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Thyssen was born in Mülheim in the Ruhr area. His father, August Thyssen (1842–1926), was head of the Thyssen mining and steelmaking company, which had been founded by his father Friedrich Thyssen and was based in the Ruhr city of Duisburg. Thyssen studied mining and metallurgy in London, Liège, and Berlin, and after a short period of service in the German Army he joined the family business. On 18 January 1900 in Düsseldorf he married Amelie Helle or Zurhelle (Mülheim am Rhein, 11 December 1877 – Puchdorf bei Straubing, 25 August 1965), daughter of a factory owner. Their only child, Anna (Anita), (later Anita Gräfin Zichy-Thyssen), was born in 1909. Thyssen again joined the army in 1914, but was soon discharged with a lung condition.
Thyssen was a political conservative and a German nationalist. In 1923, when France and Belgium occupied the Ruhr to punish Germany for not meeting its reparations payments in full, he took part in the nationalist resistance against the occupiers, leading the Ruhr steelmakers in refusing to co-operate in producing coal and steel for them. He was arrested, imprisoned and received a large fine for his activities, which made him a national hero. Through the 1920s the Thyssen companies continued to expand. Thyssen took over the Thyssen companies on his father's death in 1926, and in 1928 he formed United Steelworks (Vereinigte Stahlwerke AG), controlling more than 75 percent of Germany's iron ore reserves and employing 200,000 people. He played a prominent role in German commercial life, as head of the German Iron and Steel Industry Association and the Reich Association of German Industry, and as a board member of the Reichsbank.
In 1923, Thyssen met former General Erich Ludendorff, who advised him to attend a speech given by Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nazi Party. Thyssen was impressed by Hitler and his bitter opposition to the Treaty of Versailles, and began to make large donations to the party, including 100,000 gold marks ($25,000) in 1923 to Ludendorff. In this he was unusual among German business leaders, as most were traditional conservatives who regarded the Nazis with suspicion. Thyssen's principal motive in supporting the National Socialists was his great fear of communism; he had little confidence that the various German anticommunist factions would prevent a Soviet-style revolution in Germany unless the popular appeal of communism among the lower classes was co-opted by an anticommunist alternative. Postwar investigators found that he had donated 650,000 Reichsmarks to right-wing parties, mostly to the Nazis, although Thyssen himself claimed to have donated 1 million marks to the Nazi Party. Thyssen remained a member of the German National People's Party until 1932, and did not join the Nazi Party until 1933.
In November, 1932, Thyssen and Hjalmar Schacht were the main organisers of a letter to President Paul von Hindenburg urging him to appoint Hitler as Chancellor. Thyssen also persuaded the Association of German Industrialists to donate 3 million Reichsmarks to the Nazi Party for the March, 1933 Reichstag election. As a reward, he was elected a Nazi member of the Reichstag and appointed to the Council of State of Prussia, the largest German state (both purely honorary positions).
Once the Nazi dictatorship took hold, however, Thyssen began to have second thoughts. Although he welcomed the suppression of the Communist Party, the Social Democrats and the trade unions, he disliked the mob violence of the SA. In 1934 he was one of the business leaders who persuaded Hitler to suppress the SA, leading to the "Night of the Long Knives". Thyssen was horrified, however, at the simultaneous murder of various conservative figures such as Kurt von Schleicher.
Thyssen accepted the exclusion of Jews from German business and professional life by the Nazis, and dismissed his own Jewish employees, but he did not share Hitler's violent anti-Semitism. As a Catholic, he also objected to the increasing repression of the Roman Catholic Church, which gathered pace after 1935: in 1937 he sent a letter to Hitler, protesting the persecution of Christians in Germany. The breaking point for Thyssen was the violent pogrom against the Jews in November 1938, known as Kristallnacht, which caused him to resign from the Council of State. By 1939 he was also bitterly criticising the regime's economic policies, which were subordinating everything to rearmament in preparation for war.
World War II
On 1 September 1939 Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland marked the commencement of the Second World War. Thyssen sent Hermann Göring a telegram saying he was opposed to the war, shortly before leaving for Switzerland with his family. He was expelled from the Nazi Party and the Reichstag, and his company was nationalised. The company was returned to other members of the Thyssen family some years after the war.
In 1940 Thyssen took refuge and moved to France, intending to emigrate to Argentina, but was caught up in the German invasion of France and the Low Countries while he was visiting his ill mother in Belgium. He was arrested by Vichy France and sent back to Germany, where he was confined, first in a sanatorium near Berlin, then from 1943 in Sachsenhausen concentration camp. His wife Amelie did not escape to Argentina and spent the whole war in the concentration camp with her husband. "She had spent the good times with her husband and would also join him in the difficult times."
In February 1945 Thyssen was sent to Dachau concentration camp. He was comparatively well-treated and transferred to Tyrol in late-April 1945 together with other prominent inmates, where the SS left the prisoners behind. He was liberated by the 42nd Infantry Division & 45th Infantry Division on 5 May 1945.
While Thyssen was imprisoned in Germany, a biography was published in the United States in 1941 under the title I Paid Hitler. The book was written by a journalist named Emery Reves, based on memoirs dictated by Thyssen. This book supports the view that the German industrialists as a class supported and funded Hitler and put him into power. After the war Thyssen disputed the authenticity of this book, and this was upheld by the postwar denazification tribunal.
Thyssen was nevertheless tried for being a supporter of the Nazi Party. He did not deny that he had been a Nazi supporter until 1938, and he accepted responsibility for his companies' mistreatment of Jewish employees in the 1930s, although he denied involvement in the employment of slave labour during the war. Thyssen agreed to pay 500,000 Deutschmarks as compensation to those who suffered as a result of his actions, and was acquitted of other charges. In January 1950, he and his wife emigrated to Buenos Aires, where he died the following year. Thyssen was buried in the family mausoleum in Mülheim.
In 1959, Thyssen's widow Amélie and daughter Anita Gräfin Zichy-Thyssen established the Fritz Thyssen Foundation to advance science and the humanities, with a capital of 100 million Deutschmarks. Amélie Thyssen died in 1965. Anita Gräfin Zichy-Thyssen ran the Foundation until her death in 1990. The family has no say in the running of the Foundation.
- The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William H Shirer. 144.
- Pool, James; Pool, Suzanne (1978), Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler's Rise to Power, 1919-1933, Dial Press, ISBN 978-0708817568.
- The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William H Shirer. 145. On a post-war consequence of this activity see Party finance in Germany, History.
- Gilbert, Martin. The Second World War: A Complete History. Owl Books. p. 36. ISBN 978-0-8050-7623-3.
- Richard J. Evans, The Third Reich in Power,, Allen Lane 2005, 372
- georg-elser-arbeitskreis.de (German)
- "Thyssen Buried in Ruhr", New York Times, February 9, 1953, p. 27
- Ancestors of Baroness Francesca Anne Thyssen-Bornemisza de Kaszon
- Ancestors of Archduchess Eleonore of Austria
- Ancestors of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria
- Ancestors of Archduchess Gloria of Austria
- Marek, Miroslav. "Thyssen-Bornemissza de Kászon et Impérfalva Family". Genealogy.EU.[self-published source][better source needed]