Posts Tagged ‘history’

The “Flaws on the Moral Balance Sheet” of the Thyssen Bornemisza Group


In 2021, Professor Boris Gehlen – as a Fritz Thyssen Foundation funded academic – bravely described our 2007 Thyssen biography (available in English, Spanish, German and Italian) thus:

“Researched thoroughly”… “A particular usefulness is derived from the fact that Litchfield was able to conduct interviews with Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, which are not accessible anywhere else”…“He describes the Thyssen dynasty as people denying their own past and therefore their responsibility”.

And Gehlen acknowledged in his own book, available in German only, and part of an otherwise somewhat uncritical 10-book series:

“The Erlenhof transaction [stud farm ‘aryanisation’ from Moritz James Oppenheimer], together with the transnational tax evasion via the ‘Dutch Levy’, and the use of forced labour [under the Nazi regime] belong without a doubt to the flaws on the moral balance sheet of the Thyssen Bornemisza Group”.

It is the closest anyone from the Thyssens and their entourage has ever come to acknowledging the gravity of the unsavoury parts of the Thyssen dynasty’s history.


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Rewriting History – Thyssen in the 20th century: Still an overall exercise in vindication or whitewash, with a good number of obvious omissions – but admittedly featuring the occasional, important and sometimes puzzling admission.

It has taken seven years since the publication of our crucial book about the Thyssens (in the Asso Verlag publishing company of Oberhausen/Ruhr) for the first instalment of the „official“ Thyssen response to appear, in the form of the first in a series of eight books, co-financed by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and the newly formed Thyssen Industrial History Foundation; orchestrated by the malevolent Prof. Manfred Rasch, chief archivist of ThyssenKrupp AG, whose prejudice is manifest in the fact that while our book is often referred to, it is never credited.

Prof. Rasch even manages to deny our existence by claiming that the late Baron Heini Thyssen-Bornemisza failed in his ambition to commission an authorised biography.

In 2014/5, following numerous delays, three volumes of the series have appeared: “The United Steelworks under National Socialism”, “Forced Labour at Thyssen” and “The Thyssens as Art Collectors“. We will review all three over the coming weeks.

The authors of the books are all, somewhat surprisingly, junior academics with no or limited previous knowledge or practical experience of their subjects and described as „independent historians“, who are said to be „closing the gaps“ in research concerning the history of the Thyssen Family, ThyssenKrupp AG and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Group.

However, as the authors were commissioned, funded and assisted in their research by the same people, commercial organisations and related foundations, there can be no way in which they could be accurately described as „independent“ and such a claim is at best misleading and at worst fraudulent.

In the case of the major investor, in what often appears to be little more than an academic hagiography, it should be remembered that the Fritz Thyssen Stiftung was started by Amélie Thyssen, who had joined the Nazi party in 1931 – two years before her husband Fritz Thyssen – and who never publicly recanted or displayed any regret for her support of Adolf Hitler.

One also wonders why senior academics of proven knowledge and ability were not won over to deal with this important and sensitive program. One has to assume that it was either because the juniors were more „malleable“ or because more senior academics were not prepared to risk damaging their own reputations while polishing the Thyssens’ tarnished history.

Of course for the project’s supervising professors Margit Szöllösi-Janze (Munich University) and Günther Schulz (Bonn University) the lines of academic whoring must be extremely blurred, as so many general academic research projects in Germany in the past 55 years have been funded by this same Fritz Thyssen Foundation. It must be incredibly difficult to emancipate oneself from this ever primed sponsorship pump.

By contrast, when we visited the archives of ThyssenKrupp AG in 1998, not only did Manfred Rasch accuse us of forging our letter of introduction from Heini Thyssen, but he was also offensively un-cooperative and purported to have nothing to do with the history of the Thyssen family, who he spoke of derisively and said that „his“ archive contained no material that related to them. So the question is: what has changed for him to now be a contributor to such a project?

Presumably, it was the publication of „The Thyssen Art Macabre“ and the resulting adverse publicity in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, as this appears to be the point in time when his, the family’s and the corporations’ academic program of damage limitation was conceived.

Guido Knopp, the éminence grise of German historiography, has said in one of his popular television programs that „our generation is not responsible for what happened under the Nazis, but we are responsible for keeping the memory alive of what happened“.

In light of the Thyssen story, this begs the question: how are we supposed to adequately research and remember the history of the Nazi period if people like the Thyssens sit on evidence for 70 years and reveal it only to a selected few under privileged, academic criteria, thus keeping it very much outside the perception of the general public?

The result of such an opaque approach to Aufarbeitung can only be an exercise in vindication and in this series, as with so many books supported in the past by the Thyssen organisation, there is plenty of that. And if not in fact, then in conjecture.

But as far as we can see there are also now important admissions being made, presumably in order to retain a modicum of credibility, or perhaps at the insistence of the more forward thinking members of the team. This fact vindicates the time and effort we expended in producing the first honest portrayal of the Thyssen family and its activities.

We are delighted that our book has had the intended effect, namely to force the organisation to depart from the old official version of events which refused to admit anything that could be considered negative and only ever represented the Thyssens in a light of selfless heroism and untarnished pride, particularly manifest in a claimed rejection of Nazi ideals.

Recently a 94-year-old German former Auschwitz camp administrator, Oskar Gröning, who had not been directly involved in the killings, was sentenced to four years in prison. He showed deep remorse and apologised for his involvement, not something often displayed by his co-accused, if ever.

It felt like a concerted effort to present an image of Aufarbeitung which is a new, more open and honest way, and one that is explicitly sympathetic with the victims. Or maybe Mr Gröning is just a very enlightened individual.

In addition to Gröning’s statement, the public prosecutor commented that far from being just about individual crimes, Auschwitz was very much about „a system“, and that „whoever contributed to that system was responsible“.

The Thyssens contributed in many ways and much more than many others to the Nazi system, for instance by helping to arm Hitler’s troops to the point where the Nazi terror regime could be implemented over much of Europe. Their descendants, who have profited and continue to do so, from their forefathers’ (and mothers’) ill-gotten gains, have far more reasons than the German general public today to apologise and certainly to remember.

The question is: will they ever make a comparable statement to the one Oskar Gröning has made?

And more importantly: if not, why not?

"He who pays the piper calls the tune". The eternal sponsor, Amelie Thyssen (copyright Fritz Thyssen Foundation)

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