We’re always told that Germany has confronted its past.
The Nazis’ heirs have examined their culture, repented for their crimes, recognized the evil, atoned for their history, and now move forward with mindful, carefully created and cultivated decency.
To a large extent that’s true. But history is far more complicated than such a straightforward narrative implies. Many of Germany’s crimes, and perhaps more importantly, its criminals were left unpunished because history continued to pound forward, and the Cold War scrambled up old allies and enemies and rematched them imperfectly.
In his new book, “Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties,” David de Jong, a financial journalist, explores where some of today’s biggest German fortunes come from; unsurprisingly, many of them have bloody midcentury roots (and branches and flowers, for that matter).
Mr. de Jong will talk about his work at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades on October 13. (See box.)
In his book, Mr. de Jong tells the stories of five families, each of which was headed by a patriarch whose connections with the Nazis enabled them to grow what already had been large businesses into behemoths, and then, after the war, disavow those connections and move placidly forward in the denazified new world.
Many of the men — they’re all men at the heads of these companies until after the war; then the group includes women but they’re all related — have messy private lives as well.
Perhaps the most shocking story is about Günther Quandt, whose grandchildren now control BMW. He was a widower, the father of two sons, not particularly physically attractive except to people whose tastes ran to corpulent Germanic middle-aged men, the survivor of a love match to a woman who died in the flu pandemic of 1919, when he met and fell in love with a young woman. Magda Friedländer — whose stepfather, as cruel irony would have it, was Jewish — was on her way to boarding school when she met Quandt.
They married, had a son, and lived unhappily together. He was a workaholic, and she was young and bored. Then she met and fell in love with Joseph Goebbels, the thoroughly evil man (not to be too hyperbolic, but really) who ran Hitler’s propaganda machine. Magda divorced Quandt, she flirted with Hitler and married Goebbels, Hitler promoted them as the Reich’s ideal couple, and they had six children together as they cheated on each other.
Magda and Quandt fought each other for custody of the child they had together. Because she was close to Hitler, and because her relationship with Quandt ebbed and flowed, Magda got Quandt meetings with Hitler, and his own prominence brought him to the dictator’s attention as well.
As it became clear that Germany was losing the war, Magda killed her six children with Goebbels — with morphine shots and then cyanide, in case you’re wondering, because just on the basic logistical level that can’t be an easy thing to do. “Magda performed the deed in the family’s private quarters to avoid worrying the staff,” Mr. de Jong tells us — and then they killed themselves. As they’d arranged with an SS soldier, their bodies were shot at, gasoline was poured on them, and then they were set on fire.
After the war, Günther and Harald Quandt, the son Günther shared with Magda — and who never had joined the Nazi party — were cleared legally of any Nazi ties. Their business flourished, and today seems unstained by its past.
That’s just one of the families, and that’s a very abbreviated version of that one family’s history. Every story — the book considers Daimler-Benz, Porsche, and Volkswagen too — involves not only the normal stepping-on-each-other-to-get-ahead narrative of a normal business chronicle, but also the murderous cruelty and jaw-dropping betrayal that the Nazis demanded as they aryanized their country.
Mr. de Jong’s route to this story was transatlantic.
He was born in Amsterdam, the son of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. “All of my grandparents had arduous histories in Europe,” he said.
He moved to New York after finishing his undergraduate degree in political science at the University of Amsterdam for a masters’ degree program in international history at Columbia. “I wrote my master’s thesis about the first Demjanjuk trial,” he said. That’s John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian American who first was tried, convicted, and then had the conviction overturned, all in Israel, for being mistakenly identified as the concentration camp guard Ivan the Terrible. Then he was tried and convicted in Germany as an accessory to the murders of the 28,000 Dutch Jews when he was a guard in Sobibor.
“The first trial was in Jerusalem in the early to the late 1980s,” Mr. de Jong said. “I wrote about the role of survivor witness testimony. I researched it in the Israeli State Archives in 2010.”
He decided to research Demjanjuk because “I wanted to make a documentary,” he said. He was fascinated by the legal concept that made co-plaintiffs out of the Jews who were murdered in Sobibor. “I thought that it would be interesting to speak to relatives of survivors, and to get to know their stories,” he said. To find out why they thought it was so important that the stories of their murdered relatives be told — many of these survivors were too young to have known them.
“Then I got into grad school, and decided to turn it into a master’s thesis.” The Demjanuk story recently was made into a Netflix film called “The Devil Next Door.”
“Like every foreign graduate with a bachelor’s or masters’ degree, I had the possibility for a work visa,” he continuyed. He took it, and “I got a job at Bloomberg in New York as a reporter on a new team that investigated hidden wealth, family fortunes, and family-owned business. “I was hired as a reporter to cover North American companies, like Koch Industries and Walmart, owned by the Waltons, but because I am Dutch, soon I was asked if I could also take on the German-speaking countries.
“Even though Dutch and German are different,” he added. “But my bosses are like ‘He’s Dutch! Not a biggie!’ I did speak German. But Dutch is my native language, and then English, and then German after that.
“And that’s still the case,” he added.
So he would spend the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas reporting for Bloomberg in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. “I’d have to bring back a major story,” he said. “They were always a mix between history, finance, and business.” That’s true of “Nazi Billionaires” too.
“I wrote it because I found it staggering that major global brands like BMW and Porsche — mainly car brands but others too — had Nazi connections and were whitewashing their past,” Mr. de Jong said. “That was the impetus that caused me to write this book.
“Their founders were celebrities, but people would fail to mention their war crimes.” Whoops! “They were SS officers. They had run concentration camps. They had been trained at Dachau. These were the men who created these brands.
“There has been a very subtle cover-up. Academic chairs and corporate prizes have been named after these men. And there’s no mention of the fact that these men committed war crimes.
“These families are the biggest political donors in Germany, and they run some of the brands that represent Germany on a global level. But they never did any moral or financial restitution. No compensation. There always were negotiations and they never had to admit guilt or responsibility.
“It was a brazen whitewashing of history. It was such a perversion of history that I decided to dig into it. They are seen as role models, these war criminals, yet Germany is seen as a place that has faced its history.”
Mr. de Jong now lives in Tel Aviv, and he will be there for at least another four years, he said. He’s there now because his partner, Sophie von der Tann, another journalist, is assigned there. “She’s German, and a political correspondent; she studied Hebrew and Arabic as an undergraduate,” Mr. de Jong said. “She is fascinated by German and Jewish history.” She covers Israel and the Palestinian territories, he said, and he “got a job as a Middle East correspondent for the Dutch Financial Daily.”
So he’s in Tel Aviv for business, but he also has close connections there. “I have a cousin who made aliyah,” he said. “We have close friends who are religious, and we have friends who are secular. I just attended the wedding of a close friend — Max Raskin from Summit — who had a modern Orthodox wedding to Raina Weinstein, a lovely lady from DC.”
He didn’t grow up as part of the Jewish community in Amsterdam, he said, at least in part because the community is so small. “The Netherlands deported the most Jews relative to population after Poland and Hungary, so Jewish life in the Netherlands when I was growing up was a closed community.
“My father had a bar mitzvah, and his grandparents had been Orthodox, but the Netherlands was rapidly secularizing anyway, so religion wasn’t a thing you grew up with unless you really grew up inside the Jewish community.” He did not.
“But now that I’m in Israel, I’m learning so much, and going into the holidays there is so much for me to learn. I never grew up with it, but now it is adding so much value to my life.”
Who: David de Jong
What: Will talk about his new book, “Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties,” in a conversation with Thorin Tritter
of Tenafly, museum and program director at the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County
When: On Thursday, October 13, at 10:30 a.m.
Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
For whom: The JCC U
And also: In the afternoon, film historian Max Alverez will talk about “Paris on Film: A Cinematic Tour — We’ll Always Have Paris.” That’s at 12:45
How much: The whole day is $38 for JCC members, $45 for nonmembers.
To register: Go to the JCC at www.jccotp.org/programs/lectures-learning/or start at the JCC’s homepage, jccotp, click on Adults at the top of the homepage, and then click on Lectures and Learning.