Alfred Toepfer was one of postwar Germany's leading businessmen and philanthropists. His fortune stemmed from his Hamburg-based grain and shipping company, which was a powerful engine of his country's economic boom in the 1950s and '60s. Through a series of foundations (the principal one now bears his name), he ploughed his money back into a host of prizes, scholarships and grants, many of them celebrating the idea of a united Europe. "Alfred Toepfer was one of the most successful German entrepreneurs of all time," noted the historian Professor Hans Mommsen at the Alfred Toepfer Foundation's 75th birthday celebration.
Alfred Toepfer, aged 93, looks out over Luneberg Heath, site of the Nazi surrender in 1945 and a place of nationalistic pilgrimage
Toepfer showered the great and good from Europe's political and cultural life with a huge array of medals and awards. For the UK, he instituted the Shakespeare Prize, first bestowed in 1937 on the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and relaunched in 1967 with an award to the theatre director Peter Hall. From then until it was discontinued in 2006, the prize was awarded to the most distinguished names in British cultural life, including Graham Greene, Harold Pinter, Graham Sutherland, Philip Larkin, Margot Fonteyn, Doris Lessing, Alec Guinness, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Sam Mendes. The last two laureates were the Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins and the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel. When it was wound up, the prize was worth ¤20,000 (£18,000).
Similar awards, equally well endowed, were lavished on other regions of Europe. In 1972, the then British Prime Minister, Edward Heath, received the first European Prize for Statesmanship, accompanied by a cheque for 300,000 Deutschmarks (more than £300,000 in today's money). Toepfer, in turn, was made an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire. When Toepfer died in 1993 aged 99, Heath and the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt — another Toepfer prizewinner — delivered two of the funeral orations. According to Schmidt, Toepfer was "a man of freedom".
My investigations over a number of years show that he was nothing of the sort. In the fateful years leading to the Second World War, Alfred Toepfer was a "sponsoring member" of the SS who was enormously helpful to Hitler. He channelled money via his foundations to influence public opinion in Britain and elsewhere in Europe in favour of the Third Reich and played an important role in Nazi subversion in Austria, the Czech Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine and elsewhere. During the war, his company supplied slaked lime to the German ghetto administration in the Polish city of Lodz.
He was interned by the British for two years after the war but released. His business skills were needed by the new West Germany and he skilfully remodelled himself as an anti-Nazi interested only in building a new Europe. In reality, 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.
Some of the most regular recipients of his largesse have been students of Oxford, which is only now coming to terms with the fact that the source of scholarships from which it has benefited for many decades is severely tainted.
In 1936, Toepfer set up the Hanseatic Scholarships, which enabled students from Oxford, Cambridge and other British universities to further their studies at the Hanseatic University of Hamburg. They were re-established after the war. Currently, two scholarships restricted to graduates of Oxford and Cambridge are awarded each year. Each scholarship lasts for up to two years and is worth an annual £13,400 plus travel costs. But for the past 16 months, they have been the subject of unfinished discussions held, much to their credit, by the authorities at Oxford and Cambridge.
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