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Nazi Ties Uncovered

DW staff (kjb)October 9, 2007

How did the Quandt family, major shareholders in BMW, amass their fortune? A recent TV documentary revealed that exploitation of Nazi prisoners made the family what it is. Now they're ready to uncover the past.

Nazi prisoners working in a munitions factory
Forced labor was common in the Third Reich to support the war effortImage: AP

The Quandt family announced on Friday, Oct. 5 that they were planning a research project to look into their relatives' activities during the Nazi regime. The move represents a dramatic u-turn in the family's policy of silence on the issue over the past several decades.

"The accusations that have been raised against our family have moved us," family members said in a statement. "We recognize that, in our history as a German business family, the years 1933 to 1945 have not been sufficiently cleared up."

Indeed, the Quandt family's dark side had been forgotten for many years -- until German broadcaster NDR came out with a documentary film, which premiered on Sunday, Sept. 30 at the Hamburg Film Festival.

Prisoners contributed to war effort

Herbert Quandt, pictured in 1973
Günther Quandt's son Herbert ran a subsidiary of Afa, which may have also used forced laborImage: dpa

In the film, which was broadcast later that Sunday night on Germany's ARD television station, former prisoners of the Nazis shared stories of their work during the war years in the Afa battery factory, owned by Günter Quandt. Though munitions were also produced in the factory, the batteries themselves were also vital to Hitler's war effort.

The forced laborers who appeared in the documentary told of beatings, mistreatment, and death.

Historians suspect that Günther Quandt made use of forced labor as early as 1938. By 1941, thousands of prisoners were working in his battery factories in Hanover, Berlin and Vienna, which also produced munitions. Hundreds died. Evidence suggests there may have even been a concentration camp facility complete with execution grounds and gallows.

Quandt referred in an internal document to a "fluctuation" of 80 people -- most likely the planned death rate, reported German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Goebbels and Magda Quandt are seen here at their marriage ceremony; Hitler (far right) was best man
Goebbels and Magda Quandt are seen here at their marriage ceremony; Hitler (far right) was best manImage: dpa

In addition to allegedly exploiting Nazi prisoners, the Quandts also had personal ties to the Nazi regime. Günther Quandts first wife, Magda Ritschel, remarried Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's future propaganda minister, in 1931, two years after her divorce from the business giant. Magda brought her son, Harald Quandt, into the marriage and he lived together with her and Goebbels. While the Goebbels committed suicide in 1945 after poisoning their own children, Harald -- who was not with them -- survived.

Documentary presented clandestinely

Two journalists spent five years researching the startling documentary, which was broadcast unannounced and not until 11:30 p.m. The German weekly Der Spiegel speculated that the broadcaster may have been afraid of the powerful Quandt family, which owns 46.6 percent of BMW and large portions of numerous other firms, including Altana. An ARD spokesman, however, said a desire to avoid legal injunction played no role.

Only one member of the family, Sven Quandt, actually appeared in the film.

"We finally have to try to forget about it," he told Der Spiegel. "Every family has its dark side," added Quandt when asked about his grandfather's ill reputed battery factory.

Precisely to what extent Quandt profited from the forced labor and how bad the conditions there really were will have to be cleared up over the course of the planned historical research.