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Tuesday, May. 6, 2003. Page 1

A Nazi-Era Industrialist Makes Good

By Robin Munro
Staff Writer

For MT

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 States.

"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 Wolff.

Wolff's determination 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 leaders.

"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 shadowy past.

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 gold sales.

"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 wrong."

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 attention."

Zuroff did not accept that there was nothing wrong in doing business with Krupp and IG Farben.

"'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 the powerful.

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 corporations.

But it is his relationship with Russia and the Soviet Union that will be his lasting legacy.

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 peoples."

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