Dr. Oetker is a multi-billion-dollar, family-owned German business that makes all kinds of food products, from baking powder and cake mixes to pudding and cornflakes. It is also one of the biggest frozen pizza makers in the world.
This week, the company announced the discovery that four works of art in its corporate art collection were actually plundered by the Nazis from their rightful Jewish owners—a fact that should surprise exactly no one. That's because Dr. Oetker, and the family that controls it, were once pretty deeply involved with the Third Reich.
The revelation came over the course of some soul-searching the company has been doing of late. A few years ago, the corporation's leaders commissioned a study about its involvement with the Nazis. Then, in 2015, Dr. Oetker hired a provenance researcher to look into its art collection.
Now, the company is saying that four works of art have been identified as being the product of Nazi looting, that it had contacted the heirs of the original owners, and that it is willing "to discuss a settlement."
Dr. Oetker dates back to 1891, when August Oetker, a pharmacist, developed a type of baking powder called "Backin," which was sold in single-use packages—a novelty at the time. But it was August's grandson, Rudolf-August Oetker, who brought in unsavory ties. He joined the company in 1944 after having trained as an SS officer—at the Dachau concentration camp, no less. Rudolf-August was evidently a true believer, having been influenced by his stepfather, Richard Kaselowsky, who was a big supporter of Hitler. In the several decades after he took over the company, Rudolf-August turned it into a multibillion-dollar venture, adding interests in shipping, beverages, hotels, and banking. He also amassed a corporate art collection that includes hundreds of paintings, as well as silver and porcelain. Rudolf-August died in 2007.
The current company chairman, also named August Oetker, is intent on coming clean about the family's nasty past. "My father was a National Socialist," August Oetker told Die Zeit newspaper back in 2013. August commissioned the study of the family's and the business's history, which was published in 2013. In addition to uncovering Rudolf-August's nasty past, it revealed that the company helped fuel the Nazi war machine by providing food—and weapons—to the Nazis during the war.
In addition, a company called Kochs Adler, which was majority-owned by the family, produced grenades and machine gun parts, using slave labor and prisoners of war to man their factories.
Following publication of this checkered family history, an audit of the company's art collection was ordered. In a statement last week, the company said, "The goal is to check whether works in the collection were originally owned by people who were persecuted by the Nazis," adding that if any art was identifiable as the product of Nazis looting forced sales, the company would seek an amicable settlement with the heirs of the rightful owners.
As of this week, four looted works of art have already been identified, but the company has not publicly named the pieces, citing confidentiality agreements with the heirs.
Talk about skeletons in a closet! At least this company is starting the process of opening the door to see what's actually in there.