The Merchant of Hamburg

'Alfred Toepfer was not an ambivalent figure: he was a Nazi before, during and after the war'

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man not possessed of a good fortune must be in want of a patron. Tom Stoppard performed that role for me more than 30 years ago, when I was a postgraduate at Cambridge, by nominating me for a scholarship to study for a year in Germany. This was his right and duty as the recipient of the 1979 Shakespeare Prize, awarded annually by a German foundation to a leading figure in British cultural life. Together with his then wife Miriam, we flew to Hamburg for what proved to be quite an elaborate ceremony. The Maecenas who had endowed this and various other prizes, and who had set up the Hanseatic Scholarships at Oxford, was Alfred Toepfer: one of the wealthiest merchants in this most patrician of ports, a pioneer of the European ideal whose philanthropy was dedicated to German reconciliation with Britain and France.

It seemed churlish to look this gift horse in the mouth. However, given his age — he had been 40 in 1939 — we wondered aloud about what Toepfer might have done in the war. The administrators of the prize had their answers ready. Toepfer’s wartime record, they said, had been exemplary. Such was his integrity, we were assured, that he had even been arrested by the Gestapo. Indeed, he had been fortunate to survive the war. The then West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, whose prestige was as great in Britain as in Germany, called Toepfer his friend and praised him as a “man of peace”. The Queen herself had given Toepfer an honorary CBE on the recommendation of Edward Heath (himself the beneficiary of Toepfer’s absurdly titled but even more munificent European Prize for Statesmanship). 

This was the story that many great and good Britons were told over the decades. Besides Tom Stoppard, the list included another member of Standpoint‘s advisory board, David Hockney. They had no reason to disbelieve it or to worry about the provenance of the Shakespeare Prize, though some joked about it. In 1976, Philip Larkin wrote to Robert Conquest (whose latest light verse we publish this month) about his experience in Hamburg: “Nothing went wrong, and I got my medal and money, but it was all a great strain. There are some funny photos of me looking like Baldur von Schirach addressing a Youth Rally…”

But the story that Alfred Toepfer had been telling the world since 1945 was a lie. It was a lie that outlived his death in 1993 and it has not been fully repudiated by those who, in Michael Pinto-Duschinsky’s vivid expression, seek to “greywash” his past. For Toepfer was not an ambivalent figure: he was a Nazi before, during and after the war. Toepfer was close to Hess, Goering and to those directly responsible for carrying out the “Final Solution”, and his firm appears also to have been implicated in the Holocaust. Even before 1939, Toepfer’s creation of the Hanseatic scholarships at Oxford was endorsed by Ribbentrop as part of the Third Reich’s foreign policy. In 1936, Goebbels met Toepfer to discuss the scheme and wrote approvingly in his diary: “I like him.” Toepfer and his brother Ernst were involved in Nazi subversion of Austria and Czechoslovakia, France, Switzerland and the US. Before awarding the Shakespeare Prize to Ralph Vaughan Williams, Toepfer checked that the composer was “certainly Aryan”. After the war, the writer Ernst Jünger told the British that Toepfer had opposed the Nazis. Not only was this untrue, but Toepfer later used his money and influence to help war criminals evade justice. His most senior staff had taken part in mass murder.

The facts revealed by Michael Pinto-Duschinsky pose a moral issue for the Toepfer Foundation. Oxford University, which has been landed with this problem, is behaving honourably by taking the matter seriously. There is no question of anybody returning any money. Those who received Toepfer’s prizes and scholarships knew nothing of his past. But those who administered his legacy now have a duty to offer an apology to all those who were misled, besides opening the archive without ifs or buts so that the full story can be told. Oxford, meanwhile, can continue to endorse the Hanseatic Scholarships only if their problematic provenance is fully and openly acknowledged, which is not yet the case.  

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