Like many students at the renowned Hertie School in Berlin, Alexander Busold and Laura Franken knew that the name of their institution came from a chain of department stores that no longer existed. What they hadn't noticed was that the name brought with it a story from Germany's Nazi past and a legacy that is still controversial.
In 2016, the year they graduated, they were shocked by a newspaper article telling the neglected story of the chain on whose wealth their school was founded. It was actually started by a Jewish family who expropriated their fashionable stores under Nazi rule in the 1930s. The name "Hertie" is derived from Hermann Tietz, whose descendants founded the company.
"I was not only shocked, I was embarrassed," recalled Ms. Franken. "It seemed like a contradiction in terms that the Hertie School and Foundation, which deals with open society and research, were no longer interested in talking about this Nazi past from which we all benefited financially."
The Hertie School, Germany's leading private graduate school for public order and foreign affairs, is currently in a battle over how to deal with questions about the history of its founder, the Hertie Foundation. It is one of the largest non-profit organizations in Germany with endowment assets of EUR 1 billion that come from Hertie's assets.
The Tietzes fled to the United States in the 1930s, and Georg Karg, who took over the business, later paid restitutions and built a department store empire that lasted into the 1990s. However, this transfer of ownership has never been professionally investigated.
For two years, a group of students and alumni led by Mr. Busold and Ms. Franken, called the HerTietz Initiative, negotiated quietly with the foundation over the formal investigation into Hertie's history. This has now led to a public and bitter argument about how to investigate past misdeeds, who can tell this story, and whether Hertie heirs influence those decisions.
Controversial legacies are not uncommon in Germany: since the 1990s, dozens of companies and institutions have commissioned studies of their history during the Nazi era, so that this is now standard practice. What is unusual is how long it took Herties to grapple with his past.
“Most companies have already gone a step further. It's now about four generations old, ”said Christoph Kreutzmüller, a historian who has written extensively on“ Aryanization, ”the process by which Nazi officials forced Jews to sell or hand over their businesses. "When you feel so uncomfortable about sharing, it seems to me that I'm trying to hide."
According to three former and current employees who spoke to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, the foundation lagged behind Karg's heirs for decades. His granddaughter, Countess Sabine von Norman, is one of Germany's secluded ultra-wealth. Apart from a riding stable in southern Germany and her position on the board of trustees, she is difficult to find.
"She's a smart and kind woman, but it's clear that the family history is uncertain," said a former employee. Efforts to contact Ms. von Norman, although the foundation was unsuccessful.
John-Philip Hammersen, executive director of the foundation, said the descendants have been reluctant to investigate because the preliminary studies carried out in 2000 and 2008 were inconclusive. They are not afraid of their story, he said, but are wasting resources – and media attention. In the late 1990s, the charitable foundation was accused of being part of a tax regime that benefits the family.
"This has been resolved," he said after an agreement with the tax authorities. "But they don't want to read their names in the press again."
In March, the foundation agreed to comply with the HerTietz initiative's request for a professional study, arguing that it was only delayed due to bureaucratic steps and the coronavirus.
"This is a good step for the Hertie Foundation," said Hammersen. "True, it could have been done earlier, but better late than never."
However, alumni fear that the research will drag on for years or, as in previous studies, be locked away. They vow to keep the pressure on until the foundation publicly promises not to interfere and announces a start and end date for the study. They also request the publication of the two preliminary studies.
The foundation argues that these studies are out of date. But it also seems to be cautious about others doing their own research. "What we don't want is an amateur historical investigation," said Hammersen.
The school itself responded to the activist's demands and created a timetable for the story of Hertie in their cafeteria. Mark Hallerberg, the school's incumbent president, said there were also plans to include a historical overview for incoming students. However, the more detailed investigation required by the initiative ultimately rests with the Foundation.
For alumni like Mr Busold, the debate is not just about what is in the documents, but about promoting open exchange in a community that is intended to promote the heads of state and government of the future.
He pointed to growing concerns about anti-Semitism, feelings against migrants and the rise of right-wing populism as evidence that opening up research and discussion about the Nazi era is still critical.
"If you can't be open to the past," he asked, "how can you deal with the ambiguous problems of the present?"