An Exchange: Toepfer and the Holocaust

Richard J. Evans

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky’s two articles in Standpoint raise many significant and important questions about how Germany deals with its Nazi past. As someone who has worked on the country’s history for more than four decades, and who had known the subject of the two articles, Alfred Toepfer, and some members of his staff, many years ago, I was interested in going into them in some depth. I can assure Mr Pinto-Duschinsky that I had no research assistance in doing so. What I wrote about his work in my article in Times Higher Education was not an “attack” but an attempt to find out whether he was right. On some issues, I found he was. On others, not.

Pinto-Duschinsky says that I should not have acted as an expert witness to the sub-committee appointed by Oxford University to investigate his allegations against the Toepfer Foundation because I had been the recipient of a scholarship from the Foundation in 1970. There was no conflict of interest. My vested interest in the Foundation expired as soon as the scholarship expired.

There was one statement in my article in the THE that was wrong. I actually met Toepfer’s senior assistant the former SS officer Hans-Joachim Riecke in 1970, and remembered him saying he had been imprisoned for war crimes: in fact, however, I remembered wrongly. Riecke had not been convicted of war crimes; he had only been interned.

Pinto-Duschinsky claims that the independent historians’ report on the Foundation’s past commissioned by the Foundation at the end of the last century was merely putting a favourable gloss on what “a group of scholars based in Alsace and Lorraine” had already discovered. The “group of scholars” to whom he refers actually consists of a French schoolteacher, Lionel Boissou, who has campaigned for the compulsory use of French as the medium of instruction in all schools in France, and has condemned the minority language campaigns in Brittany and the French Basque country as part of a German plot to dismember France. In 1997, Boissou stated that post-1990 Europe was in danger of being “wholly subjected to German domination”. It is not unreasonable to say that Boissou’s views are not representative of serious opinion among professional French historians.

Hardly anything in the commission’s 600-page report goes over ground already covered by anybody, let alone by M. Boissou. Pinto-Duschinsky omits to say that it concluded that “Alfred Toepfer never opposed the Nazi dictatorship. He no more expressed solidarity with those who were excluded and persecuted than he sympathised with the groups who resisted Hitler…Alfred Toepfer’s Foundations did not serve any aims that were opposed to those of the Reich leadership.” After the war, Toepfer told everyone he had been an opponent of the Nazis. That is why the commission’s revelations came as such a shock to his family and his Foundation, who had believed his lies for decades.

The 42-page analysis of Mr Pinto-Duschinsky’s first Standpoint article by Toepfer’s biographer Jan Zimmermann did not admit that the Foundation had known about but suppressed the facts he, Pinto-Duschinsky, had uncovered. Zimmermann complains that the facts presented by Mr Pinto-Duschinsky actually “rested in the majority on my own researches…only a small part was added to by himself.” Pinto-Duschinsky’s findings pale into insignificance besides the findings of the commission. That facts were included in footnotes or “obscure parts of the text” (and how does one identify these? What is an obscure part of a text?) is irrelevant; they were there for all to read if they could read German.

The commission’s report was not “bowdlerised”. There is no evidence of any pressure on any of the authors except in the instance of Professor Gerlach’s contribution, which in its printed version makes some of the most serious allegations against Toepfer of any of the chapters. It is indeed from Gerlach’s contribution that I took Riecke’s explanation of why Toepfer had employed him, an explanation that seems entirely plausible both to Gerlach and to myself, whatever the character of the man who advanced it.

Nevertheless, in the light of some of Zimmermann’s later researches, the commission’s report does now look as if it was pulling its punches in some respects. In particular, the editors’ conclusion that Toepfer was not a fellow-traveller of the Nazis seems quite wrong — indeed it would already have seemed wrong to anybody who took the trouble to read the individual chapters. Here it may well reflect the historical approach of the principal editor, Hans Mommsen, the doyen of the “functionalist” interpretation of Nazism, which has achieved much, but which also, as is now clear, underestimates drastically the driving force of ideology in Nazi policy. Toepfer, driven by radical German nationalism rooted in the youth movement of pre-1914 days, took part in the murderous activities of the far-Right Maercker Free Corps in the suppression of revolutionaries after the First World War. In the 1930s and early 1940s his ideology overlapped with that of the Nazis sufficiently to make him happy to collaborate with them; the commission’s report reveals once more just how significant that overlap was.

Pinto-Duschinsky is right of course to highlight Toepfer’s postwar association with ex-Nazis and anti-Semites. But this was absolutely par for the course with the men who built Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s Germany. The administrative head of Adenauer’s office, Hans Globke, had drafted an elaborate commentary during the 1930s on the Nuremberg Laws that banned German Jews from marrying “Aryans” and reduced Jews to second-class citizens. There were hundreds of similar cases.

Toepfer’s employment of anti-Semites didn’t make him an anti-Semite any more than Adenauer’s employment of Globke made Adenauer an anti-Semite. The Toepfer archive was not “weeded” to remove incriminating material such as anti-Semitic statements by Toepfer. As Zimmermann says, “the documents in today’s Foundation archive…are of such a varied and also incriminating nature that it cannot have been thoroughly ‘cleansed’ as Mr Pinto-Duschinsky’s formulation implies.” Nobody has succeeded in finding a single anti-Semitic statement by Toepfer to date, and until someone does, nobody has any justification in calling him an anti-Semite.

Does pointing out these and similar facts amount to excusing Toepfer or “greywashing” his past? For decades, German elites got away with pretending they bore no responsibility for Nazism’s crimes. German nationalism was presented as something entirely different from Nazism. We now know how untrue this was. The idea that present-day Germany is trying to present a “relatively sympathetic view,” as Pinto-Duschinsky puts it, of the Third Reich by arguing that Germans were victims as much as aggressors, that the extermination of Europe’s Jews was not planned but caused by wartime brutalisation, that anti-Semitism was not widespread before the war, has no basis in reality. The contrary view, very much the orthodoxy, in present-day Germany, has been argued in overwhelming, utterly convincing detail by a vast range of historians in Germany.  

Saying, as I did, that Toepfer did not gain his wealth from the supply of poison gas to Auschwitz, the employment of slave labour, the looting of occupied countries, or anything comparable, is not the same as saying he did not profit from the war. Clearly he did, and I did not deny this in my THE article; on the contrary, I pointed out that like other German businessmen he contributed substantially to the German war effort through his activities in occupied Poland. It is uncertain whether or not Toepfer knew all the details of transactions carried out by the branch of his business in Posen, in occupied Poland. He supplied slaked lime (not quicklime), a building material, to the Lodz ghetto administration, but we do not know what the lime was supplied for. Although Jews and Gypsies employed in the ghetto were denied the food and medication needed to keep them alive, there is no evidence that any of them were employed by Toepfer or indeed that any of them used materials he supplied in their work.

One person who certainly was employed by Toepfer was Edmund Veesenmayer, who was indeed a senior German official in Nazi-occupied Hungary. Though my longer description of his wartime activities fell victim to editorial cuts, I did manage to note in the article that he was a war criminal. In fact, Veesenmayer was only a short-term employee and only in a branch of Toepfer’s business in Tehran; he was not a “close associate” as Pinto-Duschinsky originally claimed, though that’s no excuse for Toefper having employed him.

Pinto-Duschinsky accuses me of “dubious interpretations” but his claim that I suggested Toepfer’s arrest by the Nazis on trumped-up charges of tax evasion was an indication of his opposition to the regime is false. What I did say was that the arrest reflected Nazi hostility to Toepfer’s stubborn refusal to surrender the autonomy of his Foundation. Pinto-Duschinsky accuses me of misquoting him when I say he claims that through his foreign currency transactions “Toepfer was aiding the Nazi regime”, but he goes on to say they were used “for the benefit of the Nazi regime”. I may be forgiven if I fail to see the difference.

To point out that he was a fellow-traveller rather than a major perpetrator is not to be “unduly protective of the Alfred Toepfer Foundation” as Pinto-Duschinsky claims. As one of the Foundation’s Hanseatic Scholars in 1970 I was shocked to discover the presence of ex-Nazis in its higher echelons, and disturbed by the racist views of its founder and his associates. Pinto-Duschinsky thinks I should have brought this to the attention of my supervisor in Oxford. But I was unable to find any information linking Toepfer or the Foundation to Nazism, and was assured by his staff that he had been politically opposed to the Nazis. Had I known then what I know now — thanks to the independent historical commission’s report and Zimmermann’s biography, as well as to Pinto-Duschinsky’s findings — I might well have had serious doubts about the wisdom of associating myself with the Foundation in 1970.

The crucial question in the end, however, is what the Foundation has done about all this in the present day. It is good to note that Pinto-Duschinsky now no longer accuses the Toepfer Foundation in the present of covering up its past and that of its founder. The Foundation has expressed clear regret about its past and been scrupulously open in providing people, including potential Hanseatic Scholars, with the means to reach a verdict on it.

What of the broader issue? Pinto-Duschinsky is surely right to say that German industrial foundations, like other institutions that played a contested role in the 1930s and 1940s, such as the Vatican, should open their archives, as the Toepfer Foundation has done. Whether he is right to doubt the objectivity of historians commissioned by them to write about their past is less clear. If they obtain proper guarantees of independence of research and publication, then there is no prima facie reason why their work should not be trusted.

Companies and the foundations using their profits should indeed, as Pinto-Duschinsky argues, pay proper compensation to those they employed under degrading and murderous conditions as forced labourers, or to their families. And he is right to be worried about the tendency in Germany to dwell on German sufferings in the 1940s. Yet there have been no “concerted attacks against scholars who have ventured to be too bold in their critical analyses of Nazi Germany”, as Pinto-Duschinsky alleges. Ever since the 1960s German historians have been increasingly critical in their approach to the Nazi past and above all the involvement of German institutions and the German people in its crimes.

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky

Shortly before he submitted a revised version of his response to Standpoint, Richard J. Evans sent me a friendly email pointing out that we are not far apart. I hope this is the case concerning our views on many underlying moral and historical issues about the Holocaust. His critical remarks in Standpoint about the work of Hans Mommsen and the “functionalist” interpretation of the Holocaust and his comments on compensation for victims of the Nazis are welcome. 

His response to Standpoint gives a somewhat more critical interpretation of the book on the German multi-millionaire published in 2000 by an “Independent Academic Commission” sponsored by the Alfred Toepfer Foundation. Yet Evans still is unwilling to face up to the defiance and excuses of the Toepfer Foundation and has too complacent a view about German historiography of the Holocaust. On March 10, 2011, he wrote in the THE (“Tainted Money?”) that the official history was “devastating”. His revised judgment is that “the commission’s report does now look as if it was pulling its punches in some respects”.

Our controversy about the Hanseatic Scholarships funded for Oxford and Cambridge graduates by the Alfred Toepfer Foundation of Hamburg started with that critical article in the THE. Standpoint provided me an opportunity to reply in the July/August 2011 issue, for which I am extremely grateful. Standpoint has also given Evans and me the chance for a last printed exchange, though the debate is likely to continue with further documentary evidence on Standpoint‘s website and on my website:  

I wish to use this opportunity to make clear my respect for Evans’s distinguished work while at the same time listing some of his many factual errors regarding this particular matter. There may be a simple explanation for his seeming lack of grasp of the facts. Evans agreed to act as a member of the sub-committee appointed by Oxford and Cambridge in 2009 to look into my concerns about Toepfer’s money as a matter of duty — he has intimated it was not altogether a welcome chore. His commitments have restricted the time he has been able to spend on the subject. He has informed me that he has been unable to carry out full checks on documents and sources in reply to my queries. In lieu, he appears to have relied on summaries prepared by the Toepfer Foundation and its sponsored academics as well as documents on the Foundation’s website. Some of these materials are misleading and selective.

Parts of his response to Standpoint repeat general points in his initial article in the THE. He ignores my contrary evidence in Standpoint in July/August 2011 and reproduces the untenable statement that the publications of the Foundation’s sponsored historians were not bowdlerised. He gives again his inadequate criterion for judging whether someone is an anti-Semite. My answers are on record. I will focus here on the factual quality of his response. 

1. Evans disputes my contention that many of the key findings of the Toepfer Foundation’s sponsored scholars were already in the public domain: “Hardly anything in the commission’s 600-page report [of 2000] goes over ground already covered by anybody.” His conclusion has not been researched. He states in a recent email: “I don’t have the time to go over all the documentation again.” About the alleged “shock” to the family caused by the publication (which Evans cites as evidence for the critical character of the 2000 book), he acknowledges in correspondence that he has no direct evidence for this “shock”. He was relying on the Toepfer Foundation’s version. In view of previous  warnings given in February 1997 by the PR agency, Goerres & Partner, employed by the Foundation before the “Independent Academic Commission” had even been established, the contention that the family was “shocked” by its relatively mild findings is implausible and self-serving.

2. Evans is unjustified in making light of the previous publications on Toepfer by a “group of scholars” in Alsace-Lorraine by suggesting they were the product of a single person, Lionel Boissou. Apart from Evans’s  needlessly uncomplimentary personal comments on Boissou, the authors of “Ombres et lumières sur les fondations Toepfer” published in Saisons d’Alsace in 1995 and 1996 also included five academics at the universities of Strasbourg and Metz (Ayçoberry, Bischoff,  Breton, Strauss, and Wahl). The University of Strasbourg evidently took their findings seriously and in 1996 broke its links with the Toepfer Foundation. The ongoing researches of the German historian Karl-Heinz Roth provided supportive evidence and increased the concerns of the Toepfer Foundation’s PR agency as shown in its report (included in the Foundation’s dossier to Oxford submitted in June 2010). It is significant that Roth’s 1999 article “Alfred Toepfer: Grosskaufmann, Kulturimperialist und Kriegstreiber”, was a subject of discussion within the Foundation and within the Independent Academic Commission (as shown in the Toepfer archives) but was ignored in the text of the 2000 book and in Zimmermann’s 2008 biography of Toepfer.

3. According to Evans, “The 42-page analysis of Mr Pinto-Duschinsky’s first Standpoint article by Toepfer’s biographer Jan Zimmermann did not admit that the Foundation had known about but suppressed the facts he, Pinto-Duschinsky, had uncovered.” Yes it did — on point after point. (See, for example,  notes  I, XLV and XLIV, under “Analyse”.)

4. “Zimmermann complains that the facts presented by Mr Pinto-Duschinsky actually ‘rested in the majority on my own researches…only a small part was added to by himself’.” The footnoted German-language version of my original Standpoint piece, which appeared in a book edited by Michael Fahlbusch and Ingo Haar, showed that Zimmermann was incorrect.

5. According to Evans, “Toepfer’s postwar association with ex-Nazis and anti-Semites…was absolutely par for the course with the men who built Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s Germany.” The extent of Toepfer’s patronage of Nazi war criminals, Holocaust perpetrators and high-ranking SS officers makes this open to dispute. 

6. Evans states: “The Toepfer archive was not ‘weeded’ to remove incriminating material.” The official history of 2000 cites Alfred Toepfer’s son Heinrich on page 43 and page 71 footnote 111 as reporting that the greater part of Alfred Toepfer’s papers was destroyed at the end of the Second World War.

7. Evans acknowledges that Toepfer clearly profited from the war. However, he fails to address the implications of this. His conclusion contradicts the Toepfer Foundation’s opposite claim written in January 2010 to Oxford. Moreover, admitting that Toepfer’s postwar fortune derived partly from  activities in German-occupied Poland contradicts the core theme of Evans’s piece in THE that the Foundation’s money is taint-free.

8. Evans insists that the slaked lime supplied to the SS administration of the Lodz ghetto was a building material. As Gerlach writes in the official history, the material was used also to cover cadavers (Alfred Toepfer: Stifter und Kaufmann, page 373).

9. Evans accounts in his response for the euphemistic way in which he described Toepfer’s employee Edmund Veesenmayer in THE, but writes that he did manage to note  that Veesenmayer was a war criminal. That statement does not appear.

10. According to Evans, I wrongly identified Veesenmayer in Standpoint (April 2010) as a “close associate” of Toepfer. The “close associates” I listed were Riecke, Haller and Hacke, not Veesenmayer. (Evans’s accusation mirrors that of the Toepfer Foundation in its submission to Oxford in June 2010.) Evans ignores the fact that neither the official Toepfer history of 2000 nor Zimmermann’s 2008 biography mention the lethal role played in the Holocaust in Hungary by Haller, who until his death truly was a close Toepfer associate.

11. Evans explains that he did not inform the Oxford authorities of his graduate experiences  in Hamburg because he “was unable to find any information linking Toepfer or the Foundation to Nazism”. Yet, he wrote in the THE article that war criminal Albert Speer had been a recent guest of the Foundation, that he saw Holocaust denial literature on its premises, that he met Toepfer employee Hans-Joachim Riecke, previously ranked an SS Major-General.

12. “Pinto-Duschinsky now no longer accuses the Toepfer Foundation in the present of covering up its past and that of its founder.” The Foundation made the archives off-limits for several months in 2010 when needed to prepare for the Oxford review. I stand by my critique of its historical “grey-washing”.

13. “The Foundation has expressed clear regret about its past.” The Foundation and the Toepfer family have refused to give the requested apology. Regrets on the Foundation’s website have been carefully hedged.

As a concluding point, the response from Oxford to a request for information under the Freedom of Information Act reveals that, when I submitted my memorandum on Toepfer in October 2010, Oxford’s Committee to Review Donations which adjudicated the matter included no historians. It consulted neither Evans nor any other historian. Nevertheless, that committee endorsed as sufficient the Foundation’s version of its history.

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