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Tobin Harshaw

Heirs of Hitler’s Billionaires Need to Reckon With the Past

A Q&A with David de Jong, author of a recent book on wealthy German families with fortunes launched by industrialists complicit in the Holocaust.

The ultimate reckoning machine.

The ultimate reckoning machine.

Photographer: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

America has in recent years undergone a reckoning with its original sin of slavery. From toppling statues of Confederate generals to adding the 1619 Project to school curriculums to erasing the legacy of a former president (of both the Republic and my alma mater, Princeton University), attempts to at least acknowledge if not right the wrongs of past centuries is one of the most potent social movements of our times.

Germany, on the other hand, has since the beginning of its post-World War II iteration made contrition central to its national identity. Given the horrors of the Nazi regime, this effort seems both laudable and impossible. Collective guilt can go only so far.

Where it has not gone, in many cases, is to the families of the powerful industrialists who eagerly joined Hitler’s cause in the 1930s or more passively hitched to the dictator’s star. Some journalists and academics are trying to bring about that reckoning. Prime among them is David de Jong, a former reporter with Bloomberg News’s billionaires project and author of a new book, “Nazi Billionaires: The Dark History of Germany's Wealthiest Dynasties.” I talked this week with de Jong, a native of the Netherlands who is now the Middle East correspondent for the Dutch Financial Daily,  about 20th-century atrocities, modern whitewashing and the wealthy circle around Russian President Vladimir Putin. Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion:

Tobin Harshaw: I want to talk mostly about Nazis — wow, never thought I’d say that sentence — but first, can we touch briefly on Russia and Ukraine, and whether there’s a parallel with Putin and his oligarchs?