-day Germany, even though as of late, the country has taken a dangerous turn.
While Germany’s laws ban Holocaust denial, it’s become increasingly normal for major figures to downplay the crimes of the Third Reich. For example, a prominent German academic, Jorg Baberowski, has been engaging in historical denialism around Hitler, while advancing a far-right message on migration. Meanwhile, in 2017, a conspiracy came to light involving high ranking neo-Nazi members of the German security services plotting to assassinate senior politicians, an effort that became known as the Day X plot. Then, in 2019, the center-right and pro-migrant politician Walter Lübcke was assassinated by a neo-Nazi.
While the modern neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany may have hit its high-water mark for now — the party received one million fewer votes in 2021 than it did in the 2017 election — it still retains representation in every German state legislature, in addition to the national parliament.
Plus, rising economic inequality still creates a fertile ground for additional gains by the extreme right, especially because the country’s left is a feckless shell of its former self with a rapidly eroding working-class base. Additionally, it’s easy to see how calls for more aggressive German military spending in response to the crisis in Ukraine could benefit this rising right-wing tide in German politics, given the tight links between militarism and German neo-Nazis.
It therefore seems incumbent on progressives around the world to insist on a renewed German denazification effort, centered around Germany’s Nazi billionaire descendants. The clear policy implications of Nazi Billionaires include establishing a new German truth and reconciliation commission, as well as paying additional reparations directly to survivors of Hitler’s concentration camps and their descendants, courtesy of the wealth of the descendants of the capitalists responsible for this crime.
De Jong has performed a vital public service with this book by reopening sutures previously stitched shut. And when you’ve had a US president refer to violent neo-Nazis as “very fine people,” bringing these truths to light requires new urgency.
Ultimately, if you’re concerned about rising inequality or the extreme right, Nazi Billionaires is required reading.