Research Group on Wealth and Social Inequality

"Wealth in Germany: Structures, Continuities, and Fractures" Subproject

Daria Tisch

A small group of families or individuals, with fortunes amounting to at least hundreds of millions of euros, sit at the top end of the wealth distribution in Germany. Divided into various subprojects and based on data from wealth lists, the “Wealth in Germany: Structures, Continuities, and Fractures” subproject will explore the accumulation, stability, growth, and loss of private wealth.

At the beginning of the project, databases will need to be created or merged. Access to a range of relevant data sources is currently being reviewed and can be further expanded if required. The data goes back at least partially to the German Empire in the nineteenth century. Aspects of the overarching research question will be considered on the basis of this data. The precise nature of the project will be determined by the available data and the research interests of the group’s members. Possible areas of focus and questions of interest are:


1) The Structure of Wealth in Germany (2000-2020)

For some super-rich families, the accumulation of wealth goes back to the nineteenth century or even further, while others have only become rich in recent decades. The project will concern itself with the current richest families in Germany. This initially involves identifying and outlining the key features that characterize these families: How do they invest their wealth? In which industrial sectors are they primarily active? What role does the family play in corporate governance? What property and legal structures exist? Which avenues for exercising political influence, examples of engagement with civil society, and structures for networking can be discerned? Based on the data, the project will explore questions such as:

  • How do families and wealth structures differ depending on the “age” of the wealth? What are the structural differences between inherited and self-made wealth? Viewed over time, has there been a structural change in wealth from entrepreneurial activity to pure portfolio management?
  • The central material interest of rich families is in preserving or growing their wealth. To do this, they must successfully invest their assets and safeguard them against the state and dysfunctional family members. In protecting their material interests, which legal institutions are involved, what precautions are taken when wealth transfers from one generation to the next, and how is political and social influence exerted? What is the key to the success of super-rich families in remaining at the top of the wealth distribution?
  • Families do not always succeed in preserving their wealth. What are the main contributing factors to economic failure?


2) The Continuity and Discontinuity of Wealth in Germany in the Twentieth Century

This part of the project charts the long-term continuities and breaking points in wealth in Germany over a period of time. What happened to the fortunes of the super-rich of the late Empire during the twentieth century? In general, it addresses the question of how to explain the long-term success or failure of families in Germany in holding onto and increasing their wealth and position of affluence. This should primarily include the following questions:

  • How do families that succeeded in preserving or increasing their wealth differ from those that did not? What role do industrial sector, initial wealth, confession, political connections, legal system and legal reforms, family structures, and geographical factors play?
  • What role do the radical political and economic changes of 1919, 1929, 1933, 1945, and 1989 play in the continuity of wealth ownership?
  • What structural change has taken place over time in the wealth examined? What role do entrepreneurship, diversification, changing industry, legal structures, and company sale play?


3) The Economy of Nobility

A third area of interest has a similarly historic focus and specifically concerns the wealthy members of the nobility of the late Empire:

  • To what extent can we see continuities with regard to the economic fortunes of the nobility in the twentieth century?
  • Is it possible to differentiate between the wealth strategies and structures of the rich nobility and those of other high net worth families?



MPIfG: Research Project "Research Group on Wealth and Social Inequality" |
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