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Responding When Past Darkness Comes To Light

sign for Panera Bread, a brand owned by the Reimann family's JAB Holding Company.
photo by Mike Mozart

German enterprises and the families who run them must face the realities of widespread collaboration and cooperation with the Nazi Party in the early 20th century. They must also decide whether and how to try, in part, to make amends.

In March, the German tabloid Bild reported that Albert Reimann Sr. and Albert Reimann Jr. had significant ties to the Nazi regime, and that the Reimanns used forced labor in their factories and private villas during World War II. Today, the Reimann family controls major brands including Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Panera Bread and Einstein Bros. Bagels through their majority stake in the JAB Holding Company. The family is believed to be the second-wealthiest in Germany, according to Agence France-Presse.

Reimann family spokesman Peter Harf acknowledged that Bild’s findings were accurate. “Reimann Senior and Reimann Junior were guilty. The two men have passed away, but they actually belonged in prison,” Harf told the newspaper. Further details have also become public through an interim report from a historian the family hired in 2014 to look into their ancestors. The full report will be published in 2020.

The news made international headlines, but the Reimanns are not the only wealthy German family with ties to the Third Reich or a history with slave labor in that period. “These kind of stories never come as a surprise,” Roman Köster, a German historian, told Forbes. “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.”

The revelations about the Reimanns were especially unsettling because of the two men’s active support of Adolf Hitler even before he came to power, as well as their overt anti-Semitism. They also reportedly abused their laborers beyond forcing them to work without pay.

Even in the absence of evidence of open anti-Semitism, many European businesses and the families connected to them must contend with their ancestors’ collaboration with, and profit from, the Third Reich. Eugène Schueller, who founded L’Oreal, supplied paint to the German navy and became wealthy doing so. Schueller later was charged with economic and political collaboration with the Nazis, though he was never convicted. Today his granddaughter, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, is the world’s wealthiest woman.

As Köster observed, forced labor was also widespread. The Quandt family, currently the largest shareholder in BMW, used about 50,000 unpaid laborers in family factories manufacturing batteries, firearms and ammunition. BMW, too, used forced labor. In 1999 the automaker became a founding member of “Erinnerung, Verantwortung, Zukunft” (“Remembrance, Responsibility and Future”), an organization to locate and compensate forced workers. Other major companies that reportedly used forced labor or had other ties to the Nazis include Hugo Boss A.G., Daimler-Benz and Volkswagen.

Bertelsmann, a German media conglomerate, commissioned a report in the late 1990s that found it had likely profited from slave labor and had certainly benefited financially from printing anti-Semitic, nationalistic and Nazi texts during the war. In 2000, the publisher joined in a group effort by 6,000 German companies to pay $4.5 billion in reparations. Current vice-chair Elisabeth Mohn has also worked independently to promote German-Jewish relations.

The ugly history of forced labor extends well beyond executives and founders who actively supported the Nazi party. Entrepreneur Robert Bosch promoted religious tolerance before the rise of Nazism and co-founded an organization dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism in 1926. Yet while Bosch personally opposed Hitler and reportedly supported resistance groups during the war, his company used thousands of forced laborers and participated directly in the war effort for Germany.

Albert Reimann Sr. and Albert Reimann Jr. died in 1954 and 1984, respectively. Many of the people that they forced to provide unpaid labor in their factories have also died. The wrongdoers cannot stand trial, and the victims cannot be made whole. The question for the modern Reimanns and other families in similar situations is how to make amends. Harf told Bild that the family plans to donate around $11 million to “a suitable organization” but has not yet settled on a charitable recipient.

The conversation about how to appropriately make amends takes place today against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism in Germany and Western Europe more broadly. Felix Klein, the German government’s anti-Semitism commissioner, recently warned German Jews against wearing skullcaps, or kippahs, in certain parts of the country based on reports of rising anti-Jewish speech and behavior. Government figures show that hate crimes against Jews in Germany rose 10% in 2018 compared to the prior year. Anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate crimes have also spiked elsewhere in Europe (and beyond).

Considering the increase in anti-Semitic speech and actions, families looking to do real good in light of their ancestors’ misdeeds should strongly consider funding Holocaust education. While education alone cannot combat anti-Semitism, it is a fundamental component of that effort. CNN found in late 2018 that about 5% of respondents in Europe had never heard of the Holocaust at all. In Austria, that figure reached 12% among young people. German high school students are required to study 20th century German history, including the Nazi era. But as Holocaust survivors die out, programs designed to make the horrific nature of the Holocaust clear become all the more crucial. Starting young is also important, especially as incidents of Jewish students being bullied in German schools come to light.

Funding more education and outreach is a way that families like the Reimanns can do real good in reckoning with their ancestors’ crimes. Working to combat anti-Semitism, especially Holocaust denial, allows these families to bear some public responsibility while keeping the focus on the victims. The goal of Holocaust education has long been summarized in the phrase “never again.” But for the full weight of that pledge to take hold, we need to ensure that everyone fully understands what it is we must prevent.

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