Sunday, October 16, 2011

Historical Transparency-washing?

[Note from Shaun: the following is a guest post from Matthew Metcalfe. Just like our previous guest poster, Matt and I went to school together. While, at heart, Matt is as kiwi as a 50 cent lolly mixture, he currently lives in Munich. He is also a trained historian. The following is Matt's searching account of an attempt by one of the richest families in Germany, the Quandt dynasty, to transparently(?) reveal their family history.]

"The Rise of the Quandts"

Since I agree with the premise of this blog – the desire to combine the arts and science – I wanted to open up a short chapter on a development out of the circles of German historiography (in German such courses of study belong to the “breadless arts”).

Where most people see politics as current affairs, when you are an historian, you tend to see history everywhere; behind trade deals, bilateral agreements, political and religious conflicts in northern Africa or the Middle East.

If I had to explain how I see the world, for me the world events seem to happen like untidy piles of photos. At any one point you can see the top photos, showing a snapshot of history. But they always overlap, are different sizes and of varying quality and sharpness.

As you pick off the top photos (for most people the current affairs on the news) you see that the motifs are similar but the faces are different. The overlaps and the connections move back and forth as you go through layer on layer.

Three-and-a-half years ago there was an industrial family dynasty where the stack of photos seemed rather short and orderly. The Quandts were a quiet bunch, not talking about their family in detail, typical for tight-knit powerful families. This was all the more interesting because of the sharpness of some of the photos (both real and metaphorical).

For those unfamiliar with the name, the Quandt family, among the richest in Germany, has been the controlling shareholder of BMW since the 1950s. Even though the shareprice is down and analysts are currently saying to buy while it is underpriced, the total fortune of the various family members is estimated at a total of upwards of US30bn, thanks to the wealth of companies they control.

As is the case with many industrial dynasties in Germany, it was safely assumed that the Quandts had profited disproportionately from the policies and crimes perpetrated during the period of National Socialism.

In spite of this, due to the facts that

  1. the members of the family directly involved had died before the major wave of investigations into companies were initiated after intense pressure by victim organisations (e.g. companies like Allianz, Deutsche Bank) 
  2. the successors to the family fortune had never really wanted to delve into the darker corners of their father’s closet and jealously guarded the archival material,

the exact details of the involvement had never surfaced.

Until, however, a documentary called “The Silence of the Quandts” in 2007, produced and broadcasted by the German broadcaster ARD let off a bombshell and accused the family of intentionally silencing their history and the growth of their fortune, social and political influence on the backs of concentration camp slave labour during WWII.

What came next was somewhat of a novelty and perhaps heralded a new direction in public relations within Germany. Feeling personally attacked, the family contracted a well-known professor of history (Joachim Scholtyseck) to investigate their family’s past. Soon after, the historian gave an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Here are excerpts that I have translated:

SZ: Were you assured that you will be able to see all the documents you want?
Scholtyseck: Yes. I didn’t need to demand that. The Quandt family ought to have taken into account from the get go that I need to have access down to the last cupboard. After all, my scientific reputation rests on this as well.

SZ: Do you have the feeling that the Quandt family wants to get over its own past or is your work the consequence of the rising public pressure?
Scholtyseck: I am certain, that the family itself wants to get to know the details of the history; otherwise they wouldn’t have given me such a free reign. There are many aspects that need to be dealt with scientifically. On top of that comes all the material in foreign archives, which the family simply cannot be familiar with.

SZ: What are your next steps?
Scholtyseck: Firstly i’ll be looking into documents and the known publications. Then it’ll be down into the archives. Statements must be examined and contradictions explained, in order to reveal the history on the broadest possible base of sources. On top of that there will be interviews with contemporaries.

SZ: Do you believe that the proposed three years will be suficient to complete the task? You do still have to look after your chair at the University of Bonn.
Scholtyseck: It shouldn’t be a problem. Teaching is important to me because it allows me a certain distance to the topic of research.

Three and a half years later Prof. Scholtyseck’s 1182-page tome has been published with much media interest (it appeared under the title DerAufstieg der Quandts: eine deutsche Unternehmerdynastie– The rise of the Quandts: a German industrial dynasty).

So what does this really mean in terms of history?

In terms of information won for the public, this study provides nothing of sensation, revealing little beyond what was already fairly accurately posited about the family. For me it also unfortunately reaffirms the public obsession with the modern history of Germany.

In terms of historians as service providers, for seemingly the first time, a famous and influential family had publicly contracted a professor to personally investigate their past.

When someone is contracted, especially someone doing a biographical work, the first question is that of integrity, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung scantily addressed in the 2007 interview. How does an historian, or any academic for that matter, ensure that his work is academically sound while addressing the needs of the client?

While on the one side, this dilemma puts historians in the public eye as a new kind of mercenary pen for hire, this kind of publicity is just what the guild needs to again show just what we can offer the public in cases of murky, jumbled photos.

What historians can offer the public is the x-ray specs that allow you to see through the jumbled photos.

Unfortunately, academically-minded historians are not as street smart as they might think and it is exactly this instrumentalised (faux) transparency which, in my eyes, is the true end product of this three year cycle.

One must simply read the exclusive interview the Quandts gave with Die Zeit to go with the release of the book. As an aside, during the interview it is interesting that they rarely address their grandfather as such, but simply use his name – further distancing themselves personally from the atrocities that he committed.

The careful orchestration of these public relations is barely concealed. At one point they admit that a shocking quote from a family member in the 2007 documentary would not have happened “if he had been prepared for the question”.

Here a small excerpt to illustrate my point.
ZEIT: You allowed the historian acces to the family archive. He found nothing exonerating
Stefan Quandt: Our highest goals were openness and transparency. That is why we have transferred the used files into the Hessian Economic Archive. Now they can be seen by the public…

ZEIT: Will actions follow the study?
Stefan Quandt: Yes, we will support the Documentation Centre on NS Forced Labour in Berlin…We will be financing the renovation of the two barracks. One will become a youth centre and the other should be used for exhibitions and seminars. Moreover we are supporting international youth conferenes which should make people aware of social exclusion and exploitation using forced labour as an example… Lastly we are supporting a project to find former forced labourers in order to get authentic reports from them for a permanent exhibition. All in all, that is the biggest private commitment in the area of historical memory ever seen in Germany.


If I can sum up my thoughts, I believe what I have witnessed here is a form of historical transparency-washing.

We are probably all familiar with the term “green washing” associated with oil and energy companies who are determined to tell us that they are “beyond petroleum”. And while the new model of crisis communications in the last few years has been to first of all open up and then work past the obstacles, I am not sure how often this has been applied by businesses to crises of historical nature (well, most crises are product or management related).

In this case it has been done rather elegantly and it deserves to be admired. They were confronted with an allegation. Since the family themselves couldn’t comment on the allegations due to (desired) ignorance, they simply publicly hired an historian and gave him free reign, thus also buying three full years of time to further prepare a public relations strategy.

That strategy, it would appear, has paid off. All initial allegations of intentional silence can be rebuffed as unfounded – after all, no one else has done something similar. Not only that, but now the family can claim to be the biggest private philanthropists in the area of German historical memory.

Since the general public seems to be so impressed by transparency these days, this has all no doubt been a small price to pay in order to wash the family name.

And you know what the best thing about the study was? In spite of everything, it was impossible to “scientifically quantify” the exact amount of profit that was made by Günther Quandt as a result of his opportunism in the Third Reich.

So the number one question driving the investigation – the allegation that the family’s contemporary influence is based on that profit, was not answered. Well, to be more precise, the unscientific best estimate was not published.

So much for transparency.

About the Author 

Matthew Metcalfe studied modern German history at the University of Bayreuth and lives in Munich. He works in Corporate Communications at European Aeronautics, Defence and Space and blogs about Germany at The Metcalfes of Munich.


  1. I have some questions:

    1) The moral situation for the Quandts seems relatively straightforward. What they've done is naughty, even if a little bit clever. However for the historian it seems much more ambiguous. One on level, maybe he has undermined history as an academic discipline (i.e. how transparent and unbiased can he be when he is working under commission). On the other hand he was able to access historical documents no other historian would have and he has brought history into the public eye. So it isn't clear that his role in the transparency-washing is as clearly wrong. As you indicate, he may even be unwitting of his role in the washing. My question then is, what would you do Matt, if you, as a historian, had been offered the commission? Would you take it? And if so, how would you try to minimise the amount of washing that came out of it.

    2) If it had been proven that the Quandts' parents/grandparents had obtained wealth through devious 3rd Reichian means, what would Germany have done about it? Would it just be infamy that resulted, or are there descendants of concentration camp survivors who might get compensation, or would the government impose a fine? (i.e. what was actually at stake for the Quandts in this research? How far could they have fallen if something bad had actually been uncovered?)

  2. To 1. Knowing that academic history is a discipline plagued by the need to find fresh topics and also to find funding for research, I have to say that this Professor sort of got a golden egg - unseen archives and money to do the research. And now that it is in the public eye it will face the scrutiny of peer review.
    Moreover, I haven't seen any reports yet that he has turned it into popular history but rather treated it in an academic way. So kudos. More to the point, I don't think he saw this as anything else than a good chance to do good research.

    To answer your questions, if I were offered such a commission, I would say yes. Why wouldn't you? If you do it right, you have little to lose. The public gains more knowledge and a small part of a dark corner of history is better understood - a dream for an historian.

    As for minimising the washing - difficult. Once you put the report/book/result in whatever form on the table, it is not really in your hands how it gets instrumentalised. And what you can say in interviews as supporting documentation is restricted by whatever tight clauses are in your contract.

    As it is, the washing is more a social expectation than anything else. With bad history it is new, but we know it from everyday. Like a hollywood star who gets arrested for possesion of narcotics: it gets admitted it was bad, they apologise, and instead of doing time like a criminal they go into rehab and donate money to the hospice or similar. Or a sportsman who is found to have doped. They apologise for getting caught and embarrassing their families, pay their fine, serve a ban of 1-2 years and win the Tour-de-France 2 years afterwards because all is forgiven. Moreso: all *must* be forgiven by the public, because the qrongdoers have done "all" in their power to move past the evil. Blame it on religious forgiveness or the media for liking rollercoaster stories and King Lear-esque falls and and later triumphs.

    To 2) I'll get back to you when I have a more qualified answer.

  3. I've been thinking about the figurations of this post, in particular the pile of photographs and the metaphor of transparency. The photographs remind me of Eliot's "heap of broken images," and also of how Kracauer thinks the historiography of media: piles of photographs, whirling montage, both of which he likes because they just might break up all that frightening, illusionary transparency.

    And the very word 'transparent' connotes Adorno, in particular of "The Meaning of Working Through the Past."

    It's scary that this project is so well framed by academic history. There's something perniciously elegant about the idea of transparency in relation to the historian's craft. History is not often (or never) actually transparent, orderly, narrative, teleological. Anyway, I'm curious if you would link the appearance of these kinds of books to the current political landscape in Europe.