The Reimann family is not a familiar name in America, but it ought to be: among the products it markets are Krispy Kreme doughnuts, Lysol and Calvin Klein perfume. The company it owns began as a chemical firm that morphed into a worldwide conglomerate, JAB, making the Reimanns the second-wealthiest family in Germany.
That wealth is based not only on business acumen, but on one of what (until now) has been one of Germany’s most carefully kept secrets. It is well known that many of Germany’s largest companies exploited slave labor during World War II. The Reimann firm was among them. But the Reimanns were unique. Female workers were forced to stand at attention in the nude in their factory barracks. They were used, and abused, in the Reimanns’ own home. Both Albert Reimann and his son, Albert Jr., personally tortured and assaulted their slave labor. Both, too, were among Hitler’s most vocally enthusiastic supporters.
Siemens, Daimler, Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank — Donald Trump’s personal banker — are among the German giants who have been required to fund compensation for Nazi slave laborers. The Reimanns have kept their secret until now. Their descendants, however, decided to investigate the family past five years ago. What they discovered — the story is still incomplete — turned them, in the words of a family spokesman, “white as a wall.”
Thus far, the Reimanns have announced that they will donate $11.3 million to charity as a token of their regret, a derisory amount in a family fortune estimated at nearly $40 billion. Call it the Chump Change Fund. But at least they admitted the truth before it was pried from them.
How, though, were the Reimanns able to escape detection until now? France, some of whose POWs were among their laborers, scouted them out after the war. But the American occupation authority overruled the French, and Albert Sr. and Jr. went right back to business. German assets were too useful in the Cold War to be wasted.
American businesses too often have a lot of mud, and sometimes more than a little blood on their hands. They exploit convict labor, and what amounts to little more than slave labor abroad. Until now, however, they have managed to avoid the direct charge of selling death itself. But no longer.
The Sackler family has also specialized in chemical manufacture, specifically pharmaceuticals. Unlike the Reimanns, it hasn’t been hiding its light under a bushel. Specializing in subsidies for the arts, the Sacklers have plastered their name not only over museums, universities and art programs but staircases, walkways and even a stained glass window at Westminster Abbey. You’ll find Sackler wings and Sackler institutes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim in New York; the Smithsonian and the Freer collections in Washington, D.C.; the British Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Tate Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. They’re at Harvard, at Cambridge and at Oxford.
The name “Sackler” was supposed to mean art and learning. Now, it means OxyContin.
The Sacklers got into the drug business when they acquired a struggling company, Purdue Pharma, in 1952. They quickly developed the business model that would make America the most drug-dependent country in the world. By the early 1960s, a U.S. Senate Committee reported that the “Sackler empire” to be “a completely integrated operation.” By that, it meant that the Sacklers had developed a vertical monopoly that developed drugs, ran the clinical programs that tested them and wrote the reports that won Food and Drug Administration approval and then marketed them in the journals they controlled and the physicians they bribed, building a steamroller effect. Among their earliest successes were with Terramycin and Valium, the latter being the product that built Pfizer.
Then they developed Oxycontin, the opioid that ensnared a generation of Americans and has led to the deaths of over 200,000 users in the past twenty years. OxyContin was a pain medicine designed primarily for cancer patients; the Sacklers marketed it with unparalleled aggressiveness for all kinds and levels of pain, making it the best-selling opioid in the country by 2004. At the same time, they falsely claimed that it was safe and non-addictive; although in some places, up to 75 percent of new patients in methadone clinics were hooked on it. To this, Richard Sackler responded by saying that his victims had willfully abused his drug “with full, criminal intent.” In contrast to this, an internal Sackler document, stating that pain treatment and addiction were “naturally related,” proposed to develop a new line of overdose-reversing drugs. The best-known among those is Naloxone, which public-spirited citizens are encouraged to carry to treat addicts in street emergencies. Money was thus to be made at both ends of the addiction cycle.
A $634 million judgment against Purdue Pharma in 2007 did not deter the Sacklers; sales were briskly ahead of fines. Recently, the State of Oklahoma won a $270 million settlement against Purdue Pharma, a model for several other states and several hundred counties that have also filed suit. In addition, some 1600 federal cases are currently pending against the Sacklers. Nonetheless, Richard Sackler received a patent for a new overdose-reversing drug last year, and only this March the FDA fast-tracked approval for an injectable overdose drug. Whatever their legal troubles, the Sacklers’ marketing plan is working just fine.
What do the stories of these two families, the Reimanns and the Sacklers, have to tell us? The Reimanns were unrepentant Nazis who were perfectly prepared to profit by the death of those who worked for them. The Sacklers are immigrants who prospered in America and were — are — equally prepared to profit by the death (or, indifferently, the recovery) of those they have knowingly victimized. The Reimanns were working in concert with the German state; the Sacklers have worked with the knowledge and consent of critical agencies of our government. The Reimanns are doing better than ever; the Sacklers, who are spreading their risks in spin-off corporations, fully intend to. The Reimanns have admitted their shame, but as a write-off item. The Sacklers have bought respectability, and although some of the institutions which have received their gifts and endowments say they will accept no more, none have proposed to return them.
If you’re big enough and bad enough for long enough, murder is exactly what you often do get away with.