Heiress downplays factory's forced labor use during Holocaust

The Bahlsen biscuit empire heiress sparked outrage after claiming forced workers were "well-treated" during World War II. Despite her apologies, the case has reignited debate over Germany's remembrance culture.

It all started at a business conference earlier this week: Verena Bahlsen, the 25-year-old heiress to the eponymous cookie manufacturer, attended a marketing conference at which she boasted about her riches. All she wanted was "to make money and buy yachts with [her] dividends," she told the audience.

Little did she know that her unabashed claims to millionaire's privileges would make her Germany's most controversial character this week. Her comments came as a slight for dozens of families awaiting compensation after their ancestors were forced to work for the Bahlsen corporation during World War II.

WWII forced labor widespread

Forced labor in Germany, and within the Bahlsen family's factory in particular, didn’t come as a surprise: During the Nazi era, an estimated 13 million people were coerced to work for the Third Reich. Forced laborers included displaced civilians — men, women and children — from occupied Europe, prisoners of war and concentration camp prisoners.

Verena Bahlsen, heiress to the Bahlsen factory empire

In 2000, some 60 Eastern European individuals who had performed forced labor for the company filed a lawsuit against Bahlsen. Between 1941 and 1945, it is believed that up to 200 people, mostly Ukrainian women, were forced to work in Bahlsen's Hannover factory.

Their compensation claims were rejected as the court dismissed the case, but the cookie manufacturer partly redeemed itself on the public scene by joining a charity aimed at giving reparations to the victims of Nazi-era forced labor. Bahlsen paid more than 1.5 million Deutschmarks (about €767,000, $859,500) to the plaintiffs and the case seemed shelved until Monday, when the heiress sought to justify her stance by downplaying the company's wartime activities.

According to Verena Bahlsen, forced laborers were treated "well," since they were paid the same wages as their German counterparts. The heiress made clear she refused to assume responsibility for something she had not actively taken part in and that happened before her time.

Read more: Germany's historical obligation continues

Forced laborers in Dachau concentration camp during the Second World War

Heirs 'inherit' responsibility for Nazi-era crimes

This caused an uproar worldwide, and especially in Germany, where commemorative culture is a highly sensitive issue. General Secretary of the Social Democrats (SPD) Lars Klingbeil declared:

"Those who inherit such a large fortune also inherit the responsibility that goes with it and shouldn't appear so detached. It is no wonder that people lose faith in justice, when millionaires talk about yachts and not about responsibility."

The Forced Labor Documentation Center in Berlin reveals what was long an open secret in Germany

Christine Glauning, head of the Forced Labor Documentation Center in Berlin, was equally dismayed by Verena Bahlsen's claims: "I was shocked that someone in her position, coming from such a big industrial family, could show so little awareness and understanding on forced labor." For Glauning, the case illustrates a lack of understanding about the plight of those made to work against their will by Hitler's regime.

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She explains that many other German companies found themselves in a similar situation: "Other companies benefited from forced labor; Quandt, for example, which commissioned an independent investigation into its past following a documentary. Volkswagen ... has also taken steps to address its past by opening a memorial dedicated to its World War II forced workers."

The issue of forced labor, which has long been an open secret in Germany, has in recent years been increasingly discussed in the public sphere, in particular by the remaining direct victims of Nazi crimes. 

In the Bahlsen case, outrage is palpable: On social media, many have called for a boycott of Bahlsen products and for Verena Bahlsen to do a year of civil service so as to gain a better understanding of her country's history. The case comes as recent studies have indicated that young people in Germany, Austria, and across Europe have remarkably little awareness of the Holocaust and the Nazi era.

Read more: Austrians lack crucial Holocaust awareness

In 2018, the University of Bielefeld conducted a survey on how Germany remembered its wartime past. Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed denied any involvement of their ancestors in Nazi activities. To the question whether people surveyed felt a moral responsibility for Germany’s crimes, even without having been personally involved in the Holocaust, 11% answered positively, while 56% strongly disagreed.

Yet 93% of the surveyed people considered that historical awareness of Nazi crimes was an important component in school curricula. Finally, according to the study, only 4% of Germans aged between 16 and 30 have personally known someone who was a direct witness to World War II.

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People and Politics | 27.08.2010

Keeping memory alive - The forced laborer compensation fund

Today's leaders should be 'better informed'

With the inescapable disappearance of the last direct witnesses of World War II comes the risk of indifference for a younger generation that feels detached from the past. Yet the documentation center's Glauning is hopeful: "We welcome visitors from all over the world, including young people. Even if they don’t necessarily know a lot about it prior to their visit ... they are often impressed by how widespread forced labor was." Regarding the Bahlsen case, Glauning made clear that ignorance is not an excuse: "People in her position could get better informed, especially on the everyday living and working conditions endured by forced laborers."

Read more: Germany's changing culture of Holocaust remembrance

The everyday life of Nazi Germany's forced laborers is revealed in displays at the Forced Labor Documentation Center in Berlin

Since Verena Bahlsen's comments, the Bahlsen factory released an apologetic statement in which it acknowledges its responsibility: 

"The company is aware of the great grief and injustice suffered by forced laborers and so many other people then and herein recognizes its histo­rical and moral respon­si­bi­lity. It [Bahlsen] will have the history of the forced laborers at Bahlsen rese­ar­ched even more fully by inde­pen­dent histo­rians and published."

On Wednesday afternoon, Verena Bahlsen finally issued a personal apology: "It was a mistake to amplify this debate with thoughtless responses. I apologize for that. (...) Nothing could be further from my mind than downplaying National Socialism or its consequences." She also acknowledged her need to learn more about the history of the family business.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Dachau

The Nazi regime opened the first concentration camp in Dauchau, not far from Munich. Just a few weeks after Adolf Hitler came to power it was used by the paramilitary SS "Schutzstaffel" to imprison, torture and kill political opponents to the regime. Dachau also served as a prototype and model for the other Nazi camps that followed.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Wannsee House

The villa on Berlin's Wannsee lake was pivotal in planning the Holocaust. Fifteen members of the Nazi government and the SS Schutzstaffel met here on January 20, 1942 to plan what became known as the "Final Solution," the deportation and extermination of all Jews in German-occupied territory. In 1992, the villa where the Wannsee Conference was held was turned into a memorial and museum.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Bergen-Belsen

The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Lower Saxony was initially established as a prisoner of war camp before becoming a concentration camp. Prisoners too sick to work were brought here from other concentration camps, so many also died of disease. One of the 50,000 killed here was Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who gained international fame posthumously after her diary was published.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Buchenwald Memorial

Buchenwald near the Thuringian town of Weimar was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. From 1937 to April 1945, the National Socialists deported about 270,000 people from all over Europe here and murdered 64,000 of them.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Nazi party rally grounds

Nuremberg hosted the biggest Nazi party propaganda rallies from 1933 until the start of the Second World War. The annual Nazi party congress as well as rallies with as many as 200,000 participants took place on the 11-km² (4.25 square miles) area. Today, the unfinished Congress Hall building serves as a documentation center and a museum.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Memorial to the German Resistance

The Bendlerblock building in Berlin was the headquarters of a military resistance group. On July 20, 1944, a group of Wehrmacht officers around Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg carried out an assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler that failed. The leaders of the conspiracy were summarily shot the same night in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, which is today the German Resistance Memorial Center.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Hadamar Euthanasia Center

From 1941 people with physical and mental disabilities were killed at a psychiatric hospital in Hadamar in Hesse. Declared "undesirables" by the Nazis, some 15,000 people were murdered here by asphyxiation with carbon monoxide or by being injected with lethal drug overdoses. Across Germany some 70,000 were killed as part of the Nazi euthanasia program. Today Hadamar is a memorial to those victims.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Holocaust Memorial

Located next to the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was inaugurated sixty years after the end of World War II on May 10, 2005, and opened to the public two days later. Architect Peter Eisenman created a field with 2,711 concrete slabs. An attached underground "Place of Information" holds the names of all known Jewish Holocaust victims.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Memorial to persecuted homosexuals

Not too far from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, another concrete memorial honors the thousands of homosexuals persecuted by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945. The four-meter high monument, which has a window showing alternately a film of two men or two women kissing, was inaugurated in Berlin's Tiergarten on May 27, 2008.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Sinti and Roma Memorial

Opposite the Reichstag parliament building in Berlin, a park inaugurated in 2012 serves as a memorial to the 500,000 Sinti and Roma people killed by the Nazi regime. Around a memorial pool the poem "Auschwitz" by Roma poet Santino Spinelli is written in English, Germany and Romani: "gaunt face, dead eyes, cold lips, quiet, a broken heart, out of breath, without words, no tears."

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

'Stolpersteine' - stumbling blocks as memorials

In the 1990s, the artist Gunther Demnig began a project to confront Germany's Nazi past. Brass-covered concrete cubes placed in front of the former houses of Nazi victims, provide details about the people and their date of deportation and death, if known. More than 45,000 "Stolpersteine" have been laid in 18 countries in Europe - it's the world's largest decentralized Holocaust memorial.

'Never Again': Memorials of the Holocaust

Brown House in Munich

Right next to the "Führerbau" where Adolf Hitler had his office, was the headquarters of the Nazi Party in Germany, in the "Brown House" in Munich. A white cube now occupies its former location. A new "Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism" opened on April 30, 2015, 70 years after the liberation from the Nazi regime, uncovering further dark chapters of history.