One of the wealthiest families in Germany, which owns controlling stakes in such companies as Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, Panera Bread and Peet’s Coffee, has admitted that it profited from forced labor during the Second World War. What’s more, reports Katrin Bennhold of the New York Times, recent revelations indicate that the two men who ran the family business in the 1930s and '40s—Albert Reimann Sr. and his son Albert Reimann Jr.—actively participated in the abuse of their workers.
The German tabloid Bild broke the news of the Reimann family’s troubling past over the weekend, when it published a story based on an interim report delivered earlier this year by Paul Erker, an economic historian at the University of Munich, who was hired by the Reimanns to investigate the family’s Nazi ties. That investigation has been ongoing for more than four years, and is still not complete. But Peter Harf, the family’s spokesman and a managing partner of JAB Holding Company, which the Reimanns control, did not deny Bild’s account.
“Reimann Sr. and Reimann Jr. were guilty,” he told the publication, according to Deutsche Welle. “The two businessmen have passed away, but they actually belonged in prison.”
The report found that Reimann Sr. and Reimann Jr. were fervent anti-Semites and enthusiastic Nazi supporters, with the elder Reimann donating to the SS as early as 1931, two years before Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. During WWII, their industrial chemicals factory in southern Germany was powered by forced laborers: Russian and Eastern European civilians deported from their homes by the Nazis, along with prisoners of war from France. By 1943, the family’s company employed as many as 175 forced workers—a third of its workforce—who helped produce items for the German army, according to the Agence France-Presse. The Reimanns’ also used forced laborers in their private villas.
Workers were beaten, and women at the family’s factory were made to stand at attention in their barracks while naked, the Times’ Bennhold reports. If they refused, they were sexually abused.
The Reimanns were hardly alone in their reliance on forced labor. Over the course of the war, at least 12 million people were abducted into the German war economy. When it came to allocating the workers, companies that contributed to the Nazi war effort were given priority. Daimler-Benz, the company that makes Mercedes, used more than 46,000 forced laborers in its factories. Volkswagen employed “prisoners of war, concentration camp inmates (including Jews), and … Soviet and Polish civilian foreign forced laborers,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Hugo boss relied on 140 forced workers kidnapped from Poland and 40 French prisoners of war to make its Nazi uniforms.
But Andreas Wirsching, director of the Leibniz Institute for Contemporary History, tells Bennhold that Reimann Sr. and Reimann Jr. were unusual in that they seemed to directly participate in the abuse of workers. “It was very common for companies to use forced laborers—but it was not common for a company boss to be in direct and physical contact with these forced laborers,” Wirsching explains.
Reimann Sr. and Reimann Jr. reportedly did not speak of their Nazi past following the war. But modern descendants became suspicious of their familial history when they looked through old documents that suggested links to the Third Reich. They commissioned Erker, the University of Munich historian, to conduct further investigations. Harf, the Reimann’s spokesperson, said that the family plans to release additional information once Erker’s account is finished.
The Reimanns’ chemical company eventually became part of the publicly traded multinational RB, which is valued at $58 billion, reports Bennhold. Today, much of the family's fortune is in its “investment vehicle,” JAB, a conglomerate that most recently acquired numerous food and beverage chains, including Mighty Leaf Tea, Caribou Coffee and Pret A Manger. Last year, the Reimanns’ wealth was estimated to be 33 billion euros, or around $37 billion, reports the AFP.
In light of the revelations about their family’s Nazi past, the Reimanns plan to donate $11 million to an as-yet-unspecified charity, according to Deutsche Welle.
“We were ashamed and white as sheets,” Harf told Bild, as Deutsche Welle reports. “There is nothing to gloss over. These crimes are disgusting.”