Posts Tagged ‘Landsberg Castle’

The Fritz Thyssen Foundation admits its role in banishing the shadows of the family’s Nazi past

The Thyssens have always denied the full extent of their Nazi past.

Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s side of the family achieved this by camouflaging his supportive industrial and banking facilities behind a dubious Hungarian nationality and Swiss residency, while claiming his brother Fritz to have been solely responsible for what little collaboration with the National Socialist regime the family was willing to admit.

The fact that Fritz Thyssen had co-operated with Emery Reves on a book entitled „I Paid Hitler“ made it easy to divert the spotlight onto his side of the family.

To save his own skin, Fritz and his lawyers alleged that the book had been authored by Reves rather than himself and that the representation of his guilt was grossly exaggerated. This strategy had some success and, at his denazification trial, Fritz Thyssen was judged to have been a „minor Nazi offender“.

A recent book funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation (Felix de Taillez: “Two Burghers’ Lives in the Public Eye. The Brothers Fritz Thyssen and Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza”. Schöningh Verlag Paderborn), however, finds that an investigation by Norman Cousins in 1949 showed conclusively that „I Paid Hitler“ was much more authentic than Fritz Thyssen and his lawyers had argued.

Nonetheless, following Fritz Thyssen’s death, the executor of his will, Robert Ellscheid, in close co-operation with his unrepentant widow, Amelie Thyssen (an ex Nazi-party member from 1931 onwards), set the family firmly onto a path of uncompromising historical obfuscation.

On the occasion of Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s entombment in the Thyssen family crypt at Landsberg Castle in the Ruhr on 27 June 1952, Ellscheid addressed the funeral guests as well as the assembled press thus (in the words of Felix de Taillez):

„He asked for help, in the name of the family and of all Germans, who had anything to do with the Thyssens, and in the interests of the whole nation, to work together so that the ‘criminal and untrue allegations’ about Fritz Thyssen would disappear from the public domain.

de Taillez eventually concludes: „The public rehabilitation of Fritz Thyssen was practically complete in 1959/1960 when Amelie (Thyssen) and Anita (Zichy-Thyssen) together put shares in the amount of 100 Million Mark into a charitable foundation for the promotion of scientific advances bearing his name, in order to give the remembrance of the deceased a permanently positive image“.

And finally: „The work of the foundation came soon to be recognised in Germany as well as abroad and thus the long shadows of Thyssen’s Nazi past disappeared from the public domain“.

In other words, the Fritz Thyssen Foundation now concedes that the Thyssen family had a darker Nazi past than previously admitted, that it made a conscious decision to white-wash Fritz’s (and by extension the whole family’s) Nazi past, and that the foundation played a role in doing so.

Thus the Thyssens and their advisors, in an unscrupulous and unjustifiably domineering way, once again abused the German nation for their own self-serving purposes.

We call upon the German government to take this admission by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation, as well as our findings on the Thyssens’ support of National Socialist rule, into account when updating its position on the investigation of Nazi continuities in public life, Holocaust Remembrance and other related issues.

Thirty years ago such a request would have been unthinkable but now we feel entirely confident that the academic revelations made are coming about as a direct result of our investigative, historiographic and journalistic endeavours, over the past 25 years, concerning the history of the Thyssens, and that it was this that has obliged their corporate, if not their private, public relations machine to change direction.

As we have no intention of reducing our pressure on the Thyssen complex, it seems more and more likely that the family will indeed, eventually, be obliged to adopt a modern-day policy of full disclosure concerning their tarnished past, which will advance immeasurably our understanding of that period of history.

The Thyssen smoke and mirror constructs of the past 70 years are still being maintained to some extent and the breadth of material in the public domain that needs to be corrected is vast. But the first official step towards historical candour has now been made and our satisfaction in having played a part in bringing about this U-turn is immense.

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Book Review: Thyssen in the 20th Century – Volume 2: “Forced Labour at Thyssen. United Steelworks and Baron-Concern during World War Two”, by Thomas Urban, published by Schöningh Verlag, Germany, 2014.

 

If there is one subject within this series of academic treatises on the Thyssens’ companies, politics, personal wealth, public relations and art collection(s), where sensitivity and openness would have been essential, it is this particular one, as the appalling conditions under which foreigners (Soviet nationals, French, Dutch, Belgians, etc.) were forced to work in Thyssen industries during WWII, and in the manufacture of arms and ordnance particularly, reflect so clearly the inhuman excesses of Nazism. In view of its importance we make no apology for the length of this review.

30 years after Ulrich Herbert’s ground-breaking work on forced labour and seven years after the publication of our book, the Thyssen family has until now remained one of only a few adamantly refusing to address this part of their history. Instead, it has always claimed to have remained largely uninvolved in the manufacture of arms and ordnance and the use of forced labour. It has also claimed not to have supported Hitler or to have stopped supporting him at some point. It has even gone as far as putting itself on one level with the victims of the regime, by saying that it too had been persecuted and expropriated.

Additionally, the Thyssen-Bornemisza branch of the family claimed to be Hungarian and thus have nothing whatsoever to do with Germany. But those were all fake claims designed simply to divert attention away from the facts. And macabrely it was this „cosmopolitan“ side of the dynasty which was particularly supportive of the Nazis, through finance and banking, the construction of submarines and V-rocket-parts and a personal relationship with the SS and high-ranking Nazis. Over 1,000 concentration camp prisoners died in Bremen, building the „Valentin“ bunker where Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s Bremer Vulkan shipyard was planning to increase production to 14 submarines per month to secure a desperate final German victory in view of Hitler’s looming defeat.

In view of their overarching industrial and financial power and privilege, Fritz Thyssen and Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza had an overwhelming responsibility to behave with due respect towards their fellow men. In this we believe they failed as a result of their relentless greed, financial opportunism and amoral arrogance. Of all the Thyssen heirs, only one, GEORG THYSSEN-BORNEMISZA, is now seemingly agreeing to admit responsibility by supporting this project. But these flimsy 170 pages with their incomplete index (only personal, not corporate, which makes it so difficult to examine and analyse) only go a small way in rectifying the official record, and do not meet the standards of an international perspective.

Thomas Urban refuses to accept the legitimacy of our book and still sees fit to state that until the beginning of the 21st century forced labour within the Thyssen history remained „unnoticed“. In reality the subject appears to have been hidden intentionally, as far as possible, in order to fend off unwelcome publicity and possible compensation claims alike. It is also why the Thyssen-Bornemisza side of the family was hidden from academic research (the extent of which Dr Urban describes as „surprising“), until the publication of our book in 2007.

When Michael Kanther wrote on forced labour specifically for August Thyssen Hütte in 1991 it seems he could not publish until 2004, and then for the series “Duisburger Forschungen”. And ten years later, of the great plethora of Thyssen enterprises, only a handful are now admitted to have been guilty, namely the shipyards Bremer Vulkan and Flensburger Schiffsbau-Gesellschaft, the Walsum coal mine and the August Thyssen Hütte smelting works.

Press- and Rolling Works Reisholz and Oberbilker Steelworks are mentioned only furtively but not their involvement in the building of V-rockets or any co-operation with MABAG (Maschinen- und Apparatebau AG) of Nordhausen, where Heinrich’s son Stephan Thyssen-Bornemisza worked with the SS and some 20,000 concentration camp victims died. It is noteworthy, however, that the technical director of Press- and Rolling Works Reisholz, Wilhelm Martin, is said to have installed, „in his function as counter-intelligence commissioner“, a „political combat patrol“ out of Thyssen staff, which „in case of unrest amongst the staff was to be put into action using so-called manslayers“ – apparently its only known occurence in the whole of the Nazi armament economy – which is an astonishing admission to make.

As German workers were sent off to be soldiers, they were replaced by a total of 14 million foreign workers, including women and children, over the period of the war, and, at Thyssen enterprises, these worked at ratios of between one and an astonishing two thirds (at Walsum mine, as we first reported) of total staff. According to the size of the Thyssen enterprises, in all anything up to several tens of thousands of forced labourers would have been working there, yet Dr Urban does not even attempt to put a total figure on it. Instead, the pathetic blame game to the detriment of Krupp continues to the point where the description „forced labour“, as used continuously in this book, suddenly turns into „slave labour“ as soon as the name Krupp is mentioned. Meanwhile, the fact that at Thyssen in Hamborn they are now said to have produced much bigger quantities of grenade steel than at the Krupp works in Rheinhausen is lost in the small print.

At August Thyssen Hütte and the Mülheim Thyssen works, belonging more to the Fritz Thyssen sphere of influence, whose power was not as obliterated by his privileged wartime captivity as these official Thyssen publications still want to have us believe, a „high mortality“ amongst Soviet POWs is said to have existed. But actual figures do not go beyond eight or less deceased in each of a few events described by Dr Urban.

Because of race ideology, apart from concentration camp prisoners, Soviet POWs were treated worst, even to the point where, in view of the high risk of sabotage, according to Dr Urban, Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s Bremer Vulkan shipyard kept them at first in a barbed wire cage where others looked upon them „as on apes in a zoo“. (This information came from a 1980 Bremen school project and was acquired by Dr Urban from Dr Rolf Keller of the Lower Saxony Memorial Sites Foundation in Celle). Yet despite such disturbing manifestations of racist extremism, acts of humanity by the local population towards prisoners had taken place, as our editor Ulli Langenbrinck at Asso Verlag Oberhausen told us many years ago, for the simple reason that they had to work together under dangerous circumstances (in mines and on blast furnaces for instance) and therefore it was better to be considerate towards men on whom your life may depend.

Sadly, Thomas Urban has the nerve to suggest such recollections could be mere reflections of post-dated convenience and one wonders whether he has ever stopped to imagine what it would have been like to work under such conditions of racial, ideological and national discrimination, aggravating the already challenging tasks. Conditions that were in place because of the directives of megalomaniac politicians and equally megalomaniac industrialists, and yet which the people on the ground could plainly see were self-defeating. Surely it did not take the sight of actual concentration camp prisoners to get demoralised, as Dr Urban says was suggested at the time, and of which he argues only 75 are certified to have worked at Bremer Vulkan proper (this being a more palatable figure than the 1,000 fatalities mentioned above). The alienation of having to speculate about the fate of your own members of the „masterrace“ fighting in a distant land while the „subhuman“ enemies produced their weapons and amunition back home would have been an insane situation that was quite demoralising enough – and for both sides!

At the other end of the scale, the Thyssens, who in the past have been very „economical“ with their historic record, are getting nothing short of kid glove treatment, revealing a continued mentality of sympathy and subservience that goes beyond anything to be expected from a so-called independent academic commission. Even a reviewer from Duisburg-Essen University, Jana Scholz, seems to question why the right thing has not been done, namely to lay the responsibility solidly at the Thyssens’ feet. Instead, camp guards, foremen and managers are being blamed for the use and treatment of forced labourers, men such as Wilhelm Roelen or Robert Kabelac, and one wonders what their families must think of it. Particularly in the case of Roelen, since a movement has gathered against his memory in the Ruhr, after it was established that over 100 Soviet POWs died under his watch at Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s Walsum coal mine. Significantly, none of the managers’ families have been interviewed. And neither has anyone from the Thyssen family.

In another review Jens Thiel, who as an expert in medical ethics should know better, in all seriousness wonders whether it is still worth trying to „gain academic merits“ through working on the subject of forced labour. He goes on to praise the „sober“ descriptions in this book. But what is sober about the image of starving Russians eating raw fish killed by bombs, after diving into the ice-cold river in the middle of winter to retrieve them, eludes us. Or about that of locals remembering seeing, as children, hand-carts being driven out of Thyssen works with arms and legs hanging out by the sides, so that they were left obsessing whether the people contained therein were alive or dead.

Or that of gallows being erected at the Thyssen works „Zehntweglager“ camp in Mülheim (ruled over by a particularly sadistic father and son team of commanders) and adolescent Soviets being hanged there for theft „in the presence of a Gestapo man and an SS-non commissioned officer“ in apocalyptic scenarios – again witnessed by local children. All three descriptions being derived from personal interviews Dr Urban has carried out with eye witnesses and which are one of the few saving graces of this book. The book also describes other victims at Thyssen works being shot dead, including women, for instance for stealing foodstuffs.

Although the book does not dwell on this, there can be no doubt that Fritz Thyssen and Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza lived lives of privilege on the prodigious fruits of their father’s demented genius. They were both harking back to a world-view which was that of themselves as feudal overlords ruling over their personal fiefdoms. They were determined to oppose workers rights decisively (be they foreign or german) and that is why they supported fascism, including Admiral Horthy’s rule in Hungary. It is also why they financed their SS-occupied castle Rechnitz in Burgenland where Heinrich’s daughter Margit Batthyany led her own private wartime terror regime and participated in an atrocity on over 180 Jewish forced labourers in March 1945, which to this day remains unmentioned in any official Thyssen publication.

The Thyssen managers passed down this autocratic rule as they faced the simultaneous war-time challenges of meeting essential victory targets and delivering owners’ profits. They directed the saying „if you don’t do as you are told, Farge (a local Bremen work education camp) is nearby“ at german workers as well as foreign labourers. But the latter were always much more disadvantaged because the Nazis implemented the Führer principle throughout, turning any German into the boss of any foreign co-worker. Also, foreigners had to do heavier, more dangerous work and received worse rations and accommodation and insufficient air raid shelters. At a big air raid on the Hamborn Thyssen works on 22.01.1945, of the 145 dead 115 were POWs. In the case of foreigners camps at the Thyssen-Bornemisza mine at Walsum, a visiting state doctor and a Nazi party leader in 1942 were so horrified at the unbearable hygienic conditions that they ordered the Thyssen management to take immediate remedial action.

The profitability of the Thyssens’ war-time production, and ship building in particular, is mentioned but Thomas Urban says that verifiable figures are „not available“. But some of these figures are contained for instance in the minutes of the board meetings held quarterly in Flims, Davos, Lugano and Zurich (not just „Switzerland“ – in other words Heinrich was not too ill to travel around, he just did not want to leave Switzerland once war had started; simply for reasons of comfort rather than being “anti-Nazi”) with four participants (Baron Heinrich, Wilhelm Roelen, Heini Thyssen and Heinrich Lübke, Director of the August Thyssen Bank in Berlin – the two latter being played down by Urban). And the minutes were not taken by some anonymous „private secretary“ but in all probability by Wilhelm Roelen, which explains why copies are both in the corporate and private archives. We feel sure that the ThyssenKrupp Archives, respectively those of the Thyssen Industrial History Foundation, contain further relevant information about profitability – for instance in the files of the estate of Dr Wilhelm Roelen – but which for some reason are not being released.

It is also said in this book that no Thyssen enterprise during the Nazi period took over an „aryanised“ Jewish enterprise. But in reality Heinrich’s horse-racing stable Erlenhof near Bad Homburg had been bought for him in November 1933 by his entity Hollandsch Trust Kantoor from the estate of Moritz James Oppenheimer, a Jew who had been forced into liquidation and was later murdered – a very inconvenient date, when the official line has been and still is to say that Heinrich lived in Switzerland from 1932 onwards, i.e. from before Hitler’s assumption of power.

The author tries to make a point in Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza’s defence saying he did not take part in events at his works where Nazi party officials were present. But while Heinrich might not have left Switzerland after 1938 (he died there in 1947), his son Heini admitted to us that he returned to Germany in the middle of the war in 1942, when he travelled to Landsberg Castle for his grandfather’s 100th birthday celebrations, at which Nazi functionaries also took part (photographs of the event exist). After which he was allowed to travel back to Switzerland completely unhindered. But this remains unmentioned here, presumably in an attempt to minimise the record of Heini Thyssen’s war-time corporate embroilment.

Meanwhile, Thomas Urban has the audacity to allege that it is „not very likely“ (not exactly an academic approach!) that Heinrich’s contact with Hermann Göring went any further than their common interest in horse racing and that his distance from the regime was „likely not to have been only geographical.“ Instead Heinrich is praised for being able to „direct his companies from Switzerland“ as if, in this particular context, that was something to be admired. For such a crucial point, Dr Urban’s haphazard assessment of the Thyssen-Göring relationship is in fact an obscene remark to be made by this German academic and deeply offensive to the memory of the victims and to all people dedicated to the establishment of historical truth.

The banking contacts between the two men personally and with the regime in general via Heinrich’s August Thyssen Bank in Berlin (which was subsequently incorporated into BHF-Bank), his Union Banking Corporation in New York, his Bank voor Handel en Scheepvaart in Rotterdam and others have remained unmentioned so far in this series. We presume they are to be included in Simone Derix’ book on the family’s wealth and identity, due out in 2016, or in Harald Wixforth’s tome on the Thyssen-Bornemisza Group (publication date unknown).

It might be said to be understandable that the Thyssens would have denied their links with Nazi leaders in the past and also that their war-time managers would have argued thus in order to circumvent post-war allied retribution. But it is unforgivable that an academic project in 2014 continues in the same vein of skimming over the most crucial parts of the Aufarbeitung of the Thyssen history. And it is also unclear why Dr Urban has to remain so hazy about important issues such as the remuneration of forced labourers. While he mentions it, he does not give any details about it whatsoever, which is unforgivable.

Time and time again Dr Urban mentions problems with source materials and a deriving impossibility to treat the subject with the necessary substance and certainty. His statement „quite a high proportion of forced labour“ in the Thyssens’ building material enterprises around Berlin „can be assumed“ is unacceptable, because the archives in question are said to be „still being put together“, which, 70 years after the end of the war seems an incredible statement to make, even if it is one we have heard many times before during our research into the Thyssen history.

When Bremer Vulkan went bankrupt in the late 1990s neither the Thyssen Bornemisza Group nor ThyssenKrupp felt it necessary to take on its archives. Instead, these were left to a „friends’ association“ („Wir Vulkanesen e.V.“) which managed to destroy crucial files, including wartime staff records and thus documents concerning forced labour, under „data protection considerations“. Only after that purge did the files reach their current location at the Bremen State Archives. And at Flensburger Schiffsbaugesellschaft, according to management, „all files which were not subject to prescribed storage periods were completely destroyed“. The archives of the Walsum mine are also said to be „extremely incomplete“, which considering what a fastidious technocrat its head Wilhelm Roelen was, is either unlikely, due to wartime damage, or indicative of a wilful destruction of incriminating evidence.

And so it has remained to individual slave labourers themselves, who have had the courage to come forward with their own real-life stories (and which have been picked up by various German historians and local – sometimes even school – historical projects securing evidence, who have acted truly independently from any Thyssen entity) to paint the most truthful pictures of forced labour at Thyssen.

When the Dutchman Klaas Touber in 1988 wrote to Bremer Vulkan (whose honorary chairman was Heini Thyssen) to ask for a compensation of 3,000 Deutschmarks for his forced work effort during WWII, he was rejected and told the company „could not discover any concrete facts (…) that justify an obligation for us to provide compensation“. He was informed the company was bankrupt and if they paid him anything it would set a precedent and „all the other people who experienced the same thing at the time“ would want paying also and Bremer Vulkan „would not be able to do so“. This at a time when Heini Thyssen was putting his art collection up for sale, suggesting it might be worth up to two billion dollars. Klaas Touber, who weighed only 40 kg at one point while at Bremer Vulkan, had retained a life-long psychological trauma from his detention, particularly as a compatriot, who had come to his defence during a canteen brawl, had been killed at the Neugamme concentration camp. (Evidence sourced by Dr Urban partly from Dr Marcus Meyer, head of the Memorial Institution „Valentin“ Bunker of the Bremen Regional Centre for Political  – the late Klaas Touber had been very involved in remembrance and reconciliation – and partly from a publication by the State Organisation of the Association of People Persecuted by the Nazi Regime / Bremen Association of Anti-Fascists e.V.).

Perhaps the most devastating and simultaneously most spirited story is that of Wassilij Bojkatschow. When he was 12 years old his village in Bielorussia had been taken by the Germans and both his father and grandfather killed. At the Thyssen works of Deutsche Röhrenwerke AG he was used for the most dangerous job, that of defusing unexploded bombs. In 1995 he wrote his memoirs and in 1996 travelled to Mülheim and met with the mayor and local people who had collected money for his and his wife’s visit. He described many traumatic experiences but also remembered „many examples of human feeling and kindness“ from German co-workers and locals. As it seems, he did not even ask for any monetary compensation. (Evidence sourced by Dr Urban from the annual report of the town of Mülheim).

In 2000 a Ucranian woman, Jewdokija Sch., wrote in a letter to the Bremen State Archive: „The work (at Bremer Vulkan) was very very hard. I worked as a welder, 12 hours a day, in wooden shoes, totally exhausted from hunger! In 1944 already I looked like a ghost“.

After its merger, ThyssenKrupp AG joined the German Industry Foundation Initiative in 2000 which was funded to pay compensation to former forced labourers. Related files are said to be closed to academic research for another 30 years, according to Dr Urban. What he does not mention is that it is unknown whether the Thyssen Bornemisza Group has ever contributed to any compensation payments.

Poignantly, the next volume in the series is about the Thyssens’ art collection(s), which was the primary tool used by the family to launder their sense of guilt and hide their incriminatory wartime record behind a veneer of cultured so-called „philanthropy“. Something that worked supremely well in the affluent years of the German economic miracle and beyond, when the art market sky-rocketed from one price hyperbole to the next, and the shine of the glamorous art world seemed to wipe away any concern about or even memory of the source of the Thyssen fortune.

 

Dr Thomas Urban, another Thyssen-funded academic, this time from the Ruhr-University in Bochum

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