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The past revisited – the Quandt’s life on film

William Boston is a freelance journalist based in Germany.

A film about the Quandt family has highlighted an issue that has affected some German family businesses through the decades – a history of Nazi involvement. William Boston looks at how and why these businesses are held accountable for the actions of their forefathers

One glance at a sleek BMW racing down the fast lane on the Autobahn and you might think admiringly of a brand associated with quality, engineering prowess, and good corporate governance. It may come as a surprise, therefore, that the family behind the iconic German carmaker is today facing allegations that their fortune was built on the backs of slave labourers in factories used to help fuel the Nazi war machine.

The entrepreneurial Quandt family is a German industrial dynasty known for its significant contribution to rebuilding the country's economy after the destruction of World War Two. But the charges being made in a documentary film, which was shown on German television in late September, has prompted the Quandts to initiate an independent historical investigation into the family's role during the Nazi period.

"We recognise that the 1933–45 period in our history as a German entrepreneurial family has not yet been adequately clarified," the family said in a statement issued in response to the allegations. "As a family, we are unanimous in our view that we wish to deal with this part of our past in an open and responsible manner."

The family commissioned Professor Dr Joachim Scholtyseck to head the research into the history of the family's business activities. Scholtyseck, a 49-year-old professor of modern and contemporary history at the University of Bonn, will have access to the Quandt family archives. "We will present the results of the three-year research project without any reservation to the public," the family said.

A life on film
The film, The Silence of the Quandts, alleges that during the war Günther Quandt used his close ties with the Nazis to expand his empire. In particular, he used slave labourers at his battery company, the Accumlatorenfabrik AG (Afa), predecessor to battery maker Varta AG, which the family still controls today. Batteries from Afa powered the Nazi's dreaded U-Boats and V2 rockets. Former slave labourers appear in the film, recalling the atrocities they witnessed and beatings they suffered.

The filmmakers, Eric Friedler and Barbara Siebert, spent five years researching their film. They uncovered documents that show Günther reckoned with the "fluctuation of 80 prisoners a month" – a reference to the number of slave labourers who died in his factory each month. Until the family issued its response to the film on 5 October, the Quandts, a reclusive family, had more or less remained silent about the war years. In the film, Sven Quandt, Günther's grandson, is the only family member to go before the camera. Citing the fact that he and his siblings were born well after the war, he is quoted saying that he cannot be held responsible. The Quandt family has not refuted any of the allegations in the film and a person close to the family says they are not considering taking any legal action to dispute the charges made in the film.

Most of the allegations in the film aren't new. It was known that Günther joined the Nazi party in 1933 and used his close connections to senior party officials to build his business. Likewise, it was well known that his ex-wife, Magda Ritschel, was remarried to Hitler's propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, who adopted Quandt's son Harald. And the details of Quandt's wartime business and Nazi ties were contained in a 106-page section in the book Die Quandts (The Quandts), published in 2002 by historian Rüdiger Jungbluth.

Unlike other German industrial families, such as Krupp and Flick, Quandt was not charged with war crimes and did not stand trial in Nuremberg. The film suggests that the British and the Americans were not interested in prosecuting Quandt, saying the British failed to provide incriminating documents that had now become available for the film. The film quotes a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg tribunals who said had the evidence been available, Quandt would have been prosecuted just like Krupp and Flick.

It is somewhat surprising that the Quandt's past is causing such a stir. Jungbluth, who also worked on the film, attributes it to the emotional nature of the film. "It is very indicting in its style, like Michael Moore," he says. "It doesn't try to present a differentiated view of the family. It just pulls together all the incriminating material, which is legitimate, and shows the victims."

There is one point in particular with which Jungbluth disagrees with the filmmakers. They press the point that the Quandts made their fortune under the protective wing of the Nazis and that this fortune is the basis of their enormous wealth today. "I disagree," says Jungbluth. "When I researched the family's history for my book it became clear that the Quandt's wealth goes back to Wilhelmine times. They were a wealthy family even before the Third Reich."

The stigma of past generations
What the Quandt case clearly shows is that even so long after the war, Germany still has a hard time dealing with the past of an industrial elite that supported Hitler's rise to power and increased their wealth in the service of his war machine. The public revulsion that is now aimed at the Quandt family is something that many descendants of Nazi-era industrialists have experienced.

Bertelsmann, the media conglomerate owned by the Mohn family, was embarrassed in 1998 when it emerged that the company's own record of its history was misleading about the wartime activities of its deceased patriarch Heinrich Mohn. Bertelsmann claimed that Mohn resisted the Nazis and published anti-Semitic tracts for distribution to the German Army. Rather than resist the Nazis, a collaboration with them helped transform the company from a provincial press into a mass-market publisher. Bertelsmann commissioned a team of outside historians, led by Saul Friedländer, to research its war record. In 2002, they published a 794-page document confirming the allegations against Mohn.

In 2004 Friedrich Christian Flick, grandson of a Nazi-era industrialist who exploited slave labour in his armaments factories and was convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg, donated €7.5 million to build a new wing at Berlin's contemporary art museum, the Hamburger Bahnhof, to house Flick's personal collection. Some critics said he was trying to white-wash his family's blood-stained past. Like the Quandts, Flick resists being made responsible for the actions of his grandfather. "I'm against the idea of simply drawing a line and saying 'let bygones be bygones'," he said in an interview at the time. "It's another matter, however, when the descendants of perpetrators are also treated as perpetrators, even when they have distanced themselves from the deeds of their forefathers."

Many descendants of wartime industrialists have made some effort to compensate victims or give something back to society. Flick, for example, funds a foundation that attacks the roots of xenophobia. The Quandts maintain the Herbert Quandt Foundation, which funds projects to encourage understanding between Germany and Israel.

But some descendents believe the family needs to take personal responsibility by helping those who survived the misdeeds of its forefathers. Even before German industry formed the multi-billion euro fund Remembrance, Responsibility and Future to compensate wartime victims, Jan Phillip Reemtsma, heir to the Reemtsma tobacco fortune, located as many as 60 Polish survivors who had worked as slaves in the firm's Hanover factory during the war and paid them compensation as an act of reconciliation. "He wanted to perform some form of compensation himself," says Erik Lindner, a historian who wrote a history of the Reemtsma family, Die Reemtsmas (The Reemtsmas).

A generation in denial
Most likely it isn't the historical facts about the Quandt family's involvement with the Nazis that upsets Germans, but rather its reluctance to openly confront the past. Some suggest family members may be concerned about damaging the BMW brand by discussing the family history. Jungbluth thinks they are wary of the consequences. "They are very mistrustful of outsiders," he says.

The Quandt story will likely follow the same pattern as with other families. A historical commission will publish its findings and soon enough interest will fade and the family will no longer be in the headlines. "But the Quandts are not the last family that will go through this," says Lindner. "This is the opportunity for a generation that has a certain biographical distance to the events and actions of the past."

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