Excerpted from Deutsche Welle 5.15.2019
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.