Excerpted from DAILY MAIL: There’s nothing like the presence of some Nazis to ruin a perfectly good party.
On Tuesday night, the comedian Russell Brand was thrown out of GQ magazine’s Men of the Year Awards after-show for making jibes about the event’s sponsor, Hugo Boss, and the fashion company’s historic links to the Nazi party.
While on stage, Brand told the gathered celebrities and politicians, ‘If anyone knows a bit about history and fashion, you know it was Hugo Boss who made uniforms for the Nazis.’
He then added, with less than subtle irony, ‘But they looked f***ing fantastic, let’s face it, while they were killing people on the basis of their religion and sexuality.’
But it has emerged that Brand himself is not averse to a spot of the designer’s sharp tailoring – having apparently been snapped wearing a jacket by the German fashion firm in February. Shortly afterwards, Brand was kicked out by the magazine’s editor, Dylan Jones. According to the comedian’s Twitter feed, the two men exchanged angry words, with Jones saying, ‘What you did was very offensive to Hugo Boss.’ Brand replied, ‘What Hugo Boss did was very offensive to the Jews.’
Although Hugo Boss has made no public comment, its executives are doubtless furious, not least because the £250,000 spent sponsoring the event seems to have bought nothing but another round of bad publicity about the company’s past.Of course, Brand’s claim is not new — such stories about the fashion label’s murky past have been doing the rounds for years.
But the connection between Hugo Boss and the Nazis has been peddled so often, and with so many variations, that the true story is almost completely obscured.
Brand’s outburst this week provides a perfect opportunity to set the record straight.
The first myth to torpedo is that Hugo Boss designed the smart black uniforms for the dreaded SS.
Although it is tempting to suppose that the evil glamour of these outfits must have been the product of a fashion designer, there is no truth to it at all.
In fact, the uniforms evolved from earlier Prussian styles. The designs continued to evolve with modifications from the foundation of the SS in 1925 to its disintegration two decades later.
The infamous black uniform itself came into being in 1932 and is said to have been designed by an artist and senior SS officer called Karl Diebitsch, who worked with a graphic designer called Walter Heck.
Neither man worked for Hugo Boss.
So, if Russell Brand was implying, as I infer from his remarks, that Hugo Boss created the Nazi uniforms, he is plain wrong.
Perhaps Brand meant that Boss simply manufactured them. In which case he’s right. But there’s more to it than that.
To answer the question fully, it is vital to know a little more about Hugo Boss himself.
Boss was born in 1885, to parents who owned a lingerie and linen shop in the small town of Metzingen, 20 miles south of Stuttgart.
After serving in World War I, Boss established his own clothes factory in 1924, which produced traditional outfits.
It was certainly not designing couture, and its clothes, such as raincoats and sportswear, were functional.
Among one of Boss’s earliest clients was a textiles distributor called Rudolf Born, which commissioned Hugo Boss to produce some brown shirts for an organisation called the ‘National Socialist Party’, later, to become better known as the Nazis. By the late Twenties, the growing Nazi Party had become a good client. And when the Party supplied Hugo Boss (as it did other manufacturers) the production templates for its uniforms, it appears that Boss did not see the relationship in anything but commercial terms.
After all, Boss produced uniforms for many organisations, including the police and the postal service, and the apparently apolitical Boss was happy to make clothes for whoever paid their bills.
However, on April 1, 1931, Boss took a step that would see his name — and brand — forever associated with Nazism. He joined the Nazi Party and was given the relatively low membership number of 508,889.
Boss’s reasons for becoming a Nazi comparatively early were twofold. First, as a businessman, it made commercial sense, as it made it easier for Boss to win contracts from the Nazis who were increasingly coming to dominate every aspect of German life.
Second, Boss believed that Hitler was the only man who could lift Germany out of its economic doldrums.
Such a businesslike attitude was not exceptional. There were certainly better men who refused to do business with the Party, but though Boss was happy to sign contracts with them, he was not a rabid Nazi. He was simply a pragmatist.Partly thanks to his membership of the party, the Nazis were good to Boss. By 1933, he was able to advertise that he made clothes not only for the SS, but also for the Hitler Youth and the Brownshirts — the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.
Then in 1938, business skyrocketed when Boss won contracts to make army uniforms. By 1940, the company was turning over some 1,000,000 Reichsmarks, compared to 200,000 Reichsmarks in 1936.
However, it was still far from being a major manufacturer. In 1940, Boss was employing some 250 workers, which made it a small to medium-sized firm.
Like many, Boss found it hard to find employees during the war, and this is where the story does turn truly dark.Unable to fill roles, the company found itself employing forced workers from the occupied countries.
During the course of the war, Boss used 140 such labourers and for a period of around eight months from October 1940, the workforce was swelled by 40 French prisoners-of-war.
Although Boss’s factory was not part of a concentration camp — and his labourers were not prisoners — the conditions were dreadful.
One former Boss labourer, a 17-year-old Pole called Jan Kondak, was forced to work in the factory from 1942 to 1945.
He recalls the hygiene being very poor. ‘In the barracks there were lice and fleas.’
He describes the food as insufficient given the hours they had to work. During air raids, the workforce was not allowed into shelters, but had to stay in the factory.
Another labourer, Elzbieta Kubala-Bem, recalls being rounded up the Gestapo from her town in Poland in April 1940, and forced to work at Boss at the age of 19.
She remembers the medical facilities as woeful. ‘There was no special treatment for children and pregnant women,’ she says, ‘and there was no way to visit a doctor. If we had a disease, we had to treat ourselves.’
The most poignant story is that of a Polish woman called Josefa Gisterek, who was sent to work at Boss in October 1941. In December, Josefa fled back home to help her father raise her siblings, but she was captured by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where she was dreadfully beaten.
However, when Hugo Boss found out where she was, he used his contacts in the Nazi party to get her returned to Metzingen. Although his motivation for trying to save her isn’t clear, he did seem to feel some responsibility for his workforce.
But when she returned, the factory foreman worked her mercilessly, and she had a breakdown.
Josefa was finally given three months’ leave, and allowed to see a doctor, but on 5 July 1943, she gassed herself with an oven.
Boss then did an almost unprecedented thing: he paid for the funeral expenses, as well as travel costs for her family to attend.
Though this was a noble gesture, it would have been more decent and caring for Boss to have ensured his forced labourers were treated more humanely in the first place.
Still, by the standards of some employers, Boss did treat his labourers reasonably well — and paid them somewhat less meanly.
After the war, Boss was ‘de-nazified’. He was classified as an active supporter of Nazism, was fined 100,000 marks, and was stripped of the right to vote and run a business.
However, Boss appealed, and he was eventually classified as a ‘follower’, a lesser category, which meant that he was not regarded as an active promoter of Nazism.
Boss died in 1948, but his business has lived on, albeit still stained by its association with Nazism. In 1999, the company finally agreed to contribute to a fund that compensated former forced labourers.
The true story of Hugo Boss, his firm and its relationship with the Nazis, is rather less straightforward than Russell Brand would have it.
He certainly did not design the SS uniforms, though he did produce them. It is, however, shameful that Boss, like so many other manufacturers, used forced labourers from occupied countries.
Ultimately, Boss was not an evil man, but he did not do enough to stop evil happening.
That is an important distinction and may not be one appreciated by a man as unsubtle as Russell Brand.