She inherits millions of euros. She wants her wealth to be taxed.


By the time her extraordinarily wealthy grandmother passed away last month, Marlene Engelhorn already knew who she wanted to be the ultimate beneficiary of the massive inheritance to come: the taxman.

“The dream scenario is that I get taxed,” said Engelhorn, co-founder of a group called Tax Me Now.

Engelhorn, a 30-year-old who grew up in Vienna, is part of a growing movement of young left-wing millionaires who say they want governments to take a much larger share of their inherited wealth, arguing that those unearned fortunes should be democratically allocated by the state.

For more than a year, Engelhorn has campaigned for tax policies that would redistribute his eight-figure windfall — and anyone else’s.

“I am the product of an unequal society,” Engelhorn said in a speech at a Millionaires for Humanity event in late August in Amsterdam, where activists were calling for a wealth tax. “Because otherwise I couldn’t be born into millions. Just born. Nothing else.”

Marlene Engelhorn at a Millionaires for Humanity event, where activists called for the taxation of wealth, in Amsterdam on August 31, 2022. (Mashid Mohadjerin/The New York Times)

His family is no stranger to donating huge sums. His grandparents invested part of their fortune in supporting young scientists. His great-uncle donated millions to an archeology center. His cousin pledged nearly $140 million to classical music.

But in Engelhorn’s view, it shouldn’t be the wealthy who decide which personal interests and passions deserve their inherited millions.

“There’s no need for another foundation,” she said as she sat by a canal in Amsterdam and ate a loaf of bread she had brought in her backpack. “What we really need is structural change.”

For her, philanthropy is merely replicating the same power dynamics that have created the systemic inequalities she wants to see dismantled, with new tax policies for the super rich being a key aspect of that vision.

The multi-billion dollar Engelhorn family fortune began with Friedrich Engelhorn, who about 150 years ago in Germany founded BASF, one of the largest chemical companies in the world. Another family business, Boehringer Mannheim, which produced pharmaceuticals and medical diagnostic equipment, was sold to Roche for $11 billion in 1997.

As a partial heir to this fortune, Engelhorn grew up in a mansion in an upscale part of Vienna. She attended French-language schools, describing herself as the kind of student who “corrected grammar mistakes when I heard them.” She played football with boys and read voraciously. She said she had no awareness of class privilege.

When she saw friends living in small apartments, she wondered why they didn’t choose to live in a big house with a garden, which is “much nicer”.

“Privilege really gives you a very, very narrow view of the world,” she said.

At the University of Vienna, Engelhorn’s perspective began to broaden.

She volunteered with gay rights groups and became interested in the interconnection of racial, sexual and economic discrimination.

In early 2020, as Engelhorn sat in a café in Switzerland, where she had gone to see her grandmother for her 93rd birthday, an accountant told her that when her grandmother died, she would inherit several million. euros.

He told her to have fun. “He said, ‘It’s just to be spent,'” Engelhorn recalled. “Like, ‘Just go play.'”

But for her, the news was more disconcerting than cause for joy, prompting tormented reflection on her place in society.

“I was part of the problem,” she said, remembering thinking. “I’m wide awake and all, but now: what do I do with all these pretty thoughts? »

Marlene Engelhorn visits a Millionaires for Humanity event, where activists called for the taxation of wealth, in Amsterdam on August 31, 2022. (Mashid Mohadjerin/The New York Times)

As she sought advice, she fell into the orbit of tax-friendly millionaire groups, whose members meet in person or via video conference to discuss their privileges — and how to get the state to strip them.

Some of the members call the groups, which include Resource Generation and Patriotic Millionaires, a “safe space” where they can open up about what they call “the money story” – an honest account of the true origins of their social status. They recognize the crimes often at the heart of their family’s wealth and analyze the sexist and racist components that could have contributed to it.

Perhaps more importantly, members are expected to share their commitment to what they generally call “reparations” to society.

Some of these groups have emerged over the past 20 or so years, but recently their membership has expanded, driven by what Engelhorn calls the “next wealth people” who have a different approach than many of their relatives. Instead of trying to give away part of their inheritance, they now wonder how it is possible that they inherited so much in the first place.

Newspapers mocked some of the language of these groups, calling it smug and self-respecting, and Engelhorn complained that a contemptuous press had ridiculed them as “rich kids’ clubs”. .

She thanks the groups for helping her understand what could be done differently when it comes to redistributing wealth. If she hadn’t met them, she said, “I might have been content with the status quo too.”

Which is easy to do, she noted, “when you can literally afford not to worry about it.”

Some experts outside the circle of millionaires have also found the work of these groups helpful.

“I’m really grateful for their voice,” said Amy Hanauer, executive director of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a think tank in Washington, who said millionaires can be influential advocates for higher taxes. .

After joining several such groups, Engelhorn last year co-founded another for Central Europe, Tax Me Now, described on its website as “an initiative of wealthy people who actively engage in tax justice.” .

Its policy objective is to introduce or increase inheritance and wealth taxes (Austria, where Engelhorn lives, abolished inheritance taxes in 2008).

The number of Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries that have taxed net worth has fallen from 12 in 1990 to five in 2020. While more OECD countries tax inheritances, the amount levied represents 0.5% of all taxes.

With less money held by the top 1%, Europe is less unequal than the United States. But in Europe, family fortunes and ancient money are more prevalent, with wealth, connections and even occupations passed down from generation to generation. More than half of European billionaires have inherited their wealth, while in the United States a third have done so, according to a study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Leaflets and handouts at a Millionaires for Humanity event, where activists called for the taxation of wealth, in Amsterdam on Aug. 31, 2022. (Mashid Mohadjerin/The New York Times)

For Engelhorn, current tax laws mean that it’s not just huge amounts of wealth that are being passed around; it is also power, dynastically distributed. Taxing wealth, she said, would serve the dual purpose of increasing public resources and removing political influence from people who have not won it democratically.

“I don’t think I should be in power or in charge like I could be if I use my wealth accordingly,” she said.

After his speech in Amsterdam, Engelhorn received an award for his activism.

“Of all the wealthy people” who spoke at the event, Engelhorn spoke about the issue of taxation with the most passion and honesty, according to Djaffar Shalchi, founder of Millionaires for Humanity. “She’s No. 1 for me,” he said.

Engelhorn dismissed praise for the way she talks about tax issues. “I’m not even an expert,” she said. “I’m really just rich.”

Regardless of her oratorical skills, she helped spark interest in estate and inheritance tax issues. This fall, she published her first book, “Geld” or “Money,” about the redistribution of wealth. And since first publicly declaring her desire to have her inheritance taxed, she has garnered constant attention in the German-language media.

This is not the first time that a member of the Engelhorn family has made headlines with tax-related issues. When his great-uncle and archeology donor, Curt Engelhorn, sold Boehringer Mannheim, the German tax authorities did not collect a penny because he had previously moved the company’s headquarters abroad.

Participants prepare for a Millionaires for Humanity event, where activists demanded that wealth be taxed, in Amsterdam on Aug. 31, 2022. (Mashid Mohadjerin/The New York Times)

Marlene Engelhorn’s multiple appearances on radio and television have led to dozens of people asking her directly for financial assistance. She said it ruined her to say no, but she thinks it shouldn’t be up to her to decide who gets her money.

“I would like tax justice to take this impossible decision away from me,” she said.

She has pledged to give away at least 90% of her inheritance and wants it to come back to the state, but only in the form of a tax, not a gift. “A government that won’t use wealth taxes won’t get a gift like that,” she said.

Not all millionaires share his passion for taxing wealth.

Ansgar John Brenninkmeijer, heir to a fashion fortune, interrupted Engelhorn while on stage in Amsterdam to angrily ask her if she knew what wealth tax was in the Netherlands.

“We have a wealth tax,” he said. “It’s 1.6%,” he added, referring to a Dutch tax on the value of a person’s savings and investments.

For Engelhorn, that was a ridiculously low number.

But later that day, she said it shouldn’t be up to people like Brenninkmeijer — or herself — to say what the fair rate is.

“It’s not for a rich kid to say,” she said, “what the tax should be.”


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