David de Jong
by Mykyta Moskaliuk
Short profile

David de Jong is an investigative journalist and writer. Published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek. Currently working as a Middle East correspondent for Financieele Dagblad, a Dutch publication focusing on finance. He is an international political scientist and historian by education.

De Jong's debut book "Nazi Billionaires" has been translated into more than twenty languages; in Ukraine, published by the "Laboratoriya" publishing house, and translated by Inna Bodak.

A historian by profession, David de Jong has studied many wars. While writing a book about the heirs of Nazi Germany, he immersed himself in the research of the Second World War. Since 2014, he has been actively following the news of the Russian-Ukrainian war. In October 2022, he woke up to explosions in Israel. We talked about this path — from perceiving the war from a great distance to seeing it closer — during de Jong's first visit to Kyiv.

Let’s talk about your professional formation. About the moment when it came to your mind that you want to cover finance and history. How did these two become intertwined?

— I was born and raised in Amsterdam. I studied Political Science and International Relations. And then I went for my master’s in New York and London, where I did a research degree in History.

I got a working permit in America and started at an investigative unit at Bloomberg News which covered family-owned businesses. I was hired as a North American reporter on that team. But they soon asked me, because I'm Dutch, whether I could also cover the German-speaking companies. And it was really at that point that the intersection of business and finance and history came. Because I would go from 2012 onwards, spend a month in Bloomberg bureaus in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria and the stories I would come back with were always a mix of the financial, the historical, and the business side of things. And what struck me in my reporting is that companies like BMW and Porsche, but particularly the families that control them, would celebrate their fathers and grandfathers for their business successes, but would leave out any mention of their war crimes and Nazi affiliations during the Third Reich. And I thought that was such a brazen whitewashing of history! I wanted to spotlight it. So I started writing articles about it for Bloomberg. And then for the book, I moved from New York to Berlin for four years to report from there.

Is it a common practice to stereotypically engage the Dutch to cover Central and Western Europe?

— I would say so. It was a common mistake of my American bosses, who thought ‘Oh, this Dutch guy. He must speak fluent German. In hindsight, I'm very grateful to them. But of course, I was 25. I didn't dare to say no. But initially, I didn't really want to cover the German-speaking countries. I was born in the late 80s. The last of my generation grew up with this antagonism against Germany for occupying our country for five years and for murdering our fellow citizens. It mainly exerted itself on the football field. It was not a deep-seated hate, but rather a deep-seated dislike. By engaging with Germany and getting to know the country so well, I started to love it as it wanted to be a better country. And that's also one of the reasons why I wrote the book.

Working with such sensitive topics, how did you go about avoiding potential problems while writing about them? Because it is quite obvious that the companies, the dynasties, don't want their secrets shared.

— I think one of the great things that I learned at Bloomberg was to be very fact-focused. No flowery writing, not very descriptive, just stick to the facts. Of course, the families except for one heir didn't want to talk to me. Their spokespeople would answer my questions in a way where it became non-answers. Their entire strategy is to ignore, to neglect the topic so that people don't think about it. Following their strategy, the worst thing you can do is send a high-powered lawyer after a foreign journalist, because then you only draw attention to the subject.

Where is the demarcation line where the descendants bear or don’t bear the responsibility for their parents’ and grandparents’ deeds?

— I don't think they have responsibility for the actions of their fathers and grandfathers. What I do think is they have a moral responsibility for history. They have it tainted. It's to be transparent about that history, it's to be honest about it: you only learn from the past by showing the good and the bad sides. If you're only showing the good, it's a whitewash. And that is something that they haven't fulfilled until this day. German businesses as a whole have never taken any kind of moral responsibility for the crimes of the Third Reich perpetrated in their factories or their mines. I focused on the five most powerful business dynasties in Germany, but it gives a good representation of the way the subject is approached in the whole of German business nowadays and in the decades before.

Collective memory is a complex thing and sometimes it works in unpredictable ways. Your approach is radical transparency of history. Are there any memories that would better be left to professionals, such as historians, writers, and intellectuals?

— If they write about it, it's part of the collective memory. Right? There's a lot of traumas that people can't face. But the best way to deal with trauma is to confront it, which is extremely painful both as an individual as well as as a society. But the wrong thing to do is to cover it up because it festers, it boils and it becomes, for lack of a better word, a disease, an infection of intransparency.

From the feedback you get, could you say the book has brought change?

— Well, there's been a lot of developments that have come from the book. For example, the BMW Foundation has appointed an external lawyer to advise on a name change because the name giver, Herbert Quandt, saved BMW from bankruptcy, but was also a Nazi war criminal. They got so many reactions from angry people who had received money from the foundation in his name.

The Porsche Pierre family settled with the heirs of Adolf Rosenberger, who was a Jewish co-founder of Porsche. Following the book, it was not a financial settlement. It was a moral settlement that Adolf Rosenberger was pushed out of the company in 1935 for being Jewish and was subsequently erased from Porsche history, would get his rightful place in Porsche back. And so far two of Germany's, Europe's, the world's biggest companies, the most well-known companies have had major moral consequences to the book. So you can see the impact in German society in that sense.

Working with finance is rather about documented reality. What is there that numbers can reveal to us about our history that we don't know?

— It can show you when things were going well for a country, or vice versa. It can show you stability. It can also show you profiteering of misery, profiteering of success. It is a reflection of a company through time that shows you so much of what goes on, not only in a domestic, in a country but in the world itself. And I think numbers have a strange way of revealing ourselves to the world. Particularly when it comes to consumer companies or commodity companies. Because there's such a reflection, if they're well led, of what is going on in said society, in said country, in said region.

There is another side to working with personal stories. How to prevent people from telling you what they think happened instead of what happened?

— I wrote my master's thesis on the Demjanjuk Trial that was held in Israel. John Demjanjuk was an American citizen originally from Ukraine who was suspected of being Ivan the Terrible, the man who led the gas chambers at Treblinka extermination camp. But after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, it turned out in KGB archives that they had it completely wrong, that Ivan the Terrible was someone completely different, a man named Ivan Mashenko. Ivan Demjanjuk was sentenced to death and the Israeli Supreme Court overturned his death sentence. But the reason he was convicted was because five or eight survivors of the Sobibor extermination camp who were now living in Israel pointed him out saying this was Ivan the Terrible, this was the man who operated the gas chambers. In Treblinka, I think 800,000 people were murdered. There were 80 or 100 survivors or a few hundred. The judges couldn't challenge the testimony of these deeply traumatized people, as they held up as infallible as opposed to relying on documentary evidence, which they didn't have.

It goes to show the importance of documentary evidence versus collective memory, and also relying on the memories of those who were deeply traumatized. And I think that my master’s thesis about the trial taught me a lot about that – the importance of documentary evidence and the infallibility of memory. There's a really good story, a Netflix documentary about the trials called The Devil Next Door. Can very much recommend it.

You've said multiple times in different interviews that you were starting all of this research, writing the book, without any personal strings attached. But has it become a personal story? Can we say that in a way, this was a tool, an instrument, a way to work with your family trauma? With your family's past?

— I wrote this book for professional reasons. It was not the history of my family, whether Christian or Jewish, but it was a story of tens of millions of Europeans. But of course, it's also brought me a way closer to my own identity. It’s not so much about family trauma, because my family, thankfully, wasn't as impacted, if you compare it to other families… But I would say my Christian grandparents were far more traumatized than my Jewish grandparents. And they were all victims. My grandfather couldn't trust Germany anymore. You know, how dare you as a culturally quite similar country, how dare you come and invade our country and occupy us for five years? And I think he could just never trust it as a patriot, which I'm sure here at this very moment must be resonating a lot for Ukrainians, but in a broad sense.

I don't think it's a question of trauma for me personally, but it is a question of identity for sure. And I think this book has brought me closer to myself. It brought me closer to my family, my family's history, from which I'm descended. This journey, as it was, the book is a part of it. But I guess the book in a way is an accelerator for sure.

Were your grandfathers able to read the book?

— No, unfortunately not. That's why I dedicate it to my grandparents. We're all not there anymore.

Studying wars as a historian, writing a book about the consequences of WWII, the Russian-Ukrainian war you've heard about in media, the war you woke up to in Israel… What have they taught you?

— I'm intrinsically a very positive person. I believe in the good and that good will prevail. But that already started to shift in 2016 with Ukraine, because the world unfortunately ignored what happened in 2014 with the occupation of Crimea. I remember April 20th, 2016. The Netherlands was attuned because of the shooting down of MH17. We already were in a way more suspect of Russia. And in 2016, I first saw it with the Ukrainian referendum in the Netherlands that was hijacked by populists. Then Brexit, the vote that was also hijacked by populists. And then, of course, the election of Donald Trump, which was hijacked by populists. And I think since then, it's been like a sliding scale. And I think particularly whether it's Trump, Covid, January 6, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Hamas attack on Israel, you know, China, Taiwan.

We, those who grew up in Western Europe post-1945 had these decades and decades of democracy, of living in quiet, living in peace, being in shelter. Capitalism, wealth… the state of our world was peace and prosperity. And that's what we believed in, that it would be always like that. But everybody else outside of Western Europe and America knew better because they were living under occupation. They were living under authoritarian regimes. They did not have freedom of expression. So they know so much more what it is we're fighting for than we do. We don't know what it is to fight for democracy. We don't have any conception of that. We don't know what it is to defend our rights because we were allowed to sleep.

And a parallel is that, I guess Ukrainians are very much aware of that. But Israelis, in a way, are too. But so are Palestinians or so are Lebanese, because in the Middle East, you know, there are so many countries that are always under attack, either by their governments, by their regimes, by militias that are controlling the government. So they know what it is worth fighting for.

I've learned that now more in the past month because of being in Israel, because of being in the Middle East, not only in Israel but being in Palestine, being in Lebanon, by being here, in Ukraine. It is an existential fight. I believe that. Telling the story of what is going on here is paramount also because were, God forbid, Ukraine to fall, then the Western world would fall too.

It's the same for, interestingly enough, Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, was in Israel now and he saw Hamas as an existential threat to Israel. He said, that if Hamas continues, if it can survive in the long term, then Israel will not be able to survive. I'd never seen it that way. Israel, with 10 million people, is one of the wealthiest, most militarily equipped countries in the entire world. Big Brother America always has its back. Right. But what he's meant to say, and I think he views the Russian attack on Ukraine, the invasion in Ukraine, in similarly stark terms, but he views it as something existential. If evil prevails, then good will die, you know. And it doesn't matter that Hamas has 50,000 fighters and rules two million people in the Gaza Strip with an iron fist. He's not talking about Hamas, he's talking also about Hezbollah, about Iran. Now, the Israeli government has also spent decades cozying up to Trump, Putin, and Orban. One could argue that it is also not a force for the good, that it has also been a force that has divided its own country. But seeing it in these existential stark terms of good versus evil and having that narrative continue to come out is the most important thing. It is important, particularly now, for the story to be told to the outside world.

Do you already have a project for the next book?

— I do have an idea, which I already started working on three years ago. I want to write about the Dutch-American business dynasties that immigrated from the Netherlands to America between 1850 and 1920. In a century since, they have become some of the most powerful business dynasties in America. They're very religious, very calvinist. They've shaped the far right in America and the Republican Party in America to a very large extent. Why did these families leave the Netherlands? How did Calvinism shape them? This is what I would like to delve into.

Have you thought about becoming a full-time writer?

— I will always be a journalist first, if I write the accidental book on the side, that would be great. I will never be primarily a book author. But there will be years that my primary focus will be books and my secondary focus will be journalism.

One might say it’s about your vocation. 

— I mean, they go hand in hand, right? Sometimes it's three, sometimes it's a thousand words, sometimes it's a hundred thousand words.

Short profile

David de Jong is an investigative journalist and writer. Published in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Businessweek. Currently working as a Middle East correspondent for Financieele Dagblad, a Dutch publication focusing on finance. He is an international political scientist and historian by education.

De Jong's debut book "Nazi Billionaires" has been translated into more than twenty languages; in Ukraine, published by the "Laboratoriya" publishing house, and translated by Inna Bodak.