true crime

Kidnapping and secrecy: Inside the bonkers family history of the Aldi founders.

Aldi is a recognisable brand in countries all around the world. The discount supermarket chain operates stores throughout Europe, the United States, China and Australia.

We love Aldi for its special buy sales, which bring us affordable housework minions and very important furniture for our dogs. But when we’re browsing the wine aisle for that $6.99 award-winning shiraz, take a moment to reflect on the supermarket’s utterly fascinating back-story that includes a brazen 1971 kidnapping labelled one of the most spectacular crimes of post-war Germany.

The discount supermarket brand was founded by German brothers Karl and Theo Albrecht in 1946 when they took over their mother’s small grocery shop in Essen.

In 1960 the brothers split the company in two – reportedly over an argument about whether to sell cigarettes or not – and agreed not to encroach on each other’s turf.

aldi store
An old Aldi store in Germany. Image: Getty.

The supermarket divided into two legally separate operating units - Aldi Nord and Aldi Süd. Theo ran the Aldi Nord stores in Germany's north, and Karl the Aldi Süd stores in the south. Between the brother's home town of Essen is what's known as the "Aldi equator", separating the brothers territory.

And the divide has extended beyond just Germany: Aldi Nord operates in much of Europe, while Aldi Süd Ireland and the UK, China and Australia.

There are more than 11,000 Aldi stores worldwide and Karl and Theo were the two of the richest men in the world before their deaths - though they certainly didn't flash their cash.

In fact, to this day, the families of the Albrecht brothers try to avoid publicity and showing off their wealth.

It's not just to keep up an appearance: The family made a decision to never seek the limelight after Theo was kidnapped in 1971 and held for ransom for 17 days inside a wardrobe in Düsseldorf.

He was held at gunpoint by Heinz-Joachim Ollenburg, a lawyer, and his accomplice Paul Kron - then already a convicted burglar nicknamed Diamond Paul.

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They demanded a ransom of seven million German marks (approximately US$2 million at the time), but would've demanded more if it wasn't for their hostage's trademark frugality.

Theo haggled with his captors over the amount, according to a 1973 biography by Ollenburg.

Theo Albrecht
Multimillionaire Theo Albrecht from Essen, co-owner of the Aldi supermarket chain, stands at the window of his house on the 17th of December in 1971, after his kidnapping. Image: Getty.

The discounted ransom was paid by the Bishop of Essen and Theo was released after more than two weeks. He later successfully claimed the ransom as a tax deductible business expense.

Kron was quickly caught after Theo's release after he paid in a shop with a 500-deutschmark bill from the ransom money.

Ollenburg fled to Mexico but was caught and arrested there and extradited back to Germany. Only half of the money was recovered.

Both were sentenced to eight and a half years in prison and kept low profiles following their release.

Following Theo's ordeal, both he and brother Karl largely withdrew from public life and lived reclusive lives until their deaths in 2010 and 2014.

Few photos exist of the family - and those that do are mostly old, black and white or blurry.

Today, most of the brother's children and grandchildren continue with the family's frugal philosophy.

Breaking from this has had tough consequences for the widow and children of Theo's son, who are disputing the will of Theo's wife, Cäcilie Albrecht.

Cäcilie died aged 92 in November 2018 and used her will to accuse her daughter-in-law and children of lavish spending and siphoning millions from company funds to finance their luxury lifestyles.

As consequence, the Guardian reported she ordered that they have no future role in the company - ouch.

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