Lagerfeld parents were Nazi Party members, new biography reveals

Celebrated fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld had guarded his family history closely

Nazi family history: German designer Karl Lagerfeld  in Paris in 2011. Photograph: Jacky Naegelen, Reuters

Nazi family history: German designer Karl Lagerfeld in Paris in 2011. Photograph: Jacky Naegelen, Reuters

 

Until his death last year, fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld guarded his family history closely. A new book suggests why: his German parents were Nazis who employed slave labourers in the family business.

A family album photograph from 1938, reproduced in the book, A German in Paris, shows the then four-year-old Karl standing before the family home in lederhosen as the Swastika flag flutters on a flagpole.

His father Otto Lagerfeld was the franchise holder of the Glücksklee (Lucky Clover) condensed milk business in Germany. Business was doing so well – with an annual turnover of 50,000 Reichsmark (about €180,000 in today’s terms) – that, in 1934, he bought a manor, Gut Bissenmoor, an hour’s drive north of Hamburg. By the early 1940s, turnover had jumped to the equivalent today of €280,000.

But that business success came at a cost, according to Alfons Kaiser, a journalist and author of the new biography. He turned up so-called “denazification” files showing that Otto Lagerfeld joined the Nazi party in May 1933, four months after the Hitler takeover.

Such a move was not unusual for businessmen hoping to curry favour with the new fascist regime. The firm went on to secure a lucrative contract to supply soldiers with condensed milk. The files show his wife Elisabeth also joined, though she disputed this later. To meet demand, the firm employed about 80 Poles and so-called “Eastern Workers” – slave labourers distributed by the Nazis to loyal business owners.

Karl Lagerfeld moved to Paris in 1952, saying he felt “wasted on post-war Germany”. With self-generated gossip he began creating a new past; that he was an heir to an industrial fortune.

He filed a lawsuit in 2007 when writer Alicia Drake began poking around in his background, describing it as “hard-earned middle class”. He claimed her book, The Beautiful Fall, was an invasion of his privacy and called for the author to be fined and the book banned. Lagerfeld lost the suit and, partly thanks to his legal action, the book became a bestseller.

The author of the new biography had, as editor of the monthly magazine at the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, commissioned cartoons by Lagerfeld who was then in this final years. 

A 2017 cartoon blames Angela Merkel’s refugee policies for the arrival of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the Bundestag. The image shows Hitler lurking behind Merkel, with a commentary from Lagerfeld: “Thank you very much for inadvertently allowing my descendants to be represented in parliament.”