Krispy Kreme’s Nazi Roots — and the Challenge of Accountability

It’s likely that, before this week, you hadn’t heard of the Reimann family if you lived outside of Germany. And it seems likely, too, that that’s exactly how the Reimann family wanted it. Which is, if true, a major failure of accountability. There is a total lack of accountable leadership in the Reimann family.

You almost certainly have heard of the consumer brands owned by the Reimann family. They include Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Panera Bread, Einstein Bros. Bagels, and Keurig. The Reimann family is one of the richest in Germany, with a net worth of at least $10 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Some estimates go considerably higher, but let’s stick with the $10 billion estimate for now. But all that money will not buy accountability or create accountable leadership.

Why does any of this matter? Because this week a German newspaperbroke the news that the family’s ancestors — specifically the patriarchs who ran the family business in the 1930s and ’40s—Albert Reimann Sr. and his son Albert Reimann Jr.—were enthusiastic Nazi supporters and vicious anti-Semites who built the family’s financial empire on slave labor. Albert Reimann Sr., it has been revealed, was an early supporter of Hitler’s National Socialist party, making financial donations as early as 1931 to the nationalist party that would eventually initiate World War II and launch a massive, industrialized campaign of genocide against Jews and other minority groups.

Did the family reveal what it knew about its own roots? No. A reporter had to do that for them. That’s called not telling the truth. That’s a failure of accountability and a lack of accountable leadership.

Did the family, when the truth came out, exhibit a high degree of accountability through accountable leadership and make significant reparations to atone for the crimes against humanity its patriarchs committed? I’m going to have to go with “no” on this one, as well. In the aftermath of the story breaking globally, the family announced that it would donate $11 million to an as-yet-unidentified charity. Eleven million dollars is roughly two months’ interest on the family’s net worth. That’s not acceptable. The figure suggested represents only about 0.01% of the family’s wealth — which is, we must remember, built on the labor of slaves and on the blood of victims of genocide.

Eleven million dollars may sound like a lot of money, but in this case it’s definitely not. That tiny percentage of the family’s assets sounds less like a desire to make meaningful reparations, and more like a budget line for public relations efforts meant to make this story vanish.

It’s not vanishing. Why not? Because the absurdly small projected donation is an abject failure of accountability that stands as an unconscionable insult to the leadership principle I call “It’s all of us.” Leaders who commit to this principle stand united with their employees and with the larger community, vowing to succeed or fail together. Offering one one-hundredth of one percent of the family’s enormous, tainted fortune is more like “It’s all for us.” And it’s simply not an adequate response.

A more serious effort at reparations would have been, say $5 billion — one-half of the Reimann’s ill-gotten family fortune — donated to a clearly identified charity that addresses human rights issues around the world. That hasn’t happened yet. Until it does, the Reimann family’s brands — Krispy Kreme included — will be, and should be, considered complicit with some of the darkest crimes of human history.

The kinds of crimes of which the elder Reimanns were guilty are still very much with us. Think about what they could be doing with five billion dollars devoted to the cause of stopping the persecution of people based on what they believe or where they’re from!

The fact that the family chose a number that didn’t hurt says to me that they weren’t all that serious about making things right. They just want a P.R. problem to disappear. If they truly believed that what their ancestors had done was wrong, the leaders of the Reimann family would have made more of an effort and put their own comfort lower on the priority list. That is what accountable leadership does when they want to make up for something that they truly believe is wrong. They take a position that may cause discomfort for themselves. They commit themselves. They believe that doing what is right is always the right thing to do. They say, “This can never happen in the world again — I may not be able to change what my grandfather did, but I can commit myself and my family’s resources to take on big projects that work for equality and justice in the future. And I can set an example and challenge others to do the same.”

That is what accountable leaders do. It hasn’t happened in the Reimanns’ world — yet. But I like to believe it could.

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