The involvement of the board members

Wintershall Dea History NS Times Involvement Board Members
Wintershall Dea History NS Times Involvement Board Members
Wintershall Dea

Historical drawing of Wintershall's Managing Director August Rosterg (1870-1945), no date. 

Between opportunism and pragmatism. How Wintershall AG and its Board members were involved in Third Reich

Corporate history as a culture of memory

Remembering the consequences of personal discrimination and persecution, of forced labour, exploitation, and robbery gives the victims a face and a voice. The more the generation of those who were victims slowly disappears, the more we need to work to prevent everything from be-ing forgotten. To pass their story on is a question of due respect and tactful reverence.

However, awareness of the role one’s own company played in the Nazi era be- comes even more important if it is not only considered as a matter of looking back and of the past encouraging us to learn its lessons. In the company, a future-oriented culture of memory devoted to the values of democracy, di- versity, and togetherness can indeed emerge from historical responsibility.

Pre-cisely in view of historical forgetfulness. which today is once again defining the one or other debate in society, the lessons learned from a compa- ny’s own history acquire precious signifi-cance that promote its identity.

During the Third Reich, Wintershall AG became deeply involved in the machina- tions of the unjust regime. Squaring up to this historical responsibility is still of enormous significance for the company today.


August Rosterg: A calculating cooperation partner for the Nazi regime

The General Director August Rosterg (1870-1945) played a key role in the link between Wintershall AG and the Nazi regime.

The engineer, who hailed from Westphalia, ran the company with great success as of 1916. He was an authoritarian patriarch and a die-hard conservative businessman. Rosterg rejected the republic of the inter-War years, as he believed economic policy was influenced far too much by the political left wing and strong trade unions, who with their excessive wage and working time demands were a threat to his company’s success. Instead, he wanted a strong state that would protect the German potash syndicate from foreign competitors, while at the same time assuring companies the greatest possible free commercial scope.

It was these reactionary, anti-democratic convictions, coupled with business- related opportunism that prompted Rosterg as early as 1931 to support the Nazis in their quest for power. As such, the Wintershall Board was one of

the early supporters of the Nazis. Together with Günther Quandt – the major shareholder and Chairman of the Wintershall Supervisory Board – and other industrialists, he met Adolf Hitler personally on several occasions even before 1933 to discuss the future economic course. In the spring of 1932, he was one of the founding members of the so-called “Keppler Circle” and made generous donations to the Nazi movement before and after it came to power. Through the “Freundeskreis Reichsführer SS”, in 1935-36 he came into personal contact with Heinrich Himmler and also started to help fund the SS’s ideological and Party police-related projects.

His behaviour was determined less by ideological closeness to the regime’s goals and more by sheer pragmatism, as he sought to benefit business-wise from the war economy and the plans for Germany’s self-sufficiency. In his attempt to keep the corporation’s internal organization free from the influence of the German Labour Front (DAF) officials and card-carrying careerists he clearly came into conflict with the grass-roots of the Nazi party. Ultimately, his tactic of making financial favours in an effort to buy business and political protection hardly worked.

The Wintershall Board acted as an accessory to and supporter of the Nazi system, drawing the company ever more deeply into the Third Reich’s predatory and persecutory structures.


Doing business with persecution: Wintershall and the “Aryanization” of the economy

The mixture of distancing itself from and seeking closeness to the Nazis is also evidenced by Wintershall’s involvement in squeezing Jewish entrepreneurs out of German business.

Until the summer of 1935, i.e., for a long time in comparison with other companies operating in the sector, Wintershall held on to Jewish representatives in its own committees; Rosterg had had long business and commercial relationships with them. Only when the pressure became too great and there was a threat of sanctions, were they dismissed. The company was less scrupulous when it came to outside Jewish entrepreneurs. In the case of the takeover of Burbach AG, calls for compensation on the part of Jewish bankers were turned down with political support. Wintershall tacitly used the Nazi persecution pressure for its own benefit.

The Board played a far more active role in the “Aryanization” of Anhaltische Kohlenwerke and Werden-Weissenfelser Braunkohlen AG from the Jewish Julius Petschek corporation. Arguing that German commodities should be placed in German hands, in mid-1937 Rosterg attempted to use his contacts to the Nazis to acquire the Petschek mines. His bid to the Jewish owner was considerably lower than the company’s net asset value. When subsequently, on behalf of the

Four-Year Plan agency under Herman Göring, both IG Farben and especially the Flick con-glomerate became involved in the negotiations, the sales price was lowered again drastically. Rosterg and Wintershall were if anything passive beneficiaries, as they themselves played no part in the persecution of the owners, though they did exploit the pressure exerted by Flick and the Nazi agency to close an extremely advantageous business deal. The Jewish assets were ultimately divided up between the interested German parties. As such, Wintershall AG was both a beneficiary and a willing profiteer of the persecution of the Jews.


Always in on the act: Wintershall and the campaigns in Occupied Europe

Wintershall was also an important player in the exploitation of oil reserves in the so-called Occupied Territories in central and east Europe during the Second World War. The private corporation had interests in Kontinentale Öl AG and Beskiden Erdölverarbeitungs- und Gewinnungsgesellschaften (as of 1942: Karpaten Öl AG), which on behalf of the Third Reich embarked on a colonialist raid of the oil deposits in the Caucasus, the Baltic region, the Soviet Union, and Galicia in Poland.

Wintershall operated in these state-dominated umbrella companies together with other partners from the German crude oil industry. It became a proxy for a commodities strategy, which in order to guarantee supplies to the Wehrmacht not only took no notice of the existing ownership and mining rights of hundreds of foreign mining companies.

At the same time and as a result of this dirty business, Wintershall became involved in the exploitation, the torment, and the suffering of thousands of foreign labourers and forced labourers who had to work in the German plants under inhumane conditions. The fact that Wintershall AG can be seen as a typical example of the mechanisms of a company’s involvement in the Third Reich in no way diminishes its guilt or responsibility.

Wintershall Dea Historical Congress Speaker Koehler
Wintershall Dea Historical Congress Speaker Koehler
Wintershall Dea/Bernd Schoelzchen

About the author

Apl. Prof. Dr. Ingo Köhler is a German economic historian. Since 2021 he serves as a director of the Hessian Economic Archive in Darmstadt. From 2019 to 2021 he was Assistant to the Coordinator of the DFG Priority Program on the topic of 1859: “Experiences and Expectations. Historical Foundations of Economic Action” at Humboldt University in Berlin. Previously, he was head of the DFG-funded research unit “Professionals of Forecasting: Market Research as the Basis for Business Expectations in Germany and the USA after 1945” at the University of Göttingen since 2016. In 2003, he received his doctorate with the thesis „The Aryanization of Jewish Private Banks under National Socialism (1933-1939) and the Question of Reparation”, which has since received several awards.