Lynchpins of Plunder (with David de Jong)
What we can learn from the Nazi billionaires.
In the fall of 1920, long before she married Joseph Goebbels and became the unofficial First Lady of the Third Reich, 17-year-old Magda Friedländer met a stranger on the train. A recent widower twice her age, the well-heeled gentleman became infatuated with her, wooed her, and in January 1921, wed her. His name was Günther Quandt, and he was one of the wealthiest men in Germany. (If you need a mental picture, think Daddy Warbucks, only if he married little orphan Annie instead of adopting her—and also if Annie was a stern blond Nazi poster girl.)
At the time, Quandt had already amassed a fortune during the Great War, supplying the German army with uniforms. He’d invested the fortune wisely, acquiring a battery manufacturer, a potash mining concern, and stakes in two leading companies in the nascent automotive industry: BMW and Daimler-Benz.
The marriage did not last. Quandt was what we’d now call a workaholic, and was never around; Magda wound up cheating on him, because, again, Daddy Warbucks and Hitler Youth Annie. He joined the Nazi Party when it became politically expedient to do so, after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor. Magda did one better, hooking up with Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda; the Führer was the best man at the happy couple’s wedding.
The Second World War presented Günther Quandt with a dilemma: he could continue running his businesses, aiding the Third Reich, and adding to his already-vast fortune, or he could refuse to do business with the Nazis and bail. He had the resources to leave, as David de Jong, today’s guest on the PREVAIL podcast, writes in his fascinating and painstakingly researched new book, Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Dynasties. Other German industrialists did. But Quandt chose to stick around.
And when Hitler’s government became more authoritarian, and exponentially more evil, Günther Quandt went right along with the program. He was in the business of supplying weapons and ammo to the Nazi military machine. His factories employed slave laborers rounded up from concentration camps. He was, de Jong tells me, involved with the construction of a sub concentration camp. Oh, and as the war went on, and the Nazis invaded neighboring countries, he flat-out took factories in the occupied areas owned by Jews and other enemies of the Reich. “Lynchpin of Plunder” was a moniker given to another German businessman, but it applies to Quandt as well.
Before the war, Quandt and his ex-wife Magda had been involved in an ugly custody battle over their son Herbert. So there was bad blood between Günther and Goebbels. During the denazification trials after the war, Quandt argued that because Goebbels didn’t like him, he, too, was a Mitläufer—a member of the Nazi Party who did not actively participate in any crimes. (Neither his ex-wife nor her husband were around to dispute this, as they had both committed suicide after murdering all six of their children a day after Hitler killed himself.) To the surprise of many, the jury agreed.
After a brief pretrial stint in the hoosegow, Günther Quandt was back in business. His two sons, Harald (the only one of Magda’s kids to survive the war) and Herbert (his son from his first marriage) worked with him and then managed the Quandt business empire after he died. The latter would up saving BMW from bankruptcy in 1960, earning himself and his family even vaster sums. Today, the Quandt family remains super rich and super powerful.
So, okay, see if this translates to the present: Grotesquely wealthy businessmen plug their noses and lean in to fascism, fund psychopathic strongmen, and wind up even more grotesquely wealthy for doing so, without any serious consequences at all—just some icky news cycles every blue moon that are quickly forgotten.
“Thus far,” de Jong writes, “the scale remains tipped in favor of money and power. Many German business dynasties continue to sidestep a complete reckoning with the dark history that stains their fortunes, and so the ghosts of the Third Reich still haunt them.”
Will MAGA ghosts haunt the descendants of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, whose father is directly responsible for the deaths of a million Americans during the pandemic? Rupert Murdoch, the hateful media baron who has arguably harmed society more than any other individual of the last half century, has six children and a slew of grandchildren; will any of them feel pangs of guilt when examining his life? Buckley Carlson, who works for sedition-adjacent Congressman Jim Banks, is clearly following in his father’s despotic footsteps; will Tucker Carlson’s other three kids grow up to feel shame at the real damage their smug old man has done to our democracy?
The answer is probably no, because, as with the Nazi billionaires in postwar Germany, the rules the rest of us have to live by don’t apply to the rich and powerful.
Greg Olear wades into sports, where he discusses the appalling contract given by the Cleveland Browns to quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is being sued by 22 massage therapists for sexual misconduct. Then he brings on the investigative journalist David de Jong to talk about de Jong’s fascinating new book, Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany’s Wealthiest Families. Plus: a lost track from Billy Joel’s Russia album.
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Photo credit: Bundesarchiv Bild. The Goebbels family in 1942: (back row) Hildegard, Harald and Helga; (front row) Helmut, Hedwig, Magda, Heidrun, Joseph, and Holdine. Note that all the kids have a name that begins with H because Hitler. Harald was away in the Luftwaffe at the time, and his image was Photoshopped in back before Photoshop was invented. The rest of the people in this picture were murdered or committed suicide at the end of the war.