The heiress of a German biscuit company has apologised for saying the firm “did nothing wrong” in its use of forced labour during Nazi rule.
Verena Bahlsen, 25, had been accused of being “oblivious to history” and the company had distanced itself from her comments.
But after the backlash she admitted her remarks were inappropriate.
“It was a mistake to amplify this debate with thoughtless responses,” Ms Bahlsen said in a statement
Bahlsen, which makes Choco Leibniz biscuits, employed about 200 forced labourers between 1943 and 1945 – most of whom were women from Nazi-occupied Ukraine.
What did Verena Bahlsen say?
The controversy started last week, when Ms Bahlsen told delegates at a marketing conference: “I’m a capitalist. I own a quarter of Bahlsen, that’s great. I want to buy a sailing yacht and stuff like that.”
Although German newspaper Handelsblatt reported that the audience clapped and laughed along with her, some social media users accused the heiress of being insensitive to the company’s past exploitation of forced labourers by making light-hearted remarks about her wealth.
Asked about the criticism in an interview with Bild newspaper, Ms Bahlsen replied: “That was before my time, and we paid the forced labourers exactly as much as German workers and we treated them well.”
She added that the company had nothing to feel guilty about.
These comments only deepened the controversy.
What has the response been?
The Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre in Berlin tweeted that there was “a great knowledge gap for family members of the Bahlsen family”.
“The issue of Nazi forced labour is often still a blind spot in the collective memory,” they added.
Guy Stern, a 97-year-old scientist whose family were killed in the Holocaust, also criticised Ms Bahlsen – telling reporters that she was talking about forced labourers “from the high viewpoint of an heiress”.
The Social Democratic Party’s general secretary Lars Klingbeil said: “Someone who inherits such great wealth, also inherits responsibility and should not be so arrogant.”
And historian and writer Felix Bohr argued in Der Spiegel magazine that although Ms Bahlsen couldn’t change her company’s past, “she must face up to its historical responsibility”.
He also criticised her “obliviousness to history”.
Ms Bahlsen has now apologised, admitting her comments were thoughtless.
“Nothing could be further from my mind than to downplay national socialism or its consequences,” she said in a statement on Wednesday.
She added that she recognised the need to learn more about the company’s history.
“As the next generation, we have responsibility for our history. I expressly apologise to all whose feelings I have hurt,” she said.