Otto Wolff von Amerongen is
credited with reviving business ties between
Germany and the Soviet bloc.
For more than 50 years,
German industrialist Otto Wolff von Amerongen has walked
the corridors of power and influence on both sides of
the Iron Curtain.
Serving as Bonn's informal
ambassador to Moscow while heading numerous trade
committees and commissions over the decades, Wolff has
been at the forefront of the German drive for closer
economic relations with Russia and the Soviet Union.
All this despite a past that
links Wolff, 84, to Nazi Germany's theft of Jewish
holdings during World War II.
Today, Wolff is known more
for his postwar record. He is widely credited with
resuscitating trade relations with the Soviet bloc
following Germany's defeat in World War II. Russia
celebrates the 58th anniversary of its victory over Nazi
Germany on Friday.
Thanks in part to Wolff,
countries in the former Soviet bloc now account for 12
percent of German trade, a larger share than the United
"Wolff has been the most
important financial functionary in postwar Germany,"
said Werner Ruegemer, who co-directed a 2001 television
documentary about Wolff's family firm, Otto
outlasted the Berlin Wall and bolstered innovative
thinking such as Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik, which
reopened West Germany's economic relations with the
Soviet bloc in 1970.
Wolff has filled various
leading roles in business, including head of the German
East West Trade Committee and the Delegation of German
Industry and Commerce, or DIHT. Through it all, he has
maintained a dizzying access to power, advising every
German chancellor and many other world
"Mr. Wolff, I have always
thought that the only people you knew were Communists,"
Chancellor Konrad Adenauer said 1958. "You introduced me
to [Anastas] Mikoyan [then-deputy prime minister of the
Soviet Union] and he is still here. Now you show up with
the closest economic adviser of U.S. President [Dwight
Eisenhower]. How do you manage that?"
A better question may have
touched on Wolff's ability to distance himself from a
Wolff grew up the son of a
wealthy Cologne industrialist whose eponymous firm Otto
Wolff produced steel and machine tools and took part in
German trade with the Soviet Union in the early 1920s.
When his father died in 1940, the son took over. Wolff
spent much of World War II in Portugal.
Ruegemer said Wolff was a
Nazi spy in Portugal, involved in selling gold plundered
from the central banks of European nations Hitler had
conquered and shares that had been stolen from Jews.
Wolff also provided tungsten,
a key armaments metal used to harden steel in rifles and
artillery, Ruegemer said. At the time, Portugal was the
only nation that exported tungsten to Germany.
"The documents referring to
the activities of Wolff in Portugal as head of the
Lisbon subsidiary of the industrial concern Otto Wolff,
and as representative of an industrial consortium of
Wolff, Rheinmetall, Krupp and IG Farben, come from the
National Archives in Washington," Ruegemer said by
telephone from Cologne.
IG Farben built and operated
a chemical plant at Auschwitz using slave labor. Several
company executives were sentenced to imprisonment at the
Nuremberg war crime trials. Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und
Halbach, head of Krupp, was too ill to appear before the
court, but his son was jailed.
Along with all other members
of the board of directors of Otto Wolff, Wolff was
interned after the war. The transcripts of his
interrogations, during which he admitted to being a
counterintelligence agent, were released by the Clinton
administration in 1999.
Ruegemer said the Soviets
would have known about Wolff's past, either during the
war, when Portugal was a center for the secret services,
or after, when documents relating to the firm's
activities were taken to Moscow.
Barbara Bonhage, a Swiss
historian who has written on the findings of a Swiss
commission that investigated Switzerland's role in
financial transactions involving the Third Reich, said
the firm Otto Wolff was involved in supplying the
Germans with tungsten between 1941 and 1944. In an
e-mail response, she said that IG Farben was also
involved in this business.
"The firm Otto Wolff was
mandated by the Third Reich to sell in neutral countries
shares stolen by the Nazis," she said, though she
possessed no information on the firm's involvement in
"I did not deal in gold or
shares, but represented a German firm," Wolff said in a
recent interview when asked about Ruegemer's
allegations. "It was in a consortium trading to get hard
currency. It was a very normal business."
Wolff said he had some
contact with the Abwehr German counterintelligence. But
it was for "only one year," and he was in Portugal for
more than two years.
As to his internment: "I was
let out early because I was young and had done nothing
Efraim Zuroff, director of
the Israel office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the
center's chief Nazi hunter, said he had no information
on Wolff. But Zuroff also said that there wasn't any
reason to doubt Ruegemer's information.
"The center has never focused
on economic issues," Zuroff said in a telephone
interview. "We have so much to do with hands-on
murderers that we felt that they deserved our
Zuroff did not accept that
there was nothing wrong in doing business with Krupp and
"'Nothing wrong' in the
larger scheme of things in which the main crime is mass
murder," he said.
Whatever the evidence, it
didn't stop Wolff from carving out a sterling business
career for himself, based largely on the personal
relationships he was able to build with the elite and
Wolff was one of the first
members of the Bilderberg Group, an international lobby
representing the interests of the power elite of Europe
and North America. In 1971, he was the first German to
join the board of Esso (now ExxonMobil). Wolff went on
to serve on a total of 26 boards of directors, including
Deutsche Bank and several other leading
But it is his relationship
with Russia and the Soviet Union that will be his
Wolff met and befriended
former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov in Soviet times
when Primakov worked at the Moscow State Institute of
International Relations. Primakov pointed out that Wolff
did not always talk business or politics, but that he
discussed broader issues such as geopolitics.
"He was open to others'
ideas, no matter whom they came from," Primakov said at
a recent ceremony honoring Wolff's contribution to
German-Russian business ties. "That was difficult
because behind us there was a destructive war that had
left many wounds between us."
Additionally, Primakov said
Wolff understood that economy is a "locomotive that can
improve relations between two states."
Andrea von Knoop, head of the
local DIHT office and the German Business Association,
described Wolff as a living legend.
"You opened doors in Moscow
when most of them were shut," she said. "You tried to
build bridges when others were more interested in
building iron curtains. You maintained contacts here
when they were looked down on."
A rare envoy for his day,
Wolff was able to build close relationships with many
Russian leaders. He is a big supporter of President
Vladimir Putin, whom he has known for 10 years.
In an interview published on
DeutschlandRadio's web site, Wolff said Putin should be
able to create the foundations of a market economy,
which Boris Yeltsin failed to do.
"The young are readier for a
new economic order, simply because they were not so
influenced by the old system," he said. "Also, people
who worked in the services such as he did have a
different view on Russia from the outside, unlike those
who spent all their time in Moscow."
Wolff made much of his career
with the German East West Trade Committee, which he
headed in 1956. In December, the committee celebrated
its 50th anniversary, and a short film dedicated to
Wolff was shown.
"When I am asked what my most
important achievement is," he said in the film. "I say
it is the friendship between the nations and the