To get to know the Brenninkmeijers, the dynasty that founded clothing retailer C&A and has operated it for five generations, you have to travel to Mettingen. A short distance outside the small town about 20 kilometers from the city of Osnabrück, stands the family’s ancestral home. Built in the 18th century, the “Brenninckhof” is a straightforward half-timbered farmhouse in typical regional style. These days, it’s in disrepair, fenced off and in danger of collapse.
A few kilometers away in the center of Mettingen is a private museum dedicated to the family. The Draiflessen Collection can be visited by appointment four days a week. The name is a throwback to the argot of the wandering fabric traders in the 17th century and evokes the Brenninkmeijer family’s roots in the Westphalia, as well as Christian values and a tradition of honest trade.
But research has revealed a time when such values were glaringly absent from the company’s practices. The honest farmhouse and whitewashed museum obscure uncomfortable secrets from the National Socialist years, 1933 to 1945.
“It's no coincidence that this historical research is only taking place now, at a time when none of the perpetrator generation hold positions of power any more.”
The Brenninkmeijers, one of the biggest retail dynasties of Europe (2,000 branches and 55,000 employees), have revealed their dark past relatively late – but apparently of their own accord.
In 2011, an exhibition “100 years of C&A in Germany” brought to light the family’s connections with the Nazi Party. The Brenninkmeijers decided to delve deeper and hired the business and social historian Professor Mark Spoerer at the University of Regensburg. His task was to go through the complete, uncensored archives. The probe had to be transparent and verifiable.
“We were very quickly in agreement,” Professor Spoerer told Handelsblatt. “We had a common goal: the complete review of the family history according to all available documentation and testimony from any surviving eyewitnesses. We wanted to be absolutely sure there were no ambiguities or mistakes.”
The opening of the company archives, housed at the Draiflessen Collection in Mettingen, was a big deal for the Brenninkmeijers and not just because of the focus on the Nazi era. The family is secretive. Even today it keeps its traditions and peculiarities under wraps.
But the historical research was unexpectedly well-received. A history committee under the leadership of Joseph Brenninkmeyer – once head of the Draiflessen Collection and a distant cousin of current C&A chairman Maurice Brenninkmeijer – was formed to assist Professor Spoerer in the work.
Five years on, the results of the research have been published in a book titled “C&A: A Family Business in Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain.”
In an interview with German newspaper Die Zeit, Maurice Brenninkmeijer, 55, said the new revelations were “disturbing and downright shocking.”
C&A is just the latest large German firm to dig into its Nazi past. Deutsche Bank went through the process in the late 1990s, first through a historical commission led by Manfred Pohl and later with the American historian Harold James. Car makers Daimler and Volkswagen and insurance giant Allianz were next. Lufthansa ignored the subject for many years, until recently – when it invited historian Lutz Budrass to probe the murky depths of its own history. The Quandt family (of chemicals giant IG Farben) reacted only after pressure was applied. The list goes on.
Josef Schuster, the president of Germany’s Central Council of Jews says there’s a reason admissions of Nazi association are piling up now.
“Businesses and political institutions have in recent times been working through their Nazi pasts,” Mr. Schuster told Handelsblatt. “We welcome that. Better late then never.”
“But,” he added, “it’s no coincidence that this historical research is only taking place now, at a time when none of the perpetrator generation hold positions of power any more.”
Another powerful factor is that under the terms of the German Foundation for Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (EVZ), German firms and their subsidiaries on foreign soil are now protected against legal action over National Socialist crimes.
The history of the Brenninkmeijers in the years 1933 to 1945 is perhaps somewhat unusual. The family viewed the rise of Hitler and his the Nazi Party with skepticism. Under Nazi law, the Brenninkmeijers were classified as foreigners (Dutch), Catholics and capitalists.
Franz Brenninkmeijer’s application to join the Nazi Party in 1936 was rejected on grounds that he was not a member of the German national community. But the enterprising clothier knew how to fall in line with the system, and later to use it unscrupulously for his own gain. To diminish the “stain” of their foreignness in the eyes of the Nazi Party, they used the Brenninkmeijers of the Mettingen municipality as proof of their “Aryan” origins. At the same time, German citizens on the company’s management team joined the party.
The firm also ran into problems with the Nazi Party’s drive against big business, warehousing and co-ops.
When they opened a new branch in Leipzig and local opposition threatened failure, company buyer Albert Scharfenberger – the son-in-law of co-founder Clemens Brenninkmeijer – went straight to the Reich Economy Minister Hermann Göring. In additional to factual arguments (the company was making affordable clothes from local materials) he played the ideological card: Before the war C&A was one of the first firms to penetrate the Jewish-dominated textile market; the Brenninkmeijer family was pure Aryan and settled in the Mettingen area since the beginning of the 16th century. Göring intervened on the side of C&A.
And the Brenninkmeijers found other ways to get ahead in the Reich. Due to Nazi currency laws, from 1933 C&A built up massive cash reserves that could not be transferred abroad. The family used this money to buy up properties that Jewish owners had been forced to sell.
In one case, the acquisition of property from a Mr. and Mrs. Adler in Bremen, Professor Spoerer found evidence of a serious abuse of the Jewish persecution laws and a clear case of unethical behavior. The property was not just sold at well under its value. The previous owners were continued to be harassed afterwards. Unlike other companies, C&A did not buy out their competitors.
During the war, the Brenninkmeijers found that the National Socialist regime offered opportunities for exploitative labor. C&A set up clothing manufacture operations in the ghetto in the Polish city of Lodz. In Berlin they used more than 60 Russian forced laborers whose working and living conditions were so bad at least five young women and four children died of diseases associated with malnutrition.
“The business opportunities offered by the Nazi regime were obviously more attractive than the family’s Christian ethics,” said Professor Spoerer.
More then 70 years later, Maurice Brenninkmeijer says he struggles to understand his forefathers’ behavior. “From today’s perspective it’s incomprehensible,” he said. “Why did my relatives behave the way they did back then?”
In an interview with Die Zeit, he added, “I guess they were focused on their business, lost sight of our values and made ethically compromised decisions. I wish it were otherwise.”
But Mr. Brenninkmeijer didn’t go so far as to apologize for his family’s past crimes, saying he prefers to look to the future.
“The question is, what can we do to ensure that we’re less susceptible to these sorts of lapses?” he asked.
Tanja Kewes is a chief reporter for Handelsblatt and writes a weekly column. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.