David De Jong's New Book is Brilliantly Written, Provocative, and Necessary
The photo stops you. It's a black-and-white
head shot of a 35-year-old man with jet black hair. He's handsome, and he's
staring straight at you. He's wearing an impeccable suit; his collar is crisp;
his tie smooth. He looks like a relentless contract killer in a Warner Brothers
gangster flick, or an even more relentless cop, hot on the trail of Jimmy
Cagney. He looks so very well groomed, but he clearly seethes with rage. The
thinnest veneer of remaining civilization or the last shred of
self-preservation prevents him from beating to a pulp the photographer taking
his picture. The year is 1935. The location is a Nazi concentration camp in
man is a Jew.
He's Adolf Rosenberger, and he
co-founded Porsche. His two German, non-Jewish co-founders would go on to
immense wealth, power, and fame. Rosenberger's friend, Hans Baron Veyder
Mahlberg, bribed Gestapo agents and got Rosenberger released from the
concentration camp. Rosenberger had to run for his life. Ferdinand Porsche and
Anton Piech would, after the end of World War II, send Rosenberger, then in the
United States, begging letters. Rosenberger responded by sending
his co-founders American chocolates, coffee, and thousands of dollars. They
still managed to betray him, not once, but over and over; not in one way, but
in many ways. After all, he may have been a German race car driver of Mercedes
cars and a co-founder of their company. But he was a Jew.
Fritz and Johanna Heine were German
Protestants. Fritz was a surgeon and a veteran. Johanna's brother Rudolf, an
officer, had died fighting for Germany in World War I. Johanna inherited the
majority share of the profitable manufacturing business founded by her father.
In the 1930s, Fritz and Johanna "felt German, and were confident that the
'horrific Nazi episode' would soon be over." Though their two children
left, Fritz and Johanna stayed in Germany. They were deported to the Lodz
Ghetto in 1941, where Johanna was murdered. Fritz was murdered in the Chelmno
death camp. Fritz
and Johanna, and their children as well, were all Protestants, but their
ancestors were Jews. The profitable company Johanna's father founded was
"Aryanized" by Gunther Quandt, whose descendants are now among the richest
people in the world.
Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties by
Dutch finance journalist David de Jong was released on April 19, 2022, by
HarperCollins. De Jong juggles a massive amount of data. Through brief but
pointed diary excerpts, the reader plunges into the private thoughts and
tenderest feelings of Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels. Though de Jong
writes about world historical events, he marshals enough intimate details to
vivify his scenes. They read like bestselling fiction. Money splashes across
the page. There are mergers and gambles and stock manipulations. De Jong
details German business leaders delivering death by a thousand cuts – all
"legal" financial theft – to helpless Jewish competitors. He brings
the reader up to date on Magda Goebbels' granddaughter, now a convert to
Judaism and a jewelry designer.
Notes and index inclusive, the book is
381 pages long. It reads like a thriller. The narrative is propulsive. I could
not stop turning the pages. De Jong is an exceptionally skillful writer. He
seems, instinctively, to understand that his subject matter is enough to make
any decent person want to scream, or throw his book against the wall, or toss a
Molotov cocktail through a Porsche showroom. De Jong coolly delivers "just
the facts," and chauffeurs onward, on this lux limo ride through Hell. This
is a very serious book on deadly serious topics, but there's enough adulterous
affairs, high-flying finance, international intrigue, courtroom drama, and
historical sweep for it to make a great docudrama starring an intrepid reporter
– de Jong – chasing a story that very powerful people would prefer never to be
I've read many books about Nazism, but this
book gave me nightmares, and I say that in praise. Any decent person wants to
understand how the Nazis could have committed the crimes that they committed.
Other works have given us other answers. Defeat in World War I, the punitive
Versailles Treaty, Depression, inflation, historical anti-Semitism, scientific
racism, nationalism, propaganda, the use of technology, an oppressive state,
anti-social sadists running the camps: all of these factors have been cited to
explain the inexplicable horrors of Nazism. My friend Otto Gross wrote "Ripples
of Sin" explaining his own parents' embrace of Nazism after childhoods
of struggle and injustice.
Nazi Billionaires provides an answer perhaps more
horrifying than all the rest. De Jong's main characters were mostly quite
wealthy, comfortable, and powerful before Nazism's rise. Most of them didn't display
previous problems with Jews. At least two of them had had intimate Jewish
business partners. One was the son of a man who was a friend to the Jewish
Rothschild family. One had a Jewish mistress; he left his fortune to his Jewish
children, children whose Jewish grandfather had been murdered by Nazis. That
family is behind Krispy Kreme donuts and Panera Bread. These wealthy and
powerful men and women, variously, volunteered to join the SS, or helped build
concentration camp annexes, or worked slave laborers to death, and fleeced
utterly vulnerable Jews, for no reason other than to increase their own already
abundant wealth and power. Ideology didn't drive these men. Desperation didn't
motivate them – they weren't desperate. Ethnic hatred didn't make them mad.
They just did what was easy to do under the circumstances to make themselves a
bit richer. That "normal" people could commit horrible crimes because
it was easy to do so is the stuff of nightmares.
Even after Nazism's fall, they cheated
and lied and betrayed the dead Jews and other European slave laborers they had
already fleeced, brutalized, and worked to death, again, for no other reason
than money, power, and fame. Reading this book might serve as a marvelous
antidote to anyone believing in an essentially benign human nature. Whether one
uses the term "original sin" or not, there is no denying that there
is something unspeakably dark and ugly in the soul of mankind. Some of us
overcome that satanic invitation, and others of us never think twice before
saying, "Yes." These Nazi billionaires apparently never lost sleep
over their own evil. In the final chapters of the book, de Jong reports how
many of them lived into their seventh, eighth, and ninth decades, and died peacefully
De Jong follows most closely five German
businessmen and their families: Gunther Quandt, an arms manufacturer whose
descendants inherited BMW; Friedrich Flick, an industrialist who would become
the richest man in Germany and the largest shareholder at Daimler Benz; August
von Finck, Sr, a banker; Ferdinand Porsche and his son Ferry and his son-in-law
and business partner, Anton Piech; and Richard Kaselowsky and his stepson
Rudolf-August Oetker, of Dr. Oetker foods. Gunther Quandt's second wife, Magda
Friedlander, went on to marry Joseph Goebbels. Quandt's son Harald was close to
his mother Magda and his step-father Goebbels and he spent a great deal of time
in their household.
The book opens in 1933, when Hitler
summoned German businessmen to a meeting to tell them that "Private
enterprise cannot be maintained in an age of democracy." Hitler demanded
money, and he got it. Any thinking German had every reason to know, in 1933,
what Hitler was about. Mein Kampf, full of anti-Semitic hatred, had been
published in 1925. Most of the businessmen de Jong covers were not "ardent
Nazis." They were, rather, "simply calculating, unscrupulous
opportunists." They regarded Nazis as "loud, violent, boorish,
brutish, uniformed curiosities from the uneducated and impoverished
hinterlands." "Giving money to Nazis," one later complained,
"was rather like shedding blood in the presence of sharks." Goebbels
denounced Quandt as "a tactless lout. The typical capitalist. A citizen of
the worst kind … a brutal capitalist."
In January, 1936, Himmler gave the businessmen a guided tour of Dachau. They
knew what they were getting into. All of the businessmen at the 1933 meeting
"became members of the Nazi Party, or the SS, or both."
The Nazis really needed money in 1933.
The businessmen summoned to supply it were rich and powerful; were they not,
they wouldn't have been at that meeting. How might history have gone
differently if they had withheld funds, sabotaged their businesses, left
Germany, worked for Nazism's enemies? One can only guess. "I was raised to
be unconditionally loyal to the state," Gunther Quandt would later write.
Johanna Maria Magdalena Ritschel
Friedlander Quandt Goebbels, known to history as Magda Goebbels, Nazi Germany's
unofficial first lady, is an especially confounding character – or
lack-of-character. Her stepfather, or, according to some historians, her
biological father, Richard Friedlander, was a Jew who died in Buchenwald. For
her divorce from Quandt, Magda chose a Jewish law firm. She had an affair with
Haim Arlosoroff, a prominent Zionist. After Magda became involved with
Goebbels, Arlosoroff was mysteriously assassinated in Tel Aviv. He had just
returned from a 1933 trip to Germany to negotiate the release of tens of
thousands of Jews to the land of Israel.
How did this woman, who was related to, grew
up with, contracted with, befriended, and made love to Jews, become Nazi
Germany's unofficial first lady? De Jong paints a portrait of a courtesan who
made her way in the world by pleasing powerful men, and lots of them. She knew
she was lacking something and so when Kurt Ludecke, a "jet-setting
playboy" and Nazi recruiter, seduced her, she latched on to Nazism to give
her life meaning. In turn, Hitler and Goebbels latched on to, competed for, and
celebrated her, right up to the point where she murdered her six children in
the bunker shortly before she and Goebbels committed suicide. Her son Harald
was her only child to survive; being in the Wehrmacht was safer than being
around Mama Goebbels. Along with his half-brother Herbert, Harald inherited the
German businessmen capitalized on
Nazism's Aryanization demands. They attacked Jews and Jewish-owned businesses
and used the law, such as it was in Nazi Germany, to gain assets at bargain
basement prices. Nazis inventing bogus charges to plunder Jews. One Jewish
businessman was charged with "excess profits." Adolf Rosenberger was
accused of "race defilement" because he had dated a non-Jewish woman.
Of course, both Joseph and Magda Goebbels had had affairs with Jews, and
Goebbels would go on to a lengthy and intense extramarital affair, one approved
by his wife, with a forbidden Slav, Lida Baarova. August von Finck Sr., was the
son of a man who was good friends with Jewish banker Albert von Rothschild. This
did not stop von Finck from Aryanizing a Rothschild bank.
Ferdinand Porsche and Anton Piech rushed
to take advantage of Rosenberger, not because he was Jewish, but simply because
doing so improved their own bottom line. "I don't accuse Mr. Porsche and
Mr. Piech of personal anti-Semitism … but they used my membership as a Jew to
get rid of me cheaply," Rosenberger would later state. At least one mogul
had at least one recorded moment of awareness. Richard Kaselowsky, CEO of Dr.
Oetker foods and himself a Nazi, advised his son not to take an Aryanized lake
villa. "Tears stick to this house," he said. The son bought the villa
anyway, and some more Aryanized Jewish property adjacent to it.
De Jong traces the development of the
Volkswagen, the "people's car," by Ferdinand Porsche. Porsche had
Czechoslovak citizenship. Hitler decided that "a citizen of a despised
Slavic country could never design the German people's car." Porsche
suddenly found his citizenship changed to German. Volkswagens were built on
Aryanized land that had belonged to Jews. The land is today the site of Porsche
Some, seeking meaning, might come away
from the story so far and say, "Well, Jews can never trust non-Jews.
Anti-Semitism will always eventually rear its ugly head." Applying that moral
to this awful history might almost be more comforting than the truth. Nazi
billionaires were quite happy to exploit any human life, Jewish or non-Jewish.
According to the "Forced
Labor 1939-1945" website, forced and slave labor in Nazi Germany was
one of the biggest forced labor projects in world history; Nazis made use of an
estimated twenty million forced and slave laborers from at least 26 countries. In
comparison, the Atlantic Slave Trade is estimated to have trafficked around
twelve million slaves; about 388,000 of those arrived in North America.
Workers, including women and young
children, came from throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, from France to Russia,
from Denmark to Greece. Slavs were the most frequently exploited and often, after
Jews, the worst treated. Millions of forced and slave laborers died, some while
contributing to the greater glory of Porsche, BMW, Siemens, Daimler-Benz, and
Dr. Oetker foods. De Jong's own Dutch, Protestant grandfather was one of these
laborers. He was, de Jong tells, about six and a half feet tall. Upon release, he
had TB, he weighed ninety pounds, and he was near death.
Workers were forced to handle toxic
materials without any sort of protection. The pain and suffering of lead
poisoning and other scourges preceded death. Polish and Russian women who
arrived pregnant lost their newborns to German institutions, where the babies
were so neglected that a witness described them covered with insects. Hundreds
of babies died. Foundry workers had to endure temperatures of 180 degrees
Fahrenheit. Female workers were sexually assaulted. As the Red Army approached
from the east and Americans and other Allied troops approached from the West,
forced and slave laborers were simply killed, or sent on marches that killed
them. In at least one case, Nazis burned workers alive.
After Germany's surrender, German
businessmen made like Sergeant Schultz on the old TV show "Hogan's
Heroes." Their claim became, "I see nothing." To their new Allied
masters, they insisted that they were never Nazis, that they in fact opposed
Nazism and helped Jews. "I never read Mein Kampf and I didn't know
what it said," one claimed. "If only I had known!" Forced and
enslaved workers, they claimed to their Allied judges, had been housed in rooms
"almost too beautiful" and they all looked "well-fed."
A "Persilschein" or
Persil ticket was named after a laundry detergent. A Persilschein was a
statement meant to wash clean its possessor of any stain of Nazism. The most
valuable Persilschein was a statement from a Jewish person. The very
German businessmen who had, without conscience, bled Jews dry before their
exile or murder in a death camp suddenly tried to dig up surviving Jewish
acquaintances to polish their own reputations.
The Allies made some attempt to bring
Nazi-collaborating businessmen to justice, but a new threat loomed on the
horizon, and the mission to bring Nazis to justice slipped to a second tier
concern. President Harry Truman, concerned by the Cold War and the threat posed
by the Soviet Union, wanted West Germany as a bulwark. The businessmen could
breathe a sigh of relief.
In some cases, more ignominious methods
were used to get war criminals off. One prosecutor was blackmailed for his
homosexuality. His Nazi defendant got off. Bribes were paid; evidence
disappeared. Americans handed cases over to Germans. Germans who themselves
were guilty of Nazis crimes were not about to condemn men whose only difference
from themselves was that the accused profited more extravagantly than did the
members of the jury. In short, with few exceptions, the bad guys were "entbraunt,"
meaning they lost their tan. Nazis uniforms were brown, and to be entbraunt
was to be de-Nazified, in these cases, without any justice having been
The Nazi billionaires went on to doing
what they did best: making more money. In that endeavor, they hired other men
with Nazi pasts. Porsche, for example, hired Joachim Peiper, who
"commanded the SS tank unit responsible for the Malmedy tank massacre in
1944, in which eighty-four American prisoners of war were murdered." Rudolf-August
Oetker channeled money from his food company to financially support the SS
officers who carried out that massacre of Americans. Stille Hilfe, or
Silent Help, an organization to aid Nazis, received other money from the Dr.
Oetker, de Jong suggests.
De Jong leaves the reader with the
impression that any moneys paid out to Jews and forced and slave laborers was
too little too late given too grudgingly and after too much litigation. "Friedrich
Flick … among the world's five richest people … refused to ever pay a cent in
compensation to those who performed forced or slave labor at factories and
mines he controlled." Meanwhile, the Nazi businessmen's direct descendants
and beneficiaries of despoiled Jews and forced and slave laborers remain among
the wealthiest people in the world. One, Verena Bahlsen, said, "I want to
make money and buy sailing yachts." "We treated them well," she
said of Polish and Ukrainian women who worked for her company. I don't know if
I've ever purchased Bahlsen cookies, but I know I never will in the future.
When confronted with the Nazi history of
their fortunes, heirs have taken various routes. One is to appoint a commission
to study that history and produce a report. The reports tend to be long,
German-language publications that get little attention. Another route is to
donate to a Holocaust-related museum. De Jong protests that these measly
gestures are accompanied by falsehoods. Company patriarchs are whitewashed in
company documents. The patriarchs are praised for their financial wizardry but
not acknowledged as war criminals. De Jong is opposed to renaming foundations
and landmarks. He wants the names to stay; they are part of history and
whitewashing history removes the necessary lessons humanity might learn.
Rather, de Jong demands complete transparency. When Nazi Billionaire money is
used to underwrite, say, a museum exhibit addressing the Holocaust, the
backstory of that money must be included in the museum program.
Back to Adolf Rosenberger, the man whose
black-and-white headshot, taken in a concentration camp, says so very much
about injustice and outrage. In 1976, nine years after Rosenberger died, Ferry
Porsche published We at Porsche. In the book, Ferry Porsche not only
makes disparaging comments about Adolf Rosenberger, he makes pointedly
anti-Semitic comments. He accuses Rosenberger of trying to "profit"
from having been "persecuted" by "Nazis." Ferry Porsche is
not alone. Quite a few anti-Semites allege that Jews exhibit greed in their
attempts to receive even just nominal compensation for the incalculable
injustice they suffered. This anecdote is just one of many jaw-dropping moments
in a thoroughly excellent and necessary book.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery