The Quandts are considered the wealthiest family in Germany, but they prefer living out of the footlight. For a reason: although car maker BMW owes its existence after the fifties to the Quandts, their family history is a sequence of dark secrets, extortion, messing with stakes and forced labour.
During the late 1950’s car maker BMW is close to bankrupcy. A hostile takeover by rival Daimler seems inevitable and is feared by shareholders and the unions. But rescue comes by surprise. The industrial tycoon Herbert Quandt stands up for an independent BMW, thus saving the brand from wreckage. Up to present BMW owe their unique, independent position to Quandt’s move, and countless staff and BMW-fans should be grateful to him. But the history of Germany’s richest family has some very dark pages.
Emil Quandt is born during the later years of the industrial revolution from a family with dutch origins. They fled their homeland when emperor William I summoned Protestants who were being suppressed to come over to Prussia. These days, the Quandts aren’t particulary wealthy, but in 1883, Emil obtains a confection-factory by marrying the owner’s daughter. The factory produces army uniforms, amongst other products. By overtaking a second company in 1900, he consolidates the basis for a new, industrial dynasty.
His son Günther turns out to be a runner up in the family business and gets to become main supplier of uniforms during the Great War. After the war, Quandt steps into chemical industry and he acquires a majority share in the battery producer AFA (that would later become Varta). Quandt launches negative gossip on AFA, thus devaluating the shares, so he can obtain them cheap. Shortly after, AFA presents new technology, causing the shares to rise again. It is with these kind of tricks that Günther Quandt survives the 1929 recession that hits the entire world, and Germany in particular. The weapon industry attracts his interest as well and soon, Quandt is a big name there.
In January 1920, Günther get acquainted with 19 years old Magda Friedländer. In spite of her young age, she has been through a lot. Born from an unmarried mother, she sees her stepfather and biological father quarreling for her attention. To Magda, Günther is a ticket to the jetset, although he is more than twice her age. One and a half year later they get married, but not before Magda changes the surname she obtained from her stepfather to that of her biological daddy, Ritschel, because Friedländer sounds too Jewish to her husband to be. The marriage brings them a son they call Harald, but no fortune. Their difference in age is too much of a gap. Magda soons starts seeking delight elsewhere, having affairs with the likes of Helmuth, Quandt’s eldest son from with first wife, a cousin of the later American president Hoover and a Jewish-Russian lawyer. Soon, Günther is fed up with her infidelity and he throws Magda out.
Magda obtains a lucrative settlement by threatening her ex-husband with compromising documents. She moves to Berlin, to work for the nazi party NSDAP, where she meets Joseph Goebbels. In December 1931 they get married. Her new husband introduces her to the nazi top, whilst her son Harald is inflicted with a particulary uneasy stepfather. Young Harald Quandt is one of the guests at the wedding where Adolf Hitler is Goebbels’s best man. It is believed by some historians that Magda later became Hitler’s mistress.
It is to 23 years old Harald Quandt that Magda Goebbels adresses her last letter, before killing all her other children and herself in the führerbunker, one of the last days of WW2.
Indelicat as it is, this relation between the nazis and Quandt is not the only one. Quite the opposite: in 1931 already, Günther Quandt is one of the captains of industry supporting Adolf Hitler financially. He invests 25,000 Reichsmark in Hitler’s campaign. In return, Hitler appoints him Wehrwirtschaftführer, just like Wilhelm Messerschmidt, father and son Krupp and Ferdinand Porsche. Although the title is mostly symbolic, lucrative orders are to come soon.
The Quandt company supplies army uniforms, ammunition and batteries for submarines and the V2 flying bombs. They employ prisoners of war and inmates from concentration camps. Two of the Quandt factories even get their own concentration camp, named ‘aussenlager’ (auxiliary camp), including an execution court. Quandt consolidates his position by buying dispossessed Jewish companies cheaply.
Perhaps the most disturbing example of that is the case of the Luxembourgs businessman Léon Laval. After he refused to sell his battery-factory to Quandt, the Gestapo arrest him to be detained in a concentration camp.
After the german defeat, Günther Quandt is captured by the Americans and he is kept in preliminary custody for two years. Some of the evidence is kept by the British and never handed over to the Americans. As a result, no charges are leveled against him in the Nuremberg trials. He is considered a follower during the Thirth Reich, not collaborating out of political conviction, but driven by opportunism. A poor excuse perhaps, but in his memoirs Quandt states believing that prior to the war, too little people had read Mein Kampf: “Else, the most cruel chapter in german history might have been saved. I blame myself for not having taken Hitler more seriously.”
The regretful man dies in 1954, aged 73. The company and family capital are divided equally between his sons, Herbert from his first marriage and Harald from the late Mrs. Goebbels. Harald will look after the metal and machinery industry, Herbert gets in charge of textile, chemistry, electric and automotive. In particular automotive turns out to be a tough job. The Quandts hold 10 percent Daimler-Benz and 30 percent BMW. The latter is in deep trouble during the late fifties and the management sees no other way out than selling to rival Daimler-Benz. Initially, Herbert Quandt tends to agree, but the resistance of the staff and the unions impress him. Instead of selling, he buys 50 percent of BMW, enough to veto the takeover. The risk is huge, but he convinces the banks and his rescue plan works. A whole new range of car models, Neue Klasse, turns out to be very successful. In 1964 BMW is back on track, and will only get better.
His half brother Harald is mainly successful as a hobby pilot and that eventually kills him. In 1967, during a flight in northwest Italy, he hits a mountain, presumably caused by instrumental failure. The precise cause of the crash is never cleared. From that moment, Harald’s five daughters control his share of the family capital.
Although a busy man, Herbert Quandt is enjoying life. He gets married three times and has four daughters and two sons: Sylvia, Sonja, Sabina, Sven, Susanne and Stefan. He must have loved the letter S.
After Herbert Quandt passes away, his thirth wife Johanna takes over control. Born Johanna Maria Bruhn in 1926 in Berlin, she walked into Quandt’s office as his new assistant in the mid 1950’s. Soon, she started influencing her boss. In 1960 they get married and the couple has two children, Susanne and Stefan. Herbert’s bad sight slowly turns into total blindness, so every morning Johanna reads the financial papers to him, thus developing a very bright financial insight. As a widow she obtains 16.7 percent share at BMW and she becomes a member of the supervisory board and, after a while, vice president.
Johanna in particular is very keen on anonymity, but unfortunately that is not granted to her. 2007, german television broadcast a documentary named ‘Das Schweigen der Quandts’, in English ‘The Silence of the Quandts’, reveiling the involvement of the family in nazi-crime during World War 2. Countless documents prove that most of the family fortune is obtained by abusing war victims. Forced labour in the battery factories were exposed to deadly gasses and Günther Quandt would ‘order’ 80 fresh prisoners each month to replace the deceased. Only Sven Quandt, a son from Herbert’s second marriage, is willing to comment, but he makes the outrage even worse by rejecting any guild. “We ought to forget these things finally. In other countries things alike happend, but no one ever mentions that.” The fact that Sven is enjoying his dirty money with his expensive racing hobby (X-Raid, Dakar Rally), is not soothing it either. Stefan Quandt later tries to mitigate his cousin’s words in Handelsblatt: “He was not prepared to that question.”
Trouble hardly ever comes alone. Shortly before the embarrasing broadcast, Susanne gets involved with a swiss playboy, who manages with his smooth talk to make her spend a lot of money on him. Susanne has no clue that Heig Sgarbi is a professional at extorting wealthy, bored ladies, and that he had a complice filming and photographing their love acts. After Susanne puts an end to the affair, Sgarbi confrontates her with the footage and pictures, demanding more money.
This time though, Susanne has the guts you’d expect from Germany’s most successful busines woman. She confesses the affair to her husband, thus frustrating the blackmailing. Arriving at the hand over-location, Sgarbi runs into an arrest team. The judges are not impressed with his explanation that he did it to revenge his Jewish grandfather, and Sgarbi is convicted to six years imprisonment. Nevertheless, the affair makes headlines and even leads to a tv-movie, named ‘In der Falle’ (trapped).
Her love life might be a disaster, but her businesses are flourishing more than ever. According to the german Manager Magazin, Susanne and her brother Stephan are worth 30 billion euros. That leaves some headroom in case a shifty playboy tries to blackmail one. Though the Quandts have never really expressed their regrets about the origin of their fortune, Susanne recently donated 100 million euros to help less fortunate people to a better future. Now that’s some pardon and would be a good example for her racing half brother Sven.
In the meantime, the power of the Quandts at BMW is as huge as it had been for many years. You will not find one Quandt in the board of directors, but both Susanne and Stefan are members of the supervisory board since 1997, Stefan as the vice president since 1999. He owns 29 percent of the shares, his sister 21 percent, which adds exactly to half of BMW. The other half is owned by institutional and private investors. BMW shares are fine shares: the car builder is flourishing better than ever. That would have been completely different if Herbert Quandt would not have vetoed the Daimler-takeover back in 1959.