Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A new report on Walther Sommerlath’s actions in the Nazi era

It caused quite a stir earlier this year when Swedish TV4 ran a two-part documentary investigating the Nazi past of Queen Silvia’s father Walther Sommerlath, which, contrary to claims earlier made by the Queen and her brother, showed that their father, who joined the Nazi party in 1934, in 1939 took over a factory belonging to a Jew, Efim Wechsler, who was forced to leave Germany following the Kristallnacht, and that Sommerlath’s factory subsequently contributed to the war industry.
Queen Silvia was deeply affected by these accusations against her father and claimed to know nothing about it (she was born in 1943). She subsequently announced that the family would carry out an investigation to uncover the facts and the results of this investigation have now been published on the royal website (external link) in Swedish, English, German and Portuguese.
The report, written by Erik Norberg, Lord-in-Waiting to King Carl Gustaf and former national archivist, confirms much of TV4’s findings, but adds some important information about how Walther Sommerlath took over Wechsler’s factory, which makes Sommerlath appear in a better light than previously.
At the time of his daughter’s wedding to the King of Sweden in 1976, Walther Sommerlath denied to Swedish media that he had ever been a member of the Nazi party. This was disclosed as a lie nine years ago by journalists of the newspaper Arbetet, who simply checked the membership files and found that Sommerlath joined the party in 1934.
Norberg’s report confirms this, showing that Sommerlath joined the Brazilian branch of the German Nazi party in 1934, a year in which its membership rose from 107 to 1014. While Queen Silvia has earlier claimed that “everyone” joined the party, Norberg states that NSDAP eventually had approximately 2,900 members in Brazil, but insists that other organisations associated with the party should also be counted and thus reaches the number 12,000. The German colony in Brazil at that time consisted of some 89,000 individuals, which confirms that a Brazilian historian interviewed by TV4 was right when she shot down Queen Silvia’s claim.
In the absence of any proof of why Sommerlath joined the Nazi party, Norberg speculates about the reasons, but mentions only “social” reasons – the idea that it might have been for ideological reasons is not even hinted at. However, there is nothing which suggests that Sommerlath was an active party member.
It was in December 1938 that Efim Wechsler was asked to leave Germany and in June 1939 he emigrated to Brazil, where his only child was already living. TV4’s documentary showed that at this time, when forced sales of Jewish companies were commonplace, Walther Sommerlath took over his firm Wechsler und Henning in Berlin.
Norberg confirms that Sommerlath’s factory did contribute to the war industry, but adds that the “company was of course insignificant in relation to the overall production apparatus, and it was also a subcontractor to pure military equipment industries”.
Most importantly Norberg shows that the circumstances in which Sommerlath took over Wechsler’s factory were not as black as TV4’s documentary may have made it seem. Walther Sommerlath had in 1937 decided to leave Brazil for Germany, which he did the following year. However, during 1938 he returned briefly to Brazil and at this time bought 20.5 % of a coffee plantation, Fazenda Santa Joaquina, which belonged to his wife’s family.
On 29 April 1939 Walther and Alice Sommerlath sold this to Efim Wechsler, whose company Firma Wechsler und Hennig was taken over by Walther Sommerlath a few days later. But already on 21 December 1939 Wechsler sold his shares in the plantation to Alice Sommerlath’s brother-in-law José Baptista de Almeida Barbosa, using the money to set himself up with a new job and new home in Rio de Janeiro.
Although the sale of Wechsler’s company was obviously forced upon him by the Nazi regime, this goes a long way in indicating that the new owner, Walther Sommerlath, tried to help Wechsler make the best out of the situation.
“All indications are that this was an agreement that had been put in place to compensate Wechsler for the takeover of Firma Wechsler und Hennig and to make it possible for Wechsler to establish himself in Brazil”, Norberg writes. “The price of Firma Wechsler und Hennig was thus quite simply the plantation and the land in Santo André, and these assets in turn created the conditions for Wechsler eventually to become established with his workshop in Rio de Janeiro”.
Norberg also points out that following the end of the war it was “possible to apply to the German State with claims for compensation for economic damage suffered during the period of the Third Reich”. The fact that Wechsler in 1949 applied to the Wiedergutmachungsamt only for compensation for a property in Berlin and not for the company, means that it is “not unreasonable to assume that he considered that payment had already been made for the transfer”, Norberg concludes.


  1. As a historian, do you feel that Erik Norberg's position as a Lord-in-Waiting might be problematic in terms of objectivity? I guessed that the position probably implies some degree of personal acquaintance and perhaps friendship, as Queen Silvia is known to have friends as her Ladies-in-Waiting, and my first thought was that a personal acquaintance or employee is probably not the best choice for a disinterested investigator.

    Still, it looks to be a fascinating report that I plan to read through fully, and kudos to Silvia for making it public.

    It is interesting that you say that Walther Sommerlath lied to the Swedish public in 1976 about his Nazi party membership. I wonder whether the Swedish press at the time simply didn't bother to check his statement, or whether they refrained from challenging his lie to avoid offending the royal family?

    On an incidental note, do you have any idea what name Silvia's mother chose to use after her marriage? I have seen all possible variations - Alice Soares de Toledo, Alice de Toledo, Alice de Toledo Sommerlath, and Alice Sommerlath - and, IIRC, even the royal court is not always consistent about it.

  2. The position as Lord-in-Waiting is not exactly comparable to that of Lady-in-Waiting as the former is mostly an honorary title. However, I will not be surprised if it is held against him and his report by some who may argue that he is a "toady". Perhaps it might have been better if there had been an independent investigation, but as a former national archivist et al Erik Norberg is respected and as far as I can tell he has produced a solid report based on the facts he and the Queen have been able to uncover.

    It was a journalist from Expressen who asked Walther Sommerlath about his membership in NSDAP in 1976 and I think he simply took Sommerlath's word for it. It was only in 2002 that journalists from Arbetet checked the membership files and uncovered that Sommerlath had indeed been a member of the party (by then he had been dead for twelve years).

    I believe Queen Silvia's mother was named Alice Soares de Toledo before marriage and Alice de Toledo Sommerlath after marrying, but that this was often shortened to simply Alice Sommerlath.


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