The 25-year-old heiress to the German business behind Choco Leibniz biscuits has been accused of trivialising the company’s Nazi past.
Verena Bahlsen has come under fire over comments she made claiming the company treated forced labourers well during the Nazi era and “did nothing wrong”.
The great-granddaughter of Hermann Bahlsen, the inventor of Leibniz biscuits, Ms Bahlsen is set to inherit a quarter of the family business he founded. She is also an entrepreneur in her own right, and runs a start-up company developing sustainable foods.
She became embroiled in controversy over remarks she made defending capitalism at a digital markering conference in Hamburg.
“I’m a capitalist. I stand to inherit a quarter of Bahlsen, and I’m looking forward to it,” she told the conference. “I want to make money and buy yachts.”
She went on to qualify her remarks, adding that she believed she could make more money by making the world a better place.
But that was drowned out in the chorus of disapproval on social media, where her comments were condemned as inappropriate coming from their heir to a business that used Nazi forced labour.
Ms Bahlsen responded by doubling down and attempting to defend the company’s Nazi-era record.
“That was before my time,” she told Bild, Germany’s highest-selling newspaper. “We paid the forced labourers as much as the Germans and treated them well. We did nothing wrong.”
Her claims were condemned in the national media, and historians came forward to dispute her airbrushing of the company history.
“This pub corner talk is historically and morally repugnant, and unworthy of a German company,” said Prof Michael Wolfssohn of the German Military University in Munich.
According to Bahlsen’s own company records, between 200 and 250 slave labourers from Eastern Europe were brought to work in the Bahlsen factory in Hanover between 1942 and 1945.
While they were not worked to death, as Jewish slave labourers and other concentration camp prisoners were, they endured harsh conditions.
“So-called ‘eastern workers’ and Poles were given less food, poorer medical care and were at the mercy of police law,” said Prof Manfred Grieger of Göttingen University. “They were forced to live behind barbed wire.”
According to research undertaken by Ukrainian newspapers in the nineties, women were forcibly taken from their homes in Kyiv and brought to the Bahlsen factory in Hanover by train, packed in cattle-cars. Many were forced to leave their children behind.
Some of those who worked at Bahlsen later said they were treated relatively well — by Nazi standards. They were paid wages but money was deducted for their food and lodging. They were made to live in barracks where they were at the mercy of guards.
A lawsuit brought by 60 survivors seeking compensation from the company was dismissed in 2000 because the statue of limitations had expired.
In 2001, Bahlsen voluntarily paid 1.5 million Deustchmarks (at the time around £500,000) into a fund for compensating former forced labourers.
The business has distanced itself from Ms Bahlsen’s comments. “The company is aware of the great suffering and injustice suffered by the forced laborers and many other people, and recognizes its historical and moral responsibility,” it said in a statement.
Ironically, Ms Bahlsen’s initial remarks about capitalism came in a speech in which she argued that it can be a force for good in the world.
She was responding to comments made by Kevin Kühnert, a German politician who has called for the country’s leading brands to be put under collective ownership.
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