May 14, 2019 / 12:00 PM / 10 days ago

German biscuit heiress apologises for Nazi forced labour remarks

BERLIN (Reuters) - The heiress of a German biscuit empire has apologised for stirring outrage with remarks that appeared to play down the hardship suffered by dozens of people forced to work at the family business under Nazi rule.

FILE PHOTO: Part of a memorial to the victims of forced labour under Nazi rule in Germany is seen at the former Buchenwald concentration camp site in Schwerte, Germany, January 13, 2015. REUTERS/Ina Fassbender/File Photo

Verena Bahlsen, whose father owns the Bahlsen company that 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 Two 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 company owner Werner Bahlsen, told the mass-selling 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,” Bahlsen said in a statement on Wednesday. “I apologize 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.”

Bahlsen, which makes Leibniz butter cookies, voluntarily paid 1.5 million deutschmarks (about 750,000 euros) 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. “never buy #Bahlsen,” tweeted Walter Petermann.

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,” she said at a business event in Hamburg earlier this month. “I want to earn money and buy a sailing yacht.”

Reporting by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Kirsten Donovan

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