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Who are Germany’s oligarchs?

We only use the word oligarch to talk about Russians, but Germany's top ten billionaires are even richer

The Quandt family are Germany’s richest industrial dynasty. Photo: IMAGO / Hoffmann

As Putin’s reactionary invasion of Ukraine continues, Western governments have been setting their sights on Russia’s oligarchs. These are the extremely wealthy men who control Russia’s economy and prop up Putin’s regime.

But what is an oligarch, exactly? One New York Times reporter explained that an oligarch is both “rich” and “benefits from proximity to the government.” Joe Biden has told them: “We’re coming for your ill-gotten gains.”

With their mega-yachts and huge mansions, Russian billionaires seem unimaginably wealthy. But they are actually kind of small potatoes. Russia’s top ten billionaires have total combined wealth of US$200 billion. Germany’s top ten billionaires have US$225 billion. U.S. billionaires blow both groups out of the water: Elon Musk alone has more money than the top 10 in Russia, or the top 10 in Germany.

A tiny number of people control Russia’s economy. But who runs Germany? Here, the preferred term is Milliardäre

Digging into the list of the richest people, the big surprise is the role of supermarkets. The top spot, as well as the sixth, belong to members of the Albrecht clan, the owners of Aldi. Second place goes to the Schwarz Group, which runs Lidl and Kaufland. 

Germany’s billionaires are oligarchs, too. They give huge sums to political parties, and even more to politicians as soon as they retire

The richest industrial dynasty is the Quandt family (including Susanne Klatten), who control BMW and occupy third and fifth place. The list is rounded out by a new arrival: Thomas Strüngmann, an early investor in BioNTech, has profited off the pandemic like no one besides Jeff Bezos.

Germany’s biggest industrial concerns tend to be publicly traded, so their individual owners are further down the list. The Porsche-Piëch family, for example, controls Porsche and Volkswagen, which is worth many billions, but their names are not at the top of the list.

Are German billionaires oligarchs? Are they more ethical and more law-abiding than their Russian counterparts?

This all boils down to a question of family legacies. Billionaires did not exist in the Soviet Union, so all of Russia’s billionaires are first-generation. In Germany, in contrast, most billionaires inherited their money. (About 65% of them.) Trace the history of almost any German capitalist dynasty back just a few generations, and you will find slave labor and complicity in the worst crimes in the history of humanity.

Many of Germany’s biggest families profited off Nazi crimes. To name the most well-known examples, the Quandts, the Porsche-Piechs, the Schaefflers, the Fincks all employed slave labor. Do any of these families deserve to keep a single cent?

You might say: a capitalist shouldn’t have to pay for the crimes of their parents or grandparents. Fine – no argument there. But then why should they profit from these same parents or grandparents? Why should the descendants of Nazi collaborators control such a big chunk of society’s wealth?

Of course, some of Germany’s billionaires only became wealthy after 1945. But their hands aren’t clean either.

Let’s take the latest arrival on the Top 10 list. BioNTech’s mRNA vaccine was largely developed with public money — you and I and everyone else contributed $US800 billion for the research. Yet the profits have been entirely privatized, with BioNTech alone expecting an eye-popping €17 billion in profits this year. Instead of providing this life-saving vaccine to the world, a few billionaires like the Strüngmann twins are raking in money and prolonging the pandemic. What a contrast to the inventor of the polio vaccine, who researched with public money and never tried to claim a patent! (“Could you patent the sun?” he asked memorably.)

It seems like you can’t accumulate billions without breaking a few rules. The owners of Aldi have long violated their employees’ basic rights to join unions and form works’ councils, in order to keep wages low. Here again they profit from criminality.

Germany’s billionaires are oligarchs, too. They give huge sums to political parties, and even more to politicians as soon as they retire (for “consulting”), in order to “benefit from their proximity to government.”

That all makes me wonder: What are billionaires for, exactly? The Quandts do not design or build cars – that is done by engineers and workers. Billionaires’ only social function is to own things — to privately hold technology, medicine, infrastructure and other goods and services which, in a better system, would belong to everyone.

Nathaniel Flakin’s new anticapitalist guide book Revolutionary Berlin is available now from Pluto Press. 304 pages, €18.99 / £14.99..