The Uncomfortable Legacies of German Automakers

April 21, 2022 | David de Jong
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In today’s Germany, the manufacture of automobiles accounts for a tenth of the GDP, and, moreover, serves as an important symbol of the country’s technical and economic accomplishments. It is also an industry that owes much to the Third Reich. Despite the German “culture of remembrance and contrition,” notes David de Jong, the Nazi founders and early leaders of Porsche, BMW, Volkswagen, and other brands are frequently celebrated by their heirs, and “their names adorn buildings, foundations, and prizes.”

Take the Quandts. Today, two of the family’s heirs have a net worth of roughly $38 billion, control BMW, Mini, and Rolls-Royce, and have significant holdings in the chemical and technology industries. The family’s patriarchs, Günther Quandt and his son Herbert Quandt, were members of the Nazi party who subjected as many as 57,500 people to forced or slave labor in their factories, producing weapons and batteries for the German war effort.

Günther Quandt acquired companies from Jews who were forced to sell their businesses at below market value and from others who had their property seized after Germany occupied their countries. Herbert Quandt helped with at least two such dubious acquisitions and also oversaw the planning, building, and dismantling of an uncompleted concentration subcamp in Poland.

After the war ended, the Quandts were “denazified” in a flawed legal process in postwar Germany that saw most Nazi perpetrators get away with their crimes. In 1960, five years after inheriting a fortune from his father, Herbert Quandt saved BMW from bankruptcy. . . . Today, two of his children, Stefan Quandt and Susanne Klatten, are Germany’s wealthiest family, with near-majority control of BMW. The siblings manage their fortunes in a town near Frankfurt from a building named after their grandfather.

The modern-day Quandts can’t claim ignorance of the actions of their father and grandfather. . . . And yet Günther Quandt’s name remains on their headquarters, and Stefan Quandt awards an annual journalism prize named after his father. Stefan Quandt said he believed his father’s “life’s work” justified it.

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