For people like René Benko, the Austrians coined the wonderful term “Wunderwuzzi”: men who rush into the top league with maximum ego and minimum scruples. They rely on “Freunderlwirtschaft” (another traditional Austrian vocabulary) and when things get tight, they calmly watch their zealous footsitters go under the hoof. There are almost no Wunderwuzs in Germany, our Piefke mentality seems less suitable for such careers. But René Benko apparently found enough willing people in German politics who were happy to pave the way for him with taxpayer money.
The authors of “ARD Story” Ingolf Gritschneder and Georg Wellmann have already worked on Tyrolean real estate prodigy René Benko and his Signa Group several times. After the real estate empire went bankrupt in November 2023, they are now pursuing research that can and should cause problems in the highest political circles of this country. “René Benko: The Gambler and the Politics” is a meticulously researched financial account of the dazzling self-made billionaire and the machinations of his network of investments, advisers and willing water carriers. Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz was probably one of them.
Mega phallus for Hamburg
In the final weeks of his term as mayor of Hamburg, Olaf Scholz carried out the Elbtower project in 2018: a phallus-like tower on the edge of the Hafencity, a prime location. The contract was signed by René Benko, a man who had already been convicted of bribery. And whose purchase offer for the property was allegedly up to 13 million euros lower than his two competitors. But Scholz didn't care. Jörg Hamann, a CDU politician and then chairman of the Urban Development Commission, is convinced: “It smells like a big deception.”
The central node of Benko's cosmos is Alfred Gusenbauer, a longtime friend of Olaf Scholz. After a year as Chancellor of Austria, Gusenbauer held various positions in the Signa Group. Sebastian Kurz, who started out as a “wunderwuzz” in Austrian politics, also worked as a consultant to René Benko after his career as chancellor and billed him millions for it. Ole von Beust, Joschka Fischer – the list of political bigwigs who, in one way or another, took the reins of Benko for a fee is long. Benko realized early on that politicians are wonderful door openers.
Millions in aid to a struggling department store group
Even if the Elbtower is to become the third tallest building in Germany, Benko's biggest coup will probably be his entry into the Karstadt and later the Kaufhof. It is doubtful that he was interested in saving the traditional department store industry: buildings and properties in the best parts of the city were much more interesting to the real estate mogul. As a landlord, Signa collected extremely excessive rents from the group of department stores that also belonged to Signa – thus significantly contributed to the financial decline of the department stores. But for Benko, it was still worth it: high rents increased property values, which in turn allowed for more borrowing.
During the corona crisis, Signa received a total of 460 million euros in state aid from the economic stabilization fund for its department stores – even though the company was already at the end of its financial strength before the pandemic, which would have actually made the state's cash injection impossible. . Shortly after this taxpayer-funded subsidy, Benko treated himself to a real Picasso for 17 million euros. In total, Galeria Kaufhof was supported by the state treasury with 680 million euros – and yet it went bankrupt for the third time in four years.
Who pays in Benko Monopoly?
The “Player and Politics” report does its best to expose the network of stringers and puppet masters with which Benko has handled Austria and Germany. But at the end of this impressive array of disreputable deals and business practices, only one feeling remains: this financial disaster will likely be swept under the rug of history as well. Why not? After all, everything has already been paid for by the taxpayer.
René Benko's billion game seems to be over, the documentary reports – or hopes. Everything at the Elbtower construction site has been at a standstill since October 2023; The unfinished tower is already popularly called “Short Olav”. The chancellor himself has not yet commented on the Elbe river real estate disaster or his own role in the Benko monopoly. He probably doesn't remember anymore.