Tainted money?

Nazi advocate or German nationalist? Research into businessman Alfred Toepfer and his foundation, which offers scholarships to Oxbridge students, has raised allegations of a cover-up of his support for Hitler's Reich. Richard J. Evans examines the evidence and finds a reassuring outcome

March 10, 2011

When I was just starting as a graduate student at the University of Oxford, in 1970, a history don suggested I apply for a new scholarship set up by the FVS Foundation in Hamburg. I had a generous grant from the Economic and Social Research Council and didn't need the money, but I yielded to his persuasion and won the scholarship.

The Hanseatic scholarships provided a year in Hamburg and a second year anywhere in West Germany. The organisation's founder was Alfred Toepfer, a wealthy businessman who had been inspired by the example of Cecil Rhodes to convert his fortune into a foundation during the Weimar Republic era. Toepfer's experiences in the celebrated Wandervogel youth movement before the First World War, I was told, had led him to devote his life to fostering understanding between the youth of different nations. So far, so admirable.

But, during an inaugural dinner at Toepfer's house to welcome that year's cohort of scholars, I soon realised that he had an unusual definition of international friendship. Toepfer declared that the attempt by Edward Heath, the prime minister of the day, to secure the UK's entry into the European Economic Community would further cooperation between the different nations of the Anglo-Saxon race (he really did speak in these terms).

If only England, he exclaimed, had joined in the 1950s, along with the Scandinavian nations! The preponderance of the Latin race in the EEC, he said, had been a great hindrance to its development. This visibly embarrassed almost everyone else present. I thought it best not to mention that, being Welsh, I was not an Anglo-Saxon myself.

Later, I found myself engaged in a lively debate with Harald Mandt, the chairman of the Hanseatic scholarships committee, about apartheid in South Africa, which he wholeheartedly supported. Then I talked to Toepfer's deputy, Hans-Joachim Riecke, who had been jailed for four years at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. I asked him what he felt about it now. He had paid his dues, he said, shrugging. Later, I noted several works of Holocaust denial on the library shelves of the foundation's guest house.

There was worse. As I signed the guest book in the morning, the housekeeper gushed to me about another recent visitor - Albert Speer, Hitler's friend and armaments minister during the Second World War. Such a gentleman, she said, such perfect manners.

Did this mean Toepfer was a neo-Nazi? It wasn't easy to find out in 1971. West German historians hadn't yet undertaken any research on ex-Nazis in their own society. All that one had to go on was the Brown Book - War and Nazi Criminals in the Federal Republic: State, Economy, Administration, Army, Justice, Science, published by the Communist regime in East Germany. It listed hundreds of Nazi war criminals in the West German elite: Toepfer's name wasn't in it.

And the company he kept was nothing unusual in West Germany then; the economy was crawling with serious Nazi war criminals, while Toepfer had been completely exonerated by the de-Nazification process after the war.

True, he almost seemed to make a point of employing former Nazis in his foundation, but this didn't mean he was a Nazi himself. For many years, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had employed as the head of his own office Hans Globke, the civil servant who had written the standard commentary on the anti-Semitic Nuremberg race laws in the 1930s. One of Adenauer's concerns, for good or ill, was to get old Nazis to commit themselves to democracy by integrating them into the West German Establishment.

Nor was there any sign that Toepfer was peddling neo-Nazi ideology. His racist views were common among German elites long before Nazism even existed. Most probably the Holocaust denial books had been given to him and shelved unread. Toepfer did not strike me as well educated or an avid reader; apart from business, he seemed, as his speech at the Hanseatic dinner suggested, rather naive.

The foundation seemed to have little idea of what to do with its Hanseatic scholars, showing an interest only on rare occasions, when it required our presence at a dinner. The idea that it would interfere in our research or try to influence my work on the rise of Nazism was absurd.

Some years later, however, the foundation began to run into trouble. A particular problem was its Upper Rhine Cultural Prize, set up in 1966 and awarded to figures from France, Germany and Switzerland to support the idea of a common culture across artificial state boundaries. Opponents - led by a French schoolteacher, Lionel Boissou - alleged that this belonged to a pre-war German imperialist tradition aimed ultimately at the annexation of these areas. The prize was withdrawn in 1996. Then, in 1999, Boissou persuaded the French Senate to prevent its premises being used for the ceremony awarding the foundation's Robert Schuman Prize for European unity to a former Polish foreign minister.

Another campaign unfolded against Toepfer in 1990, when the foundation set up the Grillparzer Prize to recognise cultural achievements in Austria. Drama student Christian Michaelides launched a campaign against what he called a "neo-German form of power politics" and a "shameless act of cultural colonisation".

Austrian journalist Ulrich Weinzierl called his campaign "a symptom of the latent discomfort in Austria in the face of the new enlarged Germany". Nevertheless, when novelist Hans Lebert was awarded the prize in 1992, he sent an actor to the ceremony to repeat a litany of similar allegations of German cultural imperialism.

The campaign culminated in the mailing of forged letters to numerous Austrian authors telling them they had won the Grillparzer Prize. The foundation discontinued it.

So in the 1990s, the foundation was on the defensive. After Toepfer's death in 1993, it authorised an independent historical commission to investigate what his businesses and foundation had done during the Nazi period, no doubt expecting the historians it engaged, who included the leading German specialist on the Third Reich, Hans Mommsen, as well as French and Swiss contributors, to exonerate them. But they did not.

On the contrary, when the investigation results appeared in 2000, they were devastating. Toepfer's involvement with the Nazi regime had been far greater than he had admitted. And in 2008, one of the contributors, Jan Zimmermann, published a biography of Toepfer containing fresh discoveries.

The findings were not brought to the attention of the English-speaking world until April 2010, when they were presented by Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, a writer on elections and party funding, in Standpoint, the British conservative monthly, with a few extra discoveries of his own. Under the headlines "The Prize Lies of a Nazi Tycoon" and "A Nazi Shadow over Oxford", Pinto-Duschinsky described Toepfer as a "sponsoring member" of the SS who was "enormously helpful to Hitler". In the 1930s, he said, Toepfer channelled money via his foundations to influence public opinion in Britain in favour of the Third Reich and played an important role in Nazi subversion in Austria, the Czech Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine and elsewhere.

Moreover, he charged, "his closest henchmen were unrepentant Nazis who had been key figures in murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews and in starving to death countless numbers of Russian prisoners of war". Since Toepfer's death in 1993, Pinto-Duschinsky alleged, the foundation had been assiduously "greywashing" its founder's role in the Holocaust. Toepfer's money was "severely tainted".

The inevitable conclusion was that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge should sever their links with the foundation and that the scholarships - two of which are awarded to Oxbridge undergraduates and graduates each year - should be discontinued.

Pinto-Duschinsky presented his findings to Oxford's Committee to Review Donations, which put together a working party to produce a report. The committee asked me to serve as its historian, and I agreed; Pinto-Duschinsky declared himself satisfied, even after I pointed out that I had received a Hanseatic scholarship 40 years earlier.

So what did we find? Born in 1894 to humble parents, Toepfer left school early to go into trade, served in the army during the First World War and won the Iron Cross, First Class. His membership of the Wandervogel gave him one kind of idealism. Julius Langbehn's Rembrandt as Educator (1890), a popular work that treated the Dutch painter Rembrandt as racially German and condemned Jews and Slavs as uncreative and worthy only of being destroyed, another.

Toepfer volunteered after the war for the Freikorps Maercker, a band of armed irregulars that "restored order" in central German towns. After things had calmed down, he quickly made a fortune in grain trading and the supply of raw materials for construction work. Like other German-nationalist conservatives, he welcomed the Hitler coalition Cabinet in 1933 and did not object when Hitler established a Nazi dictatorship.

The order he saw emerging seemed to him indispensable for the expansion of business and, like many businessmen, he set about forging useful contacts with the regime.

Was Toepfer anti-Semitic? Pinto-Duschinsky does not allege that he was, and there is not a single instance of Toepfer making an anti-Semitic remark. What was unusual about Toepfer was his decision to use his fortune to award prizes. He dreamed of gaining the status Rhodes had enjoyed in Britain. Yet under the Third Reich, this ambition was bound to get him into trouble.

By the mid-1930s, the Nazis began to put Toepfer under pressure to make the FVS Foundation over to them. On 14 June 1937, the Gestapo arrested Toepfer for alleged currency offences.

Trumped-up charges were a typical Nazi tactic against people the regime did not like. In Toepfer's case, these did not stick and he was released in May 1938. Nor is there any evidence to back Pinto-Duschinsky's assertion that by moving currency between different countries - surely normal practice for an international businessman - Toepfer was aiding the Nazi regime. His arrest in fact reflected Nazi hostility to his foundation.

Pinto-Duschinsky is on firmer ground discussing how Toepfer secured his release, for he won powerful Nazi patrons such as Hermann Göring, appointed SS men to senior positions in his foundation and contributed money to Heinrich Himmler's benefit fund. In May 1938, he ceded his "founder's rights" in the foundation to Werner Lorenz, a senior SS officer, bringing about his release from custody. It looked as if the SS had taken over; but in fact Lorenz had agreed to not exercise these rights, and in 1942 Toepfer acquired them again.

The manoeuvre said much about Toepfer's lack of scruple in trying to keep the foundation going, but little about his own ideological convictions.

Pinto-Duschinsky is undoubtedly right in detailing how Toepfer made his country estates available to Austrian and Sudeten Nazis, many of whom later became mass murderers. A sister foundation run by Toepfer's brother Ernst also funded Nazis in Switzerland and Alsace-Lorraine.

But to say, as Pinto-Duschinsky does, that he was "enormously helpful to Hitler" implies a personal relationship between the two men; there was none. Rather, Toepfer was pursuing his own German-nationalist belief, which dovetailed with early Nazi foreign policy, that German-speakers in Austria, Czechoslovakia, Alsace-Lorraine and Switzerland should be "brought back to the Reich" - a belief shared by the majority of Germans at the time, and also to some extent by non-Germans such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.

From the start of 1943, Toepfer was commissioned by the Reich Economics Ministry to acquire hard currency for the regime by secretly selling goods to foreign countries. He did not profit personally, but did contribute to the Nazis' exploitation of the French economy - albeit rather insignificantly.

Is there any evidence that Toepfer profited from the mass murder of Jews? Pinto-Duschinsky notes that a subsidiary of the Toepfer business supplied slaked lime to the German ghetto administration in od, and that slaked lime is "used among other things to cover cadavers". There is no direct evidence that Toepfer was aware of the sale. The subsidiary was a construction company, and slaked lime is used as an ingredient in whitewash, mortar and plaster. Crucially, there is no evidence that it was used to cover the dead bodies of murdered Jews; and Pinto-Duschinsky does not mention that the Toepfer subsidiary also delivered cement to the ghetto administration in od, suggesting its involvement in construction.

Of course, by supplying building materials and various other activities, Toepfer was both underpinning the Germanisation of conquered Poland and contributing to the German war effort. Business and ideology went hand in hand with Toepfer, but the ideology was German nationalism rather than Nazism; closely related, but not identical.

After the war, Toepfer underwent two years' internment by the British occupation authorities, who eventually decided to classify him, accurately enough, as a "fellow-traveller" of the Nazis before handing him over to a German-run de-Nazification tribunal. He had obtained testimonials from respected figures and made false claims of resistance to the Nazi regime, and by such methods, common at the time, earned a clean bill of health.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Toepfer rebuilt his businesses. He fitted seamlessly into the West German "economic miracle" and quickly made friends with the Christian Democratic establishment of Adenauer and Ludwig Erhard - an establishment that was full of former Nazis with records far worse than his.

So how deep were Toepfer's sympathies with Nazism after 1945? He certainly employed many former Nazis, including Edmund Veesenmayer, a former senior German official in Hungary, as a representative for the Tehran branch of his business. However, Toepfer fired him after two years. Veesenmayer's personal secretary from 1940 to 1945, Barbara Hacke, then became Toepfer's private secretary. Pinto-Duschinsky quotes a letter of 1952 in which, he says, Hacke "effectively justified the Holocaust". Veesenmayer's deputy Kurt Haller became Toepfer's legal counsel in 1947.

Riecke, whom I met at that dinner in 1971, had been an SS group leader who served as secretary of state in the Reich Ministry of Food and Agriculture. Later he served in the Ministry for the Occupied Eastern Territories and was responsible for plans to starve their population.

In addition, Toepfer wrote a letter of recommendation for an old acquaintance, SS Major-General Hartmann Lauterbacher, for use if he managed to join other wanted Nazis in Argentina. He also helped to fund the defence of Lorenz, who had helped rescue his foundation when he was arrested in 1937, before a US tribunal in Nuremberg, and helped the former Nazi mayor of Hamburg, Carl Vincent Krogmann, when he got into financial difficulties.

Why did Toepfer support these criminals? In his memoirs, Riecke notes that after 1945 Toepfer gave jobs to four categories of people: trained accountants and businessmen; former comrades-in-arms from his days in the army; men who had behaved "decently" during their postwar imprisonment; and Third Reich men who had fallen on hard times after being "unjustly" treated by the Allies. Riecke and Veesenmayer were undoubtedly experienced in business matters; but they also fell into the last two categories. It is clear that Toepfer employed them for political reasons, too.

This was not, however, because they were Nazis. Like most conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s, Toepfer considered Nazi crimes to have been carried out by a tiny criminal clique, to which his friends did not belong. Regular Germans were not Nazis, he thought, and he was in a position to help the victims of "victors' justice".

What then of the Hanseatic scholarships? Toepfer seems to have regarded their revival in 1970 as a gesture of reconciliation between England and Germany, and the racist background to his initiative was basically no different from the racist background of the Rhodes scholarships, originally established to enable men from the white "Anglo-Saxon" world to study in Oxford. Such views had long since lost any relevance to Oxford by the 1970s, and they had no relevance to the Hanseatic scholars either.

When the scholarships were first established in the mid-1930s, it was a different matter. Their symbolic political pay-off was clear to Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's ambassador-at-large before his appointment to the London Embassy in August 1936, who clearly saw them as a means to improve the image of Nazi Germany in the UK. But there is no evidence that they had much effect in this regard.

One of Pinto-Duschinsky's major points in urging the universities to terminate the Hanseatic scholarships scheme is that "the way in which the Holocaust is taught - or, more accurately, is relatively little taught - at Oxford (is) affected by the university's sources of funding". He alleges that the "dangers" of funding for research related to "modern German history and politics" are "particularly pronounced" because "the source of funding affects the opinions and the results of the research".

"At Oxford," he charges, "academic studies of modern European history and politics are heavily dependent on money from German companies and foundations with strong motives in laundering their pasts."

Laundering, he implies, was also the job of the foundation's "sponsored historians", who provided "a selective version of a tainted history". In so doing, he claims, they were peddling a respectable form of Holocaust denial.

In fact, Oxford has always been a major centre for research into Nazi Germany. And Jane Caplan and Nicholas Stargardt, who currently teach a course titled Nazi Germany, a Racial Order, 1933-45, have angrily rebutted Pinto-Duschinsky's accusations, pointing out that anti-Semitism and the Holocaust feature heavily in the course.

More than three years of work preparing an expert-witness report in the libel action brought by the writer David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books, over her allegation that he was a Holocaust denier, brought me into contact with many varieties of Holocaust denial. Neither the work of the Alfred Toepfer Foundation's independent historical commission, nor that of Zimmermann, nor the website and publications of the foundation itself, nor the teaching of German history at Oxford, has anything to do with Holocaust denial in any form.

Was the independent historical commission's report a piece of "greywashing"? Was it in fact independent? One of its authors, Christian Gerlach, complained subsequently that there were "massive efforts to influence me" and "to render my text harmless (in particular by cutting it)" by individuals connected to Toepfer. Furthermore, the commission's independence was compromised because members of the Toepfer family were present at its meetings.

Of course, Gerlach published his chapter as written. There is no evidence to support the view that the commission's findings were bowdlerised by the foundation. On the contrary, they were upsetting both to the foundation's staff and to Toepfer's family. But in the end, the foundation has adjusted, putting the commission's principal findings on its website and distributing them to interested parties, including Hanseatic scholars.

In light of the historical commission's findings, the foundation developed active support for initiatives of remembrance and tolerance in the Hamburg region, funded publications on the persecution of Hamburg's Jews under the Nazis, supported Jewish organisations and awarded scholarships, including Hanseatic scholarships, to students researching the Nazi era. None of this is merely cosmetic.

Why, then, does the foundation continue to include Toepfer's name in its title? Could it not simply revert to the FVS Foundation, the title it held before its founder's death in 1993?

To do so would surely invite the accusation that it was trying to cover up the identity of its founder. Yet to use the name invites the accusation that it is continuing to honour someone who should not be honoured. In the end, the foundation decided to keep Toepfer's name "rather as an act of transparency than as an attempt to honour Toepfer". Far from glorifying him, it now uses this association to signal its responsibility deriving from its past.

All of this seems admirable. The funding the foundation provides for young British scholars to study in Germany is not "tainted money"; it did not come from the supply of poison gas to Auschwitz, the employment of slave labour or anything similar. The foundation has openly acknowledged the complicity of its founder with the Nazi regime, and is absolutely transparent in providing related information. Its openness is a model for others.

In light of this, Oxford has now declared itself satisfied with the foundation's stance towards its founder. So the Hanseatic scholarships will continue to offer young British scientists and scholars from all disciplines the opportunity to carry out their research in Germany, broaden their international experience and learn about German life and German universities at first hand. Nobody who is interested in strengthening British academic ties with the rest of Europe can doubt that this is the right outcome.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.