Marlene Engelhorn: The billionaire heiress who wants to give 90% of her fortune to the state

As a descendant of Friedrich Engelhorn – who, in 1865, founded the multinational chemical company BASF – she hails from one of the most prominent Austro-German families

Marlene Engelhorn
Marlene Engelhorn in Amsterdam, circa August of 2022.Mashid Mohadjerin (The New York Times / Contacto)

Marlene Engelhorn wants the rich to pay more in taxes.

The position of this 30-year-old Austrian woman who was born in Vienna probably wouldn’t be very surprising if it weren’t for the fact that she herself is a future billionaire.

According to Forbes magazine, Engelhorn is set to inherit a portion of the $4 billion fortune left behind by her deceased grandmother, Traudl Engelhorn. Since 2008, Austria has not had an inheritance tax.

Engelhorn has always lived a life of abundance. As a descendant of Friedrich Engelhorn – who, in 1865, founded the multinational chemical company BASF – she hails from one of the most prominent Austro-German families.

However, while attending a public university to study German literature, the heiress began to question her wealth and feel concerned about the overwhelming majority of people who will never attain the financial security that she was born into. She joined activist movements concerned with LGBT+ rights and social inequality. She also contacted organizations made up of rich Americans – such as Patriotic Millionaires and Resource Generation – to learn about what could be done to reduce wealth inequality.

Last year, she helped create Tax Me Now, “an initiative of rich people committed to achieving tax justice in Germany, Austria and Switzerland,” as explained on the group’s website. The initiative collects signatures to achieve systemic tax reform in German-speaking countries.

Engelhorn has gone a step further, promising to give 90% of her inheritance to the Austrian state. She affirms that “a government must apply taxes on wealth.”

In statements to The New York Times, Engelhorn – who refused to speak with EL PAÍS – indicates that more charitable foundations are not needed, but rather, “structural change” is the answer to inequality. She is fed up with philanthropy, seeing it as a practice that members of her class – and her own family – use to exert social influence.

Her great-uncle, Curt Engelhorn, incorporated his pharmaceutical business beyond his home country of Germany. When he sold the company in 1997 for $11 billion, the German Treasury didn’t receive a single penny. His great-niece is keen on correcting this with her initiative, although much of the media has sneered at her public statements.

Currently, 61 millionaires and billionaires are part of Tax Me Now, but only 28 give their names. At an Amsterdam summit organized by Millionaires for Humanity in August 2022, Engelhorn said that she and her partners consider themselves to be the “products of an unequal society.”

For Antón Costas – a professor of economics at the University of Barcelona – the heiress’s gesture seems like pure “romanticism.”

“I see it as an example of naive altruism and good philanthropy,” he says in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS. But he considers that the scope of the initiative is limited, because both Engelhorn and those who accompany her are outsiders within their social class.

Gonzalo Rodés – a lawyer and businessman who runs the Barcelona Global Forum – agrees with Engelhorn in her defense of the inheritance tax.

“It’s essential to make social mobility work,” he tells EL PAÍS. He says that he would respect the heiress’s generous offer more if “after handing 90% of her fortune over to the Treasury, she left her mansion to live in a small apartment.”

Rodés also asks: “What leads [Engelhorn] to assume that a government is going to manage her money better than she will?” He wryly notes that one only has to look around his native Spain to see all the airports that have been built over the years, some of which are in disuse.

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