The heiress of a German biscuits empire has sparked outrage after she appeared to play down the hardship suffered by people forced to work at the family business under Nazi rule.
Verena Bahlsen, whose father owns the Bahlsen company, said the firm, which employed some 200 forced labourers during World War Two, ‘did nothing wrong’ then.
Most of the forced labourers at Hanover-based Bahlsen were women, many from Nazi-occupied Ukraine.
But Ms Bahlsen, 25, whose great grandfather Herman Bahlsen created the Keibniz biscuits, has triggered uproar by claiming her company treated the forced workers ‘well’.
She had first dived headlong into controversy with her unashamed claim of being a capitalist who ‘wants to make money and buy yachts with my dividends’.
As critics reminded her on Twitter that her company profited from forced labourers during Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime, Ms Bahlsen, who is set to inherit a quarter of the family business, hit back.
Verena Bahlsen, heiress of the Bahlsen biscuit empire, has sparked outrage for claiming her firm treated forced workers ‘well’ during World War II.
Verena Bahlsen, whose father owns the Bahlsen company, said the firm, which employed some 200 forced labourers during World War Two, ‘did nothing wrong’ then. Pictured: Workers at Bahlsen’s Hanover factory in 1929
‘That was before my time and we paid the forced labourers as much as the Germans and treated them well,’ she told Germany’s biggest selling daily Bild, adding that the company had nothing to feel guilty about.
The claim has increased the outcry against her. The Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre in Berlin pointed to the case to illustrate the lack of understanding about the plight of those who were put to work against their will.
‘Not only is there a great knowledge gap for family members of the #Bahlsen family. The topic Nazi forced labour is often still a blind spot in the collective memory,’ the centre wrote on Twitter. It invited people to view its exhibitions to learn about the grim history.
The Social Democratic Party’s general secretary Lars Klingbeil also criticised the Bahlsen heiress.
‘Someone who inherits such great wealth, also inherits responsibility and should not be so arrogant.’
On social media, some critics have launched a call to boycott the company’s products, others have urged Ms Bahlsen, one of four children of company owner Werner Bahlsen, to do a year of civic service to gain a better understanding of social realities.
Karljosef Kreter, who leads a team on the remembrance culture in Hanover, said the Bahlsen heiress’ comments were ‘thoughtless’.
Verena Bahlsen (left) is one of four children of company owner Werner Bahlsen (right)
Founded by Verena Bahlsen’s great grandfather at the end of the 19th century, the biscuit company employed around 200 forced labourers, mostly women, between 1943 and 1945. The firm now has annual sales exceeding 500 million euros (£435million)
‘Bahlsen was considered as an important company for the war effort and as such was provided with workers from eastern territories,’ he told regional newspaper group RND.
‘Forced labourers lived in conditions that were close to incarceration,’ he said.
Spiegel magazine said that while the young Bahlsen heiress could not do anything to change the past of her company, ‘she must face up to its historical responsibility.
‘It doesn’t change the fact that her obliviousness to history is now the trend,’ it added.
Founded by Verena Bahlsen’s great grandfather at the end of the 19th century, the biscuit company employed around 200 forced labourers, mostly women, between 1943 and 1945.
Claims were made against Bahlsen by victims after the war, but they were rejected because of the statute of limitations.
In a statement, Bahlsen, which has annual sales exceeding 500 million euros (£435million), said it was aware of the moral responsibility that comes with being one of dozens of German companies that used forced labour during the Nazi dictatorship.
‘The company is aware of the great suffering and injustice that forced labourers as well as many other people had experienced and recognises its historical and moral responsibility.’
Bahlsen says it voluntarily paid some 1.5 million deutschmarks (about 750,000 euros) in 2000-2001 to a foundation set up by German firms to compensate 20 million forced labourers used by the Nazis.
Former forced labourers have failed in individual lawsuits to obtain compensation from Bahlsen. German courts have cited statute of limitations laws.
Most of the forced labourers at Hanover-based Bahlsen were women, many from Nazi-occupied Ukraine. Pictured: The Bahlsen production line in 1930s Germany
Part of a memorial to the victims of forced labour under Nazi rule in Germany is seen at the former Buchenwald concentration camp site in Schwerte, Germany
Founded by Verena Bahlsen’s great grandfather at the end of the 19th century, the biscuit company employed around 200 forced labourers, mostly women, between 1943 and 1945
Germans voiced anger at the heiress on social media.
‘Bahlsen is now officially the official snack food of the AfD,’ one Twitter user wrote, referring to the far-right Alternative for Germany party that won its first seats in parliament at the last national election in 2017.
‘The Bahlsen package is rather blue,’ the user added, referring to the blue colour of both the biscuit box and the AfD party flag.
Other Twitter users called for a boycott of the Bahlsen brands. ‘never buy #Bahlsen,’ tweeted Walter Petermann.
Verena Bahlsen was earlier criticised for boasting about her wealth and her love of conspicuous consumption.
‘I own a fourth of Bahlsen and I am very happy about that,’ she said at a business event in Hamburg earlier this month. ‘I want to earn money and buy a sailing yacht.’
According to the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre, based in south-east Berlin, 26 million people including prisoners of war, concentration camp internees, Jews, Roma and Sinti worked against their will for the Nazi regime.