The Nazi Past of Germany’s Richest Companies

15:50 15.12.2022 •

During World War I, head of a large textile manufacturing business Günther Quandt made millions supplying the German army with uniforms. He used that fortune after the war to acquire one of the world’s largest battery manufacturers at the time, the Accumulatorenfabrik AG (AFA), to cater to the growing demand for electric supplies. After that, he went on to buy more businesses including metal-working and arms manufacturing companies. All that was just the beginning. The Quandts, whose industrial empire that today includes BMW, amassed their wealth by being the Nazis’ major industrialist suppliers. In his book Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties, investigative journalist David De Jong tells the story of major German tycoons making billions off the horrors of the Third Reich and World War II including the Holocaust.

The following are the five industrialists who bankrolled Hitler and his Nazi triumph in the country and expanded their fortunes by participating in sordid war crimes and exploiting slave laborers from concentration camps: Günther Quandt, automotive manufacturer Ferdinand Porsche, banker August von Finck Sr., industrialist Friedrich Flick and Richard Kaselowsky who was at the helm of Hitler’s frontline supplier company Dr. August Oetker OHG. Jong meticulously unearths a long chain of  cover-ups, denial and complicity in the horrors committed by the the Third Reich that are behind some of the planet’s biggest fortunes whose owners got away with minimal punishment and barely a slap on the wrist, because the West needed German tycoons to support it against the “Communist threat” from Russia and the Eastern Bloc.

Günther Quandt began collaboration with the Nazi regime in the early 1920s. When he was on a trip to the United States with his wife Magda Ritschel, the couple was approached by Kurt Lüdecke, a passionate German nationalist and international traveler who used his social connections to raise money for the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP). Lüdecke had already tried his luck talking to Henry Ford who denied him and was hoping to get Quandt on board with the Nazis. While Quandt himself wasn’t in any hurry to join, Magda ended up playing a big role connecting him to the Third Reich. By 1929, when the couple divorced leaving Magda with generous compensation, she was already involved with the National Socialist movements  She read Hitler’s Mein Kampf, joined the NSDAP and worked as a secretary at the party headquarters in Berlin where she met her future husband Joseph Goebbels, Nazi chief propagandist. Günther Quandt who remained on amicable terms with his ex-wife was introduced to Goebbels. Before too long, he was convinced, like many in Germany at the time, that Jews and Communists were the root cause of all the misfortunes in the country.

Hitler would not have had the resources to win the 1932 parliamentary election and then run the most devastating  massive war campaign of the century without the funds coming from Günther Quandt and other German tycoons who backed him in exchange for the opportunity to make even more millions on war. As soon as Hitler attacked Europe, they began supplying German army with the uniforms, weapons, ammunitions, vehicles and batteries for torpedoes and other purposes. That proved to be quite a generous return on investment for installing Hitler in power.

In 1933, Quandt got a seat on the Daimler-Benz board of directors and expanded his business interests from textile to weapons manufacturing. During WWII, Daimler-Benz was the key supplier of the aircraft engines to the Nazi Air Force known as the Luftwaffe. Automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche, a NSDAP member, vowed to Hitler that he and his employees would serve the German nation with all their will and abilities as soon as the latter was appointed the Chancellor of Germany. Porsche made tanks and other weapon systems. Ferdinand Porsche personally designed the military version of the Volkswagen Beetle for use by both Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS. August von Finck Sr. whose financial empire grew to include the insurance giants Allianz and Munich Reinsurance, as well as a private bank Merck Finck & Co. believed that “God sent the Führer to save the German people.” Richard Kaselowsky, who started his career by marrying the Oetker Group founder’s widowed daughter-in-law, was a Nazi by conviction: he kept Hitler’s portrait in his office and gave his new hires signed copies of Mein Kampf as a welcome gift. Kaselowsky’s stepson Rudolf-August Oetker, who took over the business after his stepfather was killed in an Allied air raid in 1944 and made Oetker the brand we know today, was also a hardcore Nazi and an SS officer. Friedrich Flick’s coal mines, steel plants and munitions works were instrumental in Nazi Germany’s rearmament efforts and thrived on forced labor of POWs. After WWII, Flick emerged as the wealthiest man in Germany.

All five profited greatly from the program of Aryanization that lasted from 1933 until the end of the war, under which Jews were forced to sell their businesses. Quandt bought many Jewish enterprises at a fraction of their market worth. Porsche drove his Jewish co-founder Adolf Rosenberger out of the company and took over his stock by letting him get arrested on charges of dating a non-Jewish lady. Von Finck got himself sweet deals from the Nazi regime when he was allowed to get his hands on Austria's largest bank which belonged to the Jewish Rothschild family, and Dreyfus and Co. He made a fortune buying Jewish companies dirt cheap while their rightful owners were being swept up by the Gestapo, and yet after WWII he had the audacity to claim that he used his contacts to protect the Jews from the Nazis and was acting in their best interests.

Rudolf-August Oetker, among others, amassed a significant art  collection – it was a widespread practice to simply take away the art from the rich Jews sent to concentration camps. In 2013, the Oetker Group started a public image whitewashing campaign which included publishing and promoting a heavily revised version of the family’s history with the Nazis. In 2017, the company even said it was going to hire art experts in order to track the origin of all pieces and return them to the rightful owners.

All five were members of the Circle of Friends of the Reichsführer, a group of German industrialists whose aim was to strengthen the Nazi Party. They all used the forced labor workers, either brought in from occupied countries or concentration camps. Quandt’s and Flick’s IG Farben, Siemens, Daimler-Benz, BMW, Krupp, as well as Oetker Group’s enterprises had endless access to free labor of the incarcerated Jews and other prisoners of war. Thousands of French prisoners were forced to work for Porsche’s Volkswagen corporation. In 1941, Nazi Germany began to lose at least sixty thousand troops monthly, which created an ever-growing huge hole in the labor market, in response to which the Third Reich rolled out the world’s largest forced labor program. An assessed 20 million people from 26 countries were forced to work for German businesses and in concentration camps, with the majority coming from Poland and the USSR. For comparison, the transatlantic slave trade that supplied the Americas with forced labor from Central and West Africa between the 16th and the 19th centuries is considered today responsible for the shipment of about 12 million Africans over a span of 400 years.

It is estimated that at least 2.5 million forced laborers perished while working for Nazi industrialists. Some, like Quandt, even built their own small concentration camp on site so they could have more workers. Workers died because of dire living conditions, extreme mistreatment, severe malnutrition, even tortures. Extermination through labor was a Nazi German World War II principle which meant that laborers were forced to work for the German war industry with only basic tools and minimal food rations until totally exhausted. There was no safety gear, people were dying of chemical burns and mechanical trauma. Pregnant women were forced to return to labor immediately after giving birth leaving their children behind to die. And yet, all these facts somehow seemed to have evaded the eye of those who investigated the Nazi war crimes.

During the Nuremberg trial, the tycoons were accused of using Nazi connections for making profits but not for the war crimes and got away just with a few years of prison time. Josiah DuBois who prosecuted IG Farben was very disappointed calling the verdicts a mere slap on the wrist. IG Farben’s lead chemist Otto Ambros who developed chemical weapons and was in charge of their production at the concentration camp Monowitz-Buna, a subcamp of Auschwitz, got the longest prison time, a total of eight years. Friedrich Flick got sentenced to serve seven years in 1947 but was released in 1950. The Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence agency of the United States during WWII,  kept an eye on Quandt since 1941 and considered him complicit in the development and implementation of the Nazi policies of plundering the occupied lands – and yet after spending just two years under house arrest, in January 1948, Günther Quandt was released on no charges. Ferdinand Porsche was arrested in 1945 by the French post-war government but bailed out by his son 22 months later.

Ever since the Cold War started in 1947, the priorities on the agenda pursued by the US President Harry S. Truman shifted from prosecuting Germany to ensuring its economic recovery. Before soon, the Western occupation zones began handing over the authority to German, and many war crime suspects and Nazi supporters were tried by the German courts where they got minimal sentences since Germans didn’t really want to punish their country fellows for the things the entire country was complicit in. The truth was again buried as the casualty of war. While the Nazi industrialists were cleaning up their archives, the US. high commissioner for Germany granted controversial pardons to German industrialists including Flick. With the Korean War on it hands, the United States government needed Germany’s industrial capacities.

Other German leading companies and global brands were also deeply involved with the Nazis during WWII.  The Krupp Group was supplying the German military forces with tanks and other weapons, just like during WWI. Under the Krupps’ supervision, ELMAG manufactured armored half-tracked trucks in Mülhausen and Pz. IV tanks and self-propelled guns in Magdeburg. In 1940, Gustav Krupp received Nazi honors and a decoration from Adolf Hitler himself who toured the Krupp factories in Essen that produced three-axled trucks. At the time, Gustav mostly served as a figurehead of the company while the business was run by his son Alfried who used all the opportunities presented by the Nazi regime to increase the family’s wealth. The Yalta and Potsdam Conferences ruled that the Krupp steel empire was to be dismantled. In July 1948, Alfried Krupp and ten former directors of the Group were found guilty of crimes against humanity including plundering, devastation, and exploitation of occupied countries.

Alfried Krupp was sentenced to 12 years of prison time, but also received a pardon from the USA and full reinstatement of his assets after the start of the Korean War (1950–1953).

Founded in 1863 as a partnership between Friedrich Bayer and Friedrich Weskott, Bayer AG later became part of the IG Farben that had of one its subsidiaries supply Nazis with the poison gas, Zyklon B, that was used to kill over one million people in gas chambers during the Holocaust. The company relied on slave labour from concentration camps and was involved in medical experiments on inmates at Auschwitz and at the Mauthausen concentration camp. After the war, the Allies seized IG Farben for “knowingly and prominently... building up and maintaining German war potential” and split it into constituent companies. As a result, Bayer began functioning  independently. The company’s former director Fritz ter Meer who was sentenced to seven years by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal but was released in 1950 for good behavior and later elected to Bayer AG’s supervisory board.

In 1910s, Karl Friedrich Rapp and Gustav Otto, the son of  Nicolaus August Otto, inventor of the compressed charge internal combustion engine, started two aircraft engine manufacturing businesses that later merged under the name of Bayerische Motoren Werke that is now the globally recognized automobile manufacturer BMW. As the company was facing bankruptcy after the aircraft engine production was banned in Germany as per the Treaty of Versailles, it began making motorcycle engines, then motorcycles, and in the 1930, was already producing cars. At the time, BMW was run by Günther Quandt and his son Herbert, and the Quandts’ close relations with Hitler helped them take over many Jewish businesses and get state orders for engines, ammunitions and weapons production. An estimated 50 thousand forced laborers worked at the BMW sites alone during WWII. In March 2016, when the company was celebrating 100 years the management issued an apology for collaboration with the Nazis in the past.

Today, Allianz is one of the world’s largest financial services companies. Founded back in 1890 it had grown to be Germany’s number one insurer by the time the Nazis came to power. Allianz became a major supporter of the Nazi movement, and the company’s Director General Kurt Schmitt served as the Economics Ministers for the Third Reich. Allianz insured the assets of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp and helped the Reich government collect the insurance payments for property damage due to the Jewish community for the pogrom known as the Night of Broken Glass. The company also helped the state collect the insurance policies due to the Jews sent to concentration camps and was in the business of insuring expropriated Jewish property.

This isn’t by any account an exhaustive list of all the German, American or European companies that collaborated with Nazis and got rich on the horrors of World War II.


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