The heiress of a German biscuit empire has apologised over remarks she made that appeared to play down the hardship suffered by dozens of people forced to work at the family business under Nazi rule.
- Bahlsen used labourers from Nazi-occupied Ukraine during World War II
- German politicians criticised Verena Bahlsen for saying the company did nothing wrong when it employed the workers
- Bahlsen makes some of Germany’s most popular biscuits, including Leibniz butter cookies
Verena Bahlsen, whose father owns the Bahlsen company, which makes some of Germany’s most famous biscuits, said her remarks that the firm did nothing wrong when it employed 200 forced labourers during World War II were thoughtless.
Most of the forced labourers at Hanover-based Bahlsen were women, many from Nazi-occupied Ukraine.
“This was before my time and we paid the forced labourers exactly as much as German workers, and we treated them well,” 25-year-old Bahlsen, one of four children of Werner Bahlsen, told the Bild newspaper in remarks published on Tuesday.
German politicians criticised her remarks, and some social media users called for a boycott of Bahlsen biscuits.
“It was a mistake to amplify this debate with thoughtless responses,” Ms Bahlsen said in a statement on Wednesday.
“I apologise for that. Nothing could be further from my mind than to downplay national socialism or its consequences.”
She added that she recognised the need to learn more about the company’s history.
“As the next generation, we have responsibility for our history. I expressly apologise to all whose feelings I have hurt,” she said.
Bahlsen, which makes Leibniz butter cookies, voluntarily paid 1.5 million deutschmarks (about $1.213 million) in 2000-2001 to a foundation set up by German firms to compensate 20 million forced labourers used by the Nazis.
Former forced labourers have failed to obtain compensation from Bahlsen in individual lawsuits, with German courts citing statute of limitations laws.
“If you inherit such a large estate you also inherit responsibility and should not come across as aloof,” Lars Klingbeil, secretary general of the centre-left Social Democrats, told Bild on Tuesday.
Germans also voiced anger towards the heiress on social media.
“Bahlsen is now officially the official snack food of the AfD,” one Twitter user wrote on Tuesday, referring to the far-right Alternative for Germany party, whose leaders have been accused of downplaying Nazi crimes.
“The Bahlsen package is rather blue,” the user added, referring to the blue colour of both the biscuit box and the AfD party flag.
Other Twitter users called for a boycott of the Bahlsen brands.
Verena Bahlsen has also been criticised for boasting about her wealth and love of conspicuous consumption.
“I own a fourth of Bahlsen and I am very happy about that. I want to earn money and buy a … yacht,” she said at a business event in Hamburg earlier this month.
A number of private companies used forced and slave labour during the Nazi era, including BMW, Daimler-Benz and the Friedrich Krupp Ironworks.