Like many students at Berlin’s prestigious Hertie School, Alexander Busold and Laura Franken knew their institution’s name came from a defunct department store chain. What they had not realised was that the name carried with it a story from Germany’s Nazi past, and a legacy that is still in dispute.

In 2016, the year they graduated, they were shocked by a newspaper article telling the neglected history of the chain whose wealth their school was founded on. It was actually started by a Jewish family, dispossessed of their fashionable stores under Nazi rule in the 1930s. The name “Hertie” was derived from Hermann Tietz, whose descendants started the company.

“I wasn’t just shocked, I was embarrassed,” Ms Franken recalled. “It seemed a contradiction that the Hertie School and Foundation, which are about open society and research, were not more interested in talking about this Nazi past, which financially we all benefited from.”

The Hertie School, Germany’s leading private graduate school for public policy and foreign affairs, is now mired in a struggle over how to handle questions over the history of its founder, the Hertie Foundation. It is one of the largest charitable institutions in Germany, with a €1bn endowment that originated with the Hertie fortune.

The Tietzes fled to the US in the 1930s and Georg Karg, the man who took over the stores, later paid restitutions and built a department store empire that lasted until the 1990s. Yet this transfer of ownership has never been professionally studied.

For two years, a group of students and alumni led by Mr Busold and Ms Franken, called the HerTietz Initiative, quietly negotiated with the foundation over formally investigating Hertie’s history. That has now broken into a public and bitter dispute over how to study past iniquities, who can tell that story, and whether Hertie heirs are influencing those decisions.

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Controversial legacies are not unusual in Germany: since the 1990s, dozens of companies and institutions have commissioned studies of their Nazi-era histories, so much so that it is now considered standard practice. What is unusual is how long Herties has taken to deal with its past.

“Most companies have already gone a step further. This is now about four generations old,” said Christoph Kreutzmüller, a historian who has written extensively on “Aryanisation”, the process by which Nazi officials forced Jews to sell or hand over their businesses. “If you’re so uncomfortable with sharing, it strikes me as trying to hide.”

According to three former and current employees who spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, the foundation lagged behind for decades in deference to Karg’s heirs. His granddaughter, the countess Sabine von Norman, is part of Germany’s reclusive ultra-rich. She is hard to trace, aside from a riding stable she owns in southern Germany and her position on the foundation’s board.

“She is a smart and kind woman, but it’s clear there is some insecurity about the family history,” said one former employee. Efforts to contact Ms von Norman though the foundation were unsuccessful.

John-Philip Hammersen, the foundation’s managing director, said the descendants were previously reluctant to investigate only because preliminary studies conducted in 2000 and 2008 were inconclusive. They do not fear their history, he said, but wasted resources — and media attention. In the late 1990s, the charitable foundation was accused of being part of a tax arrangement benefiting the family.

“This was cleared up,” he said, following an agreement with tax authorities. “But they don’t want to read their names in the press again.”

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The foundation agreed in March to meet the HerTietz initiative’s request for a professional study, and argues that it has been delayed only because of bureaucratic steps and coronavirus. 

“This is a good step for the Hertie Foundation,” Mr Hammersen said. “True, it could have been done sooner, but better late than never.” 

But alumni are concerned that the research might be dragged out for years or remain locked away like previous studies. They vow to keep up pressure until the foundation publicly promises not to interfere, and announces a start and end date for the study. They also demand that the two preliminary studies be released.

The foundation argues those studies are out of date. But it also seems wary of others conducting their own research. “What we don’t want is a historical investigation by amateurs,” Mr Hammersen said.

The school itself has responded to the campaigner’s demands by putting up a timeline of Hertie’s history in its cafeteria. Mark Hallerberg, the school’s acting president, said there was also a plan to include a historical overview for incoming students. But the deeper investigation demanded by the initiative lies ultimately with the foundation.

For alumni such as Mr Busold, the debate is not just over what is in the documents but about encouraging open exchange in a community meant to foster public leaders of the future. 

He pointed to growing concerns over anti-Semitism, anti-migrant sentiments, and the rise of far-right populism as proof that opening up research and discussion of the Nazi era is still critical.

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“If you can’t be open about the past,” he asked, “how can you deal with the ambiguous problems of the present?”

Via Financial Times