Great fortunes

The true story of the BASF heiress (who won't inherit €4bn)

Marlene Engelhorn, who has launched a campaign to make the rich pay more taxes, will inherit a "double-digit" sum in millions of euros

3 min
Marlene Engelhorn is one of the descendants of the founder of BASF and has mounted a campaign to raise taxes on the rich.

BarcelonaA couple of weeks ago Marlene Engelhorn started making the headlines. Most of them were from Spanish and Italian media, so she had to resort to Google Translate to find out why her name was suddenly getting so much attention in southern Europe. "29-year-old rejects €4bn inheritance: why?", "The heiress who rejected €4bn: 'I don't want to be so rich'", "The young woman who renounces to an inheritance of over €4bn because she doesn't want to be so rich". None of these three statements, however, is true.

Engelhorn is indeed one of the descendants of Friedrich Engelhorn, the German industrialist and founder of the multinational chemical company BASF, but the amount of money she will inherit is two figures shorter. "I will inherit a double-digit sum in millions of euros, and I don't turn it down. I want to be able to redistribute at least 90%, ideally through taxes. If not, I will find my own way," she explains from Vienna via video call in a conversation with ARA.

Like other heiresses of renowned families, she lived the quiet, prototypical childhood of a rich girl. "I grew up in a large mansion, went to a private school and high school." Her view of the world, she relates, was the same as a horse that might have blinkers put on so that it doesn't get distracted and only looks ahead. "Privilege works the same way: you don't see how much you have," she says. University – where she entered to study German because she loved reading and "wanted an excuse to do it" – was her first turning point in realising that the abundance she was born into was unusual.

But the second and most defining moment was the day her family explained to her that, when the time came, she would inherit from her grandmother – Traudl Engelhorn, who alongside her family is ranked 687th on the Forbes list with a net worth of $4.2bn – an amount that seemed "huge" to her. "I would be a billionaire. I was aware that I was rich, but then I felt angry and didn't understand why. I wanted to talk about it and at the same time I was hiding. I didn't want that money, it didn't seem fair," Engelhorn recalls.

A movement to pay more taxes

In the last year, however, she has turned this anger with her own social class into activism. In February 2021, he sent an open letter together with other people uncomfortable with the low taxation of the superrich. In her country, Austria, there is neither an inheritance tax nor a wealth tax. The letter was signed by some 60 rich people from German-speaking countries, 27 of whom signed with their full names. This initiative gave rise to taxmenow, a movement calling for higher taxation of millionaires and billionaires to redistribute wealth more fairly.

Engelhorn rejects the discourse that advocates that the rich are rich because they are smarter or brighter than the rest, or because they have tried harder. "We forget that the self-made man is an exception. When you are very rich it is because you were born that way, and it is usually dirty money, there is not one fortune that is clean," laments the heiress of BASF's founder. She is also clear that her ancestor was able to create a chemical empire because his social position made it possible. "He was a white, middle-aged, wealthy, European man; he had all the privilege he needed," she notes.

For Engelhorn, one of the best examples of how the figure of the millionaire and his contribution to society has been mythologised is found in superhero fiction. Batman is a rich, orphaned kid with a tragic backstory - "And who doesn't have one?" she asks - who lives in a crime-ridden city and decides to fix it on his own. "He's above the law, whereas anyone else would go to prison if they did the same thing. Instead he could use his money to fund the Gotham police department," he adds. "To me it's the paradigm that big problems can't be solved by one person with a fortune," Engelhorn says.

One of the projects she has been involved in is, precisely, Resource Generation, an organisation that targets young people between the ages of 18 and 35 who will sooner or later inherit fortunes, to talk to them about wealth redistribution. "The rich are used to justifying that they already have charitable foundations, but those who should be receiving money are states. We don't have to wait for a rich man to come and make a donation, this cannot replace public spending or a truly democratic redistribution," she adds.

Part of her, Engelhorn admits, would like the headlines that claimed she would inherit €4bn to be true, because then the impact of her initiatives could be much greater. But she's not such a billionaire billionaire: "I'm just a rich girl with a big mouth."