Transparency as a guiding principle
The Hamburg businessman Alfred Toepfer founded the Stiftung F.V.S. in 1931. After his death in 1993, the foundation was named after him. Because of its long history stretching back into the dark period of Nazism, the foundation sees itself as bearing a particular responsibility for investigating the cultural, political and business activities of Alfred Toepfer, and to make this research available to the general public.
A look at Toepfer’s life
Alfred Toepfer was born in 1894. During the 1920s, he built up an extremely successful trading empire for agricultural products and, in 1931, started to direct most of its profits into a foundation named F. V. S., presumably after the Prussian reformer and statesman Freiherr (baron) vom Stein. At this time, Toepfer’s political leanings tended towards the cultivation of expatriate Germans, the support of nature-oriented youth movements (‘Wandervogel-Bewegung’), and the endorsement of economic liberalism. All of this did not bring Toepfer to seek affiliation with any specific political party. Even after 1933, Toepfer did not become an enthusiastic follower of National Socialism; nevertheless, the evidence for his support of individual objectives, people and organisations within the National Socialist regime is well established by now, as can be seen from the list of questions and problems below as well as in the growing body of scholarly work published so far. In 1938, problems with the financial administration led to his resignation from the company, and also to nearly a year imprisonment.
In 1940 Toepfer joined the Wehrmacht, initially in the army’s counterespionage unit in France and later in the special division whose task was the generation of foreign currency. At the end of the war he was back in business but was eventually interned by the Allies for more than two years. When the process of de-Nazification was concluded he was discharged with the classification ‘not incriminated’. He immediately resumed his business and philanthropic activities.
Stations in the evaluation of history
Until his death, the founder's role as Wehrmacht officer in occupied France as well as the activities and aims of his various foundations during the time of the National Socialist regime were rarely subject to public scrutiny. His companions and the foundations' staff generally reacted rather indignantly when confronted with inquiries. They would point to Toepfer's commitment to European reconciliation after the Second World War, the numerous exchange programms and scholarships promoted by the Foundation's programme as well as his comprehensive philanthropic activities in the fields of culture, academics, nature conservation and international understanding.
Only the publication of an article in an Alsatian magazine by an historically-inclined teacher from Mulhouse in the summer of 1995 started the discussion. In the article the author made serious allegations against Toepfer, claiming that he held on to National Socialist political views and aims even after World War II. Further publications resulted in the city of Strasbourg and the Strasbourg University terminating their cooperation with the Foundation in the context of the Strasbourg Prize for Franco-German cooperation without an in-depth examination of the facts the following year.
The Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F.V.S. first took this incident as a "communication problem" and assigned a public relations agency to arrange a course of action about how to react to these charges. After an independent academic committee of historians was assigned to analyze the situation previous assessments changed fundamentally. The committee's findings were published, elucidating the founder's contacts and relations to the National Socialist regime which had to be submitted to a comprehensive and critical reassessment.
Additional research by Dr. Jan Zimmermann, also supported by the Foundation, examined the awarding of prizes by the Stiftung F.V.S. between 1935 and 1945 and proved the Foundation's work at the time had to be reassessed as well. At the same time it became apparent that many of the allegations against the founder and the Foundation, in parts polemical and without thorough knowledge of the sources, were indefensible. Nonetheless they served the purpose to urge the Foundation to re-examine its own history. The committee found other incriminating insights and pointed to further research gaps.
Now, the results can be accessed without restrictions on the website of the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F.V.S. and in its publications.
Alfred Toepfer. Sponsor and Businessman. The Foundations of a Biography – A Critical Appraisal Editors: Georg Kreis, Gerd Krumeich, Henri Ménudier, Hans Mommsen, Arnold Sywottek; Christians-Verlag, Hamburg 2000
Download introduction. The entire volume is available upon request.
The Cultural Prizes of the F.V.S. Foundation 1933–1945. A documentary presentation by Jan Zimmermann, in the series 'Akzente für Europa' ['Accents for Europe'] Christians-Verlag, Hamburg 2000.
'Alfred Toepfer' by Jan Zimmermann, published by the ZEIT-Stiftung [ZEIT Foundation] in the series Hamburger Köpfe [Hamburg Heads], Ellert & Richter Verlag [Ellert & Richter Publishers], Hamburg 2008.
Available at bookshops: ISBN: 978-3-8319-0295-8, 160 pages with 35 illustrations, price: 14.90 EUR