Transparency as a Guiding Principle

The Hamburg merchant Alfred Toepfer founded the F.V.S. Foundation in 1931. After his death in 1993, the Foundation adopted the name of its founder. His family asked for his name to be included in the name of the Foundation, which today is understood not as an undifferentiated mark of respect but as an act of transparency with regard to the source of the Foundationt’s assets. Given its long history, the Foundation sees itself as having a special responsibility to research its own past actions as well as the cultural, political, and business activities of Alfred Toepfer, and to make them transparent to the public. The Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F.V.S. provides an archive scholarship for scholarly research on Alfred Toepfer’s history, his foundations and business transactions.

The Founder’s Biography in Brief

Alfred Toepfer was born in 1894. In the 1920s he established a very successful commercial enterprise for agricultural products. The profits of this enterprise were channelled into the F.V.S. Foundation on its foundation in 1931; the Foundation is thought to have been named after the Prussian reformer Freiherr vom Stein. Toepfer’s political views at this time were shaped predominantly by support for the culture of German expatriates, backing for a youth movement which was close to nature, and economic liberalism. An orientation along specific party lines cannot be determined. Toepfer did not become an ardent follower of National Socialism after 1933. However, Toepfer’s support for particular goals, persons, and organisations of the National Socialist regime can be discerned in many details, as described in the publications on the history of the Foundation. In 1938 he withdrew from his enterprise because of difficultieswith its financial administration, which were also the reason for his brief arrest. From 1940 onwards, Toepfer served in the Wehrmacht, at first in the Abwehr, later in the acquisition of foreign currency. After the war he was provisionally detained and exonerated in the subsequent denazification process. He resumed his entrepreneurial and philanthropic work.

Taking Stock of History

Until the death of the Foundation’s founder, public questions about his role as a Wehrmacht officer in occupied France or the activities and goals of his various Foundations during the period of National Socialism were rare. His contemporaries, like the staff of the Foundation, reacted practically indignantly to what few enquiries there were. They pointed to Toepfer’s engagement for European reconciliation after the Second World War, the various exchange and funding programmes, as well as his numerous philanthropic activities in the areas of culture, research, nature conservation, and international understanding.

This did not change until the publication of an article in an Alsatian journal in the summer of 1995, written by a teacher from Mühlhausen with an interest in history. It set in motion a process that ultimately, after many twists and turns and controversial discussions, led to a comprehensive and still ongoing engagement of the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F.V.S. with its own history. In the article, the author raised severe accusations against Toepfer and alleged that he had continued to harbour political convictions and goals sympathetic to National Socialism after the end of the Second World War. In conjunction with further publications, this prompted both the city and the University of Strasbourg to terminate their collaboration with the Foundation the following year without further investigation into the claims. For many years previously, they had worked together in the context of the Strasbourg Award for German-French Collaboration.

The Foundation initially considered this to be a problem of communication and commissioned a PR agency to construct an action plan in response to these ‘attacks’. However, the Foundation’s assessment of the situation changed profoundly after an independent committee of historians researched the topic. The committee’s findings, published as a monograph, made it clear that the Foundation’s founder had to be fundamentally re-evaluated with critical distance in light of his contacts and business relations with the National Socialist regime (see DOWNLOADS).
Dr Jan Zimmermann published additional research, likewise supported by the Foundation, about its activities in granting awards from 1935 to 1945. It showed that the Foundation’s work during this time needed to be re-evaluated in the same fashion. At the same time, it became clear that many of the accusations against the Foundation and its founder had been polemical, without a basis in first-hand knowledge of the sources, and therefore did not stand up to scrutiny in their original form. Even so, they had been important in forcing the Foundation to consider its own history – and the work of the committee uncovered other incriminatory insights, as well as pointing out further gaps in historical scholarship.

All relevant and scholarly researched information about this topic is freely available through the Alfred Toepfer Stiftung F.V.S.’s website and its publications. The Foundation seeks to contribute, through public reflection on its history, to further research about the role of cultural institutions in the formation, affirmation, and spread of the National Socialist regime. The Foundation also engages directly with the problem of continuity in the figures involved in the cultural and intellectual life of the Federal Republic of Germany after 1945, and with developments and discontinuities in the cultural activities of individual members of the Foundation.