He helped Nazis rob Jews: How is he ‘not an anti-Semite’?

A German university has released the secret report that prompted its decision to change the name of a research institute honoring the former chairman of a company which insured slave labor workshops at Auschwitz and other death camps.

The University of Mannheim in southern Germany has now put a link to the 30 page report on the website of its Foundation for the Promotion of Insurance Science, previously known as the Dr. Kurt-Hamann Foundation.  The name change, reported in the Times of Israel, had been decided last December but was not officially approved by the Karlsruhe regional government until June.  

Despite the decision to change the name of the foundation as well as its annual prize, one of the main conclusions of the report, stated twice by its author: “There’s no doubt [Dr. Hamann] was not an anti-Semite” and “Clearly it can only be argued that [Dr. Hamann] was not an anti-Semite.”

The impetus for Mannheim University to commission the report was the publication of the book “Stolen Legacy”, by US-based former BBC journalist Dina Gold, in which she revealed the links of Dr. Hamann and the Victoria Insurance Company to the Holocaust.  

Written by Prof. Dr. Johannes Baehr of Goethe University Frankfurt, the report chronicles the activities of Dr. Hamann as chairman of the Victoria Insurance Company before, during and after the Second World War.  As part of his research Dr. Baehr obtained access to the tightly-held archives of the Victoria, now owned by the Dusseldorf-based ERGO Group.

Dr. Baehr offers no definition of anti-Semitism in his report but writes that Hamann “obviously had no scruples at all about doing business in which the Victoria profited from the persecution of the Jews.”

Hamann never joined the Nazi party although the report notes that two members of the board of management had joined as early as 1933, when Adolf Hitler came to power.  The report also says that for several years in the 1930s Karl von Treuenfeld was employed in the Victoria’s industrial department. Von Treuenfeld later became an SS General and was involved in war crimes during the invasion of the Soviet Union. He committed suicide in an American prisoner of war camp at the end of the war.

The report, which did not make any recommendation whether the University of Mannheim should change the name of its institute, adopts a near neutral tone throughout: 

*After Hitler’s annexation of Austria and the western part of Czechoslovakia, Prof. Baehr writes “the company continued to expand its presence in these regions.” In 1939 the Victoria acquired the Polish Florianka insurance company, based in Krakow, with Hamann taking a personal role.  The report notes that the Florianka “might have lost a large part of its client base through the rigorous persecution of the occupation regime.”  It goes on: “There is no doubt that the crimes committed …in the Auschwitz extermination camp, about 45 miles west of Krakow, were probably well-known to Florianka…The extent to which the board of the Victoria around Kurt Hamann…was informed about the crimes…cannot be inferred from the documents viewed.”

*Apart from insuring the buildings and materials of SS-owned slave labor workshops at Auschwitz, the Victoria’s Polish subsidiary insured the forced labor camp at Krakow-Plasnow. The Victoria also insured a building at Dachau belonging to an SS housing and homeowner non-profit.

*The “documents in the archives of the ERGO Insurance Group show that most of the 105 residential and commercial buildings taken over in Berlin between 1933 and 1939 [had been] Jewish property. In many, if not most cases, this was by … a forced sale. The real estate acquired in this way belonged throughout to Jews who had taken a mortgage with Victoria.”  “Victoria profited from the ‘aryanization’ of Jewish property not only as a buyer of real estate but as an intermediary for such transactions.”

*Hamann was also directly involved in the aryanization of properties owned by the [Jewish] Tietz family, owners of the famous Tietz department stores. The Victoria was the largest mortgage creditor of the Tietz group.  Tietz properties were acquired by the Victoria for below the price at which they had been bought during the First World War.  After the Second World War, Hamann stated that he had concluded the deal in the belief that the Tietz family “would be grateful for our willingness.” In his report, Prof. Baehr writes: “The family saw it differently.” In 1952, lawyers negotiated a settlement whereby the Victoria paid compensation of DM1 million (worth about $250,000 at the time). 

*Hamann “personally dealt with cases in which Victoria had to deal with higher authorities.”  One such property was at Beethovenstrasse in Berlin, the Institute for Sexual Science.  Founded by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld, an advocate for sexual minorities, the building was mortgaged to the Victoria.  The institute was ransacked by a mob shortly after Hitler came to power. Victoria applied for a forced auction but the house had been confiscated by the Gestapo and given to the Prussian state. Hamann asked the Prussian Ministry of Finance to resume mortgage payments.

*After 1990, when the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited, the Victoria considered filing claims for restitution of its real estate in former East Berlin. However, the company wanted to avoid any adverse publicity surrounding its role during the Third Reich.  So, it decided not to pursue any claims.  Prof. Baehr quotes from a board of management meeting held in March 1995: “Because the entire East Berlin property was acquired from forced auctions of Jews who had been expelled…it becomes clear that our companies are threatened with a dangerous public discussion on the subject ‘VICTORIA and the Jews’.” (The report noted that the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany was also claiming the properties.)

*As well as mortgages, the Victoria also issued life insurance policies. Prof. Baehr writes: “Many Jewish migrants had to cancel their life insurance prematurely in order to finance their departure.” This was very profitable to the Victoria as the surrender value of the policies was less than the actual value, he noted.

When the University of Mannheim originally announced its decision to change the name of the Dr. Kurt-Hamann Foundation, a news release said: “While the preserved sources used for the report do not enable a judgement to be made of Kurt Hamann’s personal views regarding National Socialism, it has become clear that, under Hamann’s chairmanship, the Victoria demonstrably took many properties from Jewish owners… With the change of name, the University of Mannheim would like to set an example; any person who lends his name to a prize awarded to excellent young academics should also be able to serve as an ethical role model.” 

Whether this report prompts a discussion about what constitutes anti-Semitism is another question.

About the Author
Uwe Westphal is a Berlin-based journalist and author of the recently published “Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836 – 1939: The Story of the Rise and Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry.