More Than A Dozen European Billionaires—Linked To BMW, L’Oréal, Bosch—Have Families With Past Nazi Ties
Last week, the German billionaire Reimann family, whose JAB Holdings owns Krispy Kreme, Panera Bread and Pret a Manger, admitted to profiting from, and taking part in, Nazi abuses and slave labor during the Nazi regime.
The acknowledgement came after the German newspaper Bild reported that Albert Reimann Sr. and Albert Reimann Jr., both dead, were active in the Nazi Party and used Russian civilians and French prisoners of war as slaves during World War II. The family—which includes four billionaire children of Reimann Jr. worth an estimated $3.7 billion each—plans to donate about $11 million to a “suitable organization,” according to family spokesperson Peter Harf, though it hasn’t yet announced which. Harf also claims the family had already been looking into its ancestral ties to Nazism, commissioning German historian Pauk Erker to do so in 2014; his work is ongoing and is expected to be completed in 2020, a spokesperson told Forbes.
But the family was far from alone in participating in Nazi activities or profiting from the Nazi regime. More than a dozen European billionaires and their families whose business roots predate World War II—including Kuehne and Nagel’s Klaus Michael Kuehne and Knorr-Bremse AG’s Heinz Hermann Thiele—had ties to Nazism through contracts, slave labor, the appropriation of stolen goods or other means.“These kind of stories never come as a surprise. In 1944, one third of the whole workforce in Germany was forced labor. This means that almost every company which produced back then was in one way or the other involved in the war economy,” says Roman Köster, a German historian. “From 1942 it proved very complicated [for German businesses] to maintain production [that] was not in one way or the other related with the war.” He adds that Bild’s findings in the case of the Reimann family are worse than others because of the abuse and mistreatment of these workers, though a Reimann family spokesperson says Albert Reimann Sr. and Albert Reimann Jr. did not personally assault or harm any laborers.
Many of these billionaire companies openly acknowledge, and apologize, for those ties, though monetary responses are rarer.
“With the passage of time, it gets increasingly difficult to make a legal argument around reparations, unless the claimant can show conclusive proof of theft by the defendant’s ancestors,” says Karthik Ramana, a professor of business and public policy at the University of Oxford whose research has also encompassed ethics. “What potential claimants are left with then is moral suasion—and given the stakes for incumbents, I wouldn’t hold my breath in expectation of a flood of reparations.”
As billionaire Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad told Forbes in 2000 regarding his teenage ties to the Nazi party, “Perhaps even you did something in your youth that you now know was stupid. Why did I not reveal this past foolishness myself? Simple. I was afraid it would hurt my business.” Kamprad died in 2018, and his three sons, all billionaires, inherited part of the Ikea empire and are among those whose family members had Nazi ties.
Businesses didn’t profit only from forced labor. “Contracts with the Nazis were not uncommon for an exclusive circle of entrepreneurs who were in the friendship circle of SS leaders or had other connections,” says Christopher Kopper, a German professor of economics and business history.
Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, the richest woman in the world with $53.3 billion, inherited a nearly $50 billion stake in beauty giant L'Oréal, a company that reportedly thrived under the Third Reich. Frenchman Eugène Schueller, L'Oréal’s founder and Bettencourt Meyers’ grandfather, was said to have been a known anti-Semite.
More notable was the fact that Schueller reportedly established a partnership between the paint and varnish manufacturer Valentine, where he was a co-director, and the German company Druckfarben to supply paint to the German Navy. Between 1940 and 1943, Schueller’s tax returns show his income increased nearly tenfold, from 248,791 francs to 2,347,957 francs, according to the 2017 book The Bettencourt Affair: The World’s Richest Woman and the Scandal That Rocked Paris. Schueller was later charged with economic and political collaboration with the Nazis but never convicted. L'Oréal declined to comment.
While Schueller operated from France, it was more often German businesses that had ties to the Nazis. “Like the majority of Germans, the majority of business owners acted in an opportunist way,” says Kopper.
Herbert Quandt (left) with his wife, Johanna. With his father, Gunther, he employed about 50,000 ... [+]
Another way businesses profited from the war was by using the free labor of people captured by Nazis—inmates in concentration camps and prisoners of war. The Quandt family, which is the largest shareholder in the German car company BMW and includes billionaire Stefan Quandt (worth $17.3 billion) and Susanne Klatten (worth $20.1 billion), also had ties to the Nazis.
The family patriarch, Gunther Quandt, and his son Herbert (Stefan and Susanne’s grandfather and father) employed about 50,000 slave laborers from Nazi concentration camps at family factories during the Third Reich, according to the German documentary Das Schweigen der Quandts, or The Silence of the Quandts. The slaves were used to fill Nazi army contracts, specifically for batteries, firearms and ammunition through the Quandts’ company Accumulatorenfabrik AG. The Quandts also acquired (without paying) a number of Jewish businesses seized by the Nazis—a practice of appropriation that was not uncommon, be it of stolen property, business or art. And, in another connection, Herbert's step-mother and Gunther Quandt's second wife, Magda Ritschel, divorced Gunther and remarried Joseph Goebbels, the minister of proganda during the Nazi regime and close confidante of Adolf Hitler, who was best man at Goebbel’s wedding to Magda.
BMW, in which the Quandt family became major shareholders after World War II and which accounts for the majority of their wealth, separately profited from forced labor and from the Nazis, as the company supplied the German army with arms, according to BMW’s website. A spokesperson for the Quandt family did not reply to a request for comment, but as BMW celebrated its 100th year in 2016, the company released a statement saying, “To this day, the enormous suffering this caused and the fate of many forced laborers remains a matter of the most profound regret.” The company gave money to the German Economy Foundation Initiative, which provided compensation for former forced laborers.
The German media conglomerate Bertelsmann profited from slave labor and also by more direct means. Before World War II, the company—whose vice chair, Elisabeth Mohn, is worth $3.2 billion—was a relatively small publisher. But by the late 1920s, it began publishing, and profiting from, anti-Semitic and nationalistic and Nazi texts, according to the company’s archive. It soon became the number one supplier of books to the German armed forces, publishing paperback books that were popular with soldiers. To increase its profit margin, the company likely used Jewish slave labor to make the books, according to a report commissioned by Bertelsmann in 1998. Heinrich Mohn, Elisabeth’s father-in-law and the son of Bertelsmann’s founder, was not a member of the Nazi party but nevertheless benefited from the economic growth, says Kopper.
Bertelsmann has since worked to make reparations for its actions. In 2000, it joined 6,000 German companies in paying a collective $4.5 billion to people who performed slave labor for the Nazis. And Elisabeth Mohn, a prominent philanthropist, has worked to promote Jewish-German relations, while her late husband, Reinhard Mohn, was one of the first to establish an independent commission to look into the company’s history with the Nazi party, a spokesperson for the company said.
Some wealthy European business leaders actively shunned working with the Nazis. Frenchman Marcel Dassault—whose grandchildren Olivier, Thierry, Laurent Dassault and Marie-Hélène Habert are each worth $6 billion—built fighter planes and bombers for the French army during the beginning of World War II, according to the company’s history. After Germany seized control of France, Dassault—who was Jewish (he later converted to Catholicism and changed his last name from Bloch to Dassault)—refused to cooperate with the new regime. He was arrested by the Vichy government and labeled a “dangerous individual for national defense and public security.” He was eventually sent to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he was offered a job running a factory in exchange for freedom. He refused the offer and remained in the camp until it was liberated in 1945.
But even some business tycoons who were anti-Nazi chose to work for the Nazis rather than lose their business or put themselves and their family in danger. Both Kopper and Köster point to engineering entrepreneur Robert Bosch, whose son Robert Jr. and his family were worth $4.6 billion in 2006.
“I am happy for the Jews, Turks, and Buddhists to worship their own gods and idols; as long as they are good people, I love them, too,” Bosch wrote in 1885 in a letter to his fiancée. He went on to become a founding member of the Verein zur Abwehr des Antisemitismus, an organization similar to the Anti-Defamation League dedicated to fighting antisemitism, in Stuttgart in 1926, according to Bosch’s company historian.
“Bosch himself and parts of the management staff were strictly against Hitler and even supported resistance groups,” Köster says. “Nevertheless, the company was deeply involved in the war economy and employed thousands of forced laborers and very often did not treat them well.”
The company concedes that Bosch was “entangled with the rearmament” of the Third Reich. A spokesperson confirms that it employed about 20,000 slave laborers and had contracts with the Nazi party. But it also helped to rescue Jewish associates and support the resistance movement, providing money to help Jews emigrate and hiring them in an effort to help them avoid persecution.
So while the Reimann case may be disturbing, it would be foolish to believe it is rare. A number of long-rich European families—not to mention numerous major companies that still exist from that era but don’t have billionaire ties—have histories marred by their relationship with the Nazi regime.
“You would have a lot of trouble finding any ‘innocent’ companies which existed back then,” says Köster.