Austrian heiress gives away €25m fortune

Inheritance part of estimated €4.2bn BASF fortune left by grandmother on death in 2022

Marlene Engelhorn is the great-great-great-granddaughter of BASF founder Friedrich Engelhorn. Photograph: Mashid Mohadjerin/New York Times

Who wants to be a millionaire? Not Marlene Engelhorn. Six months ago, the 32-year-old social activist announced plans to give away her €25 million inheritance as a member of the family behind the BASF chemicals multinational.

Now, after six-weekend meetings, a council of 50 strangers has decided how to divide up her fortune. The proposals from the Guter Rat für Rückverteilung (Good Council for Redistribution) include six-figure donations to Austrian charities operating women’s refuges, homeless shelters and youth work. Other donations will go to groups that work with at-risk children and people with mental health issues.

Of nearly 80 donations the largest single gift, €1.07 million, will go to Attac Austria and its “democratic, social, ecological and gender-equal reform of the economy”.

The redistribution council is the latest step in the Tax Me Now campaign begun three years ago by Engelhorn and other wealthy heirs to reform inheritance tax regimes in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.


The abolition of inheritance tax in her native Austria in 2008, Engelhorn says, means “that democracy is endangered by the disproportionately large influence of a few rich people. If the government does not ensure that wealth is redistributed in society, then we have to take action and make sure that the issue gets the attention it deserves,” she said.

Born in Vienna in 1992, Marlene Engelhorn is the great-great-great-granddaughter of BASF founder Friedrich Engelhorn. Her inheritance is part of the estimated €4.2 billion fortune left by her grandmother Gertraud on her death in 2022.

The campaign has drawn attention to the issue of tax justice, particularly in Germany where, Engelhorn estimates, the taxman takes just 9 per cent of the estimated €400 billion inherited annually.

Germany’s centre-left Friedrich Ebert Foundation estimates that an additional €10 billion is lost annually because of tax loopholes for the wealthy. “This is Germany’s single largest tax break,” said the foundation in a recent report.

While income of €50,000 is taxed at 20 per cent in Germany, the foundation said, a €20 million inheritance is effectively taxed at about 1 per cent.

The Tax Me Now campaign says a similar pattern is visible worldwide where, according to the most recent Oxfam report, 1.1 per cent of the world’s population owns about 45.8 per cent of the wealth.

Last January, Engelhorn and other allied millionaires and billionaires travelled to Davos to demand action from world leaders gathered for the World Economic Forum.

“We are at a tipping point,” they warned, “as costs for our economic, societal and ecological stability are huge, and are growing daily. Now is the time to act.”

At the final presentation of their work this week, the Guter Rat für Rückverteilung called for further research into inheritance and taxation.

“We would wish for a redistribution of wealth that is less extreme and more transparent, as well as a more sensible combination of inheritance, gift and wealth tax,” said Elisabeth Klein, a council member. “The goal has to be that extreme inequality is reduced and that taxes on work can be reduced.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin