Protesters try to halt modern art show over owner's link to Nazi war criminal

Mercedes heir vows to go ahead with plan to exhibit his collection

One of the key moral dilemmas left over from the Third Reich has been flushed to the surface by a fierce row over a forthcoming exhibition in Berlin of a huge contemporary art collection owned by the grandson of a convicted Nazi war criminal.

The collector in question is Friedrich Christian Flick - or the multimillionaire Mercedes-heir "Mick" as he's known in society circles from Chelsea to Gstaad.

At the centre of the dispute are plans to put on show some 2,500 works of modern art, ranging from Duchamp, Mondrian and Giacometti to more contemporary names such as Bruce Naumann, Martin Kippenberger and Paul McCarthy. Never before shown in its entirety, the collection of painting, sculpture, installations and photography is being billed as "one of the most exciting collections of contemporary art in the world".

Mr Flick must be bracing himself for controversy every time he tries to show the works in public. Munich and Dresden have already turned down plans for an exhibition after widespread protests. A similar outcry led to its rejection in Zurich - along with a museum he proposed building to house the works designed by architect Rem Koolhaas.

The reason is that his grandfather, Friedrich Flick, made his fortune as one of the Nazi regime's largest arms manufacturers and was jailed at Nuremberg for, among other offences, using some 40,000 German and East European slave labourers in his factories.

Accusations have been flying back and forth all month. Salomon Korn, of Germany's Central Council of Jews, said: "This amounts to a moral whitewashing of blood money."

He said it would be like showing the "Goering Collection": the head of Hitler's Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, raided galleries and private collections across Europe. Looted treasures are still being returned to their rightful owners.

Another leading member of the council, Michael Fürst, said that if the exhibition, at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof Museum for Contemporary Art, went ahead, it would be an "insufferable provocation to all those who suffered hunger, humiliation and torture in his grandfather's business". The Flick Industrial empire, with stakes in Daimler-Benz among other businesses from chemicals and construction to insurance, lost much of its assets after the war, but was rebuilt by the family.

For his part, 59-year-old Mick Flick - whose company refused to pay into a German government compensation fund for families of forced labourers - claims his wealth is separate from that amassed by his grandfather. But, he said, "I have never shied away from what my grandfather did and never sought to relativise his acts".

It is not the first time that the post-war Flick generation has struggled for public acceptance. In 1995 his brother Gert Rudolf "Muck" Flick's attempts to set up a history chair at Oxford were rejected after a massive outcry by academics, who said the Flick name would tarnish the university's reputation.

Nonetheless, the Berlin exhibition looks likely to go ahead. Mick Flick is to pump some €7.5m (£5m) into renovating part of the museum, and the exhibition has the support of Gerhard Schröder.

"Art is Mr Flick's personal passion," said the state-funded arts organisation, Preussischer Kulturbesitz. "One cannot stigmatise art, and one cannot continually punish grandchildren for acts committed by their forefathers."

Indeed, the issue has even split the Jewish community. As Michael Blumenthal, the director of Berlin's celebrated Jewish Museum, told Der Spiegel: "I do not think much of those who make the grandchildren of those with a Nazi past responsible for what their forefathers did."

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