Forced Labor in the Varta Battery Factories
by Naomi Scheinerman
Background of AFA and Varta Battery Factories
Adolph Mueller and Paul Buesche founded a battery company in January of 1888 called the Buesche and Mueller Tudor System Battery Factory. They opened a small factory in Hagen with 40 employees and had a strong client base by 1889. Then, Buesche left the business and Einbeck joined it to create Mueller and Einbeck. This company formed a joint stock company with Siemens AG and AEG AG: Accumulatoren-Fabrik AG or AFA for short. AFA grew quickly and began monopolizing the battery industry, taking over 11 battery companies in Germany and 14 in other countries by 1909. AFA’s plant in Hagen produced large industrial batteries, such as those for streetcars and train cars. In 1904, AFA founded VARTA Accumulatoren Gesellschaft mbH as its subsidiary. Varta’s plant in Berlin produced mainly low-current batteries. World War I hurt AFA and Varta’s business, but Germany’s post-war demands boosted profits. AFA expanded during the 1920’s, enlarging factories in Berlin and Hagen and re-internationalizing its network of subsidiaries and branch offices. The Great Depression hit the battery industry hard, but it bounced back by 1939 and started war production for Germany. However, air raids damaged many of its factories, especially the Hagen plant. The Soviets dismantled and shipped the equipment of two Berlin factories to the Soviet Union and the British Army seized the Hanover plant. After the war, AFA and Varta resumed their production and expanded, making more kinds of batteries and acquiring more international cliental. By 1962, Varta was producing highly profitable and popular automobile batteries and AFA’s stockholders voted to change AFA’s name, as well as its several other subsidiaries, to Varta.
Gunther Quandt became AFA’s majority shareholder in 1923. Gunther gave generous donations to the Nazis and joined Hitler’s National-Socialist Party in 1933. Gunther was a strong supporter and financier of the Nazis, as well as close friends with many prominent party members. His plants produced batteries that became significant components of numerous German military vehicles and weapons, such as the V-2 rocket. In 1910, Gunther had a son named Herbert with his first wife. Herbert became director of personnel on AFA’s supervisory board in 1940. Gunther had another son, during his second marriage, named Harald. In 1937, Adolf Hitler appointed Gunther to the Leader of the Armament Economy and awarded him handsome profits.
Forced Labor in the Camps
According to historians, Jewish forced laborers were used in at least one of Quandt’s companies as early as 1938. However, beginning in 1941, thousands of forced laborers from concentration camps were used in at least three factories in Hanover, Berlin and Vienna. A concentration camp, complete with gallows and an execution area, was set up on the grounds of AFA’s Hanover location in 1943 for the Jews and resistance fighters forced to work there. Some historians report that AFA preferred to keep its qualified German workers. Forced labor was used at AFA’s Stocken and Hagen plants beginning in 1942. Herbert was also the director of a Berlin-based AFA subsidiary, Pertrix GmbH. The company used female slave laborers, including Polish women who had been transferred from Auschwitz. Indeed, AFA had no moral objection to the use of other forced laborers. The extent to which the Quandts’ post-war assets were in fact derived from forced labor is undetermined.
The prisoners were forced to work in lethal conditions. Provided with neither protective clothing nor drinking water, the slaves were exposed to poisonous gases, produced by heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and subjected to frequent beatings with hoses filled with sand. Documents reveal that the company calculated that there would be a turnover rate of 80 people dying each month, with each slave lasting six months.
According to the account of a Ukrainian prisoner, whose brother was shot for being a member of a Communist resistance group that blew up railroad-bridge, there were Ukrainians, French, Russians, homosexuals and Jews in the camps. When the ally planes began attacking Germany, the SS lined the prisoners on the road military style so that the allied planes would mistake them for German soldiers and strafe them. Hundreds of prisoners were killed this way. When the allies tried to bomb the Varta battery plant with phosphorus bombs, the SS commanded the prisoners to pick up the numerous unexploded bombs, resulting in the deaths of many more. When a bomb landed on the part of the factory where the Ukrainian prisoner was working, he managed to escape and was hidden by a doctor in Hagen until the British liberated the camps and the factories.
After the war, the prosecutors at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal charged and convicted several industrial head honchos such as Friedrich Flick, Gustav Krupp Von Bohlen und Halbach, and the directors of the IG Farben chemicals conglomerate for producing the Zyklon B gas used in the gas chambers. They convicted several other big business owners to several years of detention and confiscated their fortunes. Their businesses were returned to them by 1950. The Quandts, however, were not convicted. Gunther was arrested and interned on suspicion of war crimes in 1946 but it was determined he was innocent and he released in 1948. Gunther claimed he was the Nazi’s pawn and they exploited him. The Americans dismissed his case and considered him a “passive follower” or “collaborator.” However, Benjamin Ferencz, an American prosecutor at Nuremberg, said that there was ample evidence for Quandt’s conviction. The more likely reason that he was not punished was that the Americans wanted him to continue battery production to serve their interests. Furthermore, the prosecution of industrial bosses was only symbolic, for they were all released by 1950. Similarly, Hebert’s battery factories were producing batteries for British weapon systems soon after the war and they awarded him operating protection. Evidence did not indicate that his factories utilized in forced labor.
Gunther died in 1954 while in Cairo and split his empire between Herbert and Harald. In 1959, Herbert bought BMW and his heirs, including wife Johanna, daughter Susanna Klatten and son Stefan, control 47% stake in BMW. The Quandts also control large stakes in Atlanta pharmaceuticals and other German companies. Most German companies such as BMW, Volkswagen and Deutsch Bank have explored their own wartime crimes, such as slave labor, during WWII and made generous donations to survivor relief funds. In contrast, the Quandts have remained silent about their past, protecting their over $34 billion holdings. As one of the wealthiest families in Germany, they donate primarily to political parties, including the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union and the liberal Free Democratic Party. In the 1970’s, a group of surviving laborers petitioned the Quandt family for compensation and were rejected.
In 1992, Rudiger Jungbluth released a biography about the Quandts called Die Quandts: Ihr leiser Aufstieg zur mächtigsten Wirtschaftsdynastie Deutschlands (The Quandts: Their Silent Rise to Germany’s Most Powerful Economic Dynasty). On September 30, 2007, and with no prior advertising, a documentary called The Silence of the Quandts (Das Schweigen der Quandts), was aired on television and brought the Quandt family’s past to the public eye. Its producers, Eric Friedler and Barbara Siebert, spent five years studying documents and records pertaining to the Quandts’ past.