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Skeletons in the Corporate Closet: Volkswagen


Years after the Beetle became associated with peace, the world learned the true extent of the company's Nazi-related history.


Few cars in the history of auto manufacturing can match the sentimentality and nostalgia felt for the Volkswagen Beetle. But years before we'd come to associate our beloved Bug with the emblem of the peace sign, Volkswagen's long strange trip began with a swastika. The iconic, quirky little car often dubbed the "hippie-mobile" was originally, quite literally, the Hitler-mobile.

The brainchild of the Führer himself, the car was masterminded as a gift to the German common man. Translated as the "people's car," Volkswagen would provide a cheap, fast, and fuel-efficient means of travel to a country where only a wealthy few owned cars. According to the Vintage Volkswagen Club of America, Hitler opened the 1934 Berlin Auto Show proclaiming, "A car for the people, an affordable Volkswagen, would bring great joy to the masses and the problems of building such a car must be faced with courage."

In 1937, the Nazi Party, allied with auto engineer and Beetle designer Ferdinand Porsche, formed the state-owned Volkswagen company. A year later, Hitler presided over the tightly controlled, propaganda-heavy groundbreaking ceremony for the new Volkswagen plant before a crowd of 70,000 "Heil!"-chanting faithful. Production on the Beetle, then called the KdF-Wagen or "strength through joy" car, was ill-timed to begin in September of 1939. Only a few cars made it out of the factory before World War II forced Porsche to halt production and turn the Volkswagen plant into a war armaments labor camp. Hitler never lived to see his pet project come to fruition since the Beetle wouldn't be mass produced until after the Nazi surrender.

In the 1980s, Volkswagen, in the spirit of candor about its Nazi past, commissioned a 10-year $2 million investigation led by historian Hans Mommsen into the extent of its role in the use of wartime slave labor. Titled "Volkswagen and Its Workers During the Third Reich," the mea culpa reveals Ferdinand Porsche was a willing, "morally indifferent" participant in Hitler's regime. Volkswagen hired some 20,000 forced laborers, prisoners of war, and concentration camp inmates from Auschwitz, Dachau, and Bergen-Belsen. Kept behind barbed wire in horrible living conditions, they worked for Volkswagen to manufacture grenades, land mines, military vehicles, warplanes, and V-1 flying bombs. They were subjected to malnutrition and savagely beaten for trying to feed themselves from food scraps off the floor.

Volkswagen wasn't the only automaker with war blood on its hands. One of the most profitable companies to emerge from World War II was SS aider and abetter Daimler Benz whose production skyrocketed thanks to arms contracts, tax breaks, and tens of thousands of slave laborers. BMW similarly exploited 25,000-30,000 forced workers to repair airplane engines for the Nazi war machine.

If the unseemly pasts of these automakers has you ready to boycott German cars and pledge your consumer allegiance to the American auto industry, well don't wrap yourself in Old Glory just yet.

A car enthusiast first and murdering psychopath second, Hitler drew inspiration -- both technically and ideologically -- from Ford Motor Company (F) founder and fellow anti-Semite Henry Ford. As creator of the mass produced and inexpensive Model T and publisher of a four-volume conspiracy manifesto titled The International Jew, the bigoted automaker paved the road and Hitler vowed to follow in his muddy tire tracks. In fact, Hitler so revered Ford, the Chancellor hung a life-size portrait of him in his Munich office, gave him a personal shout-out in Mein Kampf, and awarded him the Third Reich's highest decoration for foreigners, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle. For his part, Ford served as leader of the America First Committee, the foremost interest group opposing American entry into the war, and authored Ford's overseas subsidiaries to produce Nazi war materials.

Not to be outdone, General Motors rendered its Nazi salute if only to protect its $100 million investment in Germany. GM not only resisted Roosevelt's call to military production duty in its US factories but assisted the Axis arms effort instead. James Mooney, senior executive for General Motors, was rewarded for his loyalty to Hitler when he was also bestowed with a medal for his "distinguished service to the Reich."

According to a Washington Post story:

Both General Motors and Ford insist that they bear little or no responsibility for the operations of their German subsidiaries, which controlled 70% of the German car market at the outbreak of war in 1939 and rapidly retooled themselves to become suppliers of war materiel to the German army.

But documents discovered in German and American archives show a much more complicated picture. In certain instances, American managers of both GM and Ford went along with the conversion of their German plants to military production at a time when US government documents show they were still resisting calls by the Roosevelt administration to step up military production in their plants at home.

Ford and GM representatives did not respond to Minyanville's requests for comments.

While Volkswagen was at the bow of the forced labor effort, so was it a vanguard in restitution for those misdeeds. In 1998, under no legal obligation, Volkswagen became the first German company to voluntarily compensate workers it enslaved during the war and established a $12 million humanitarian fund in their honor. By the end of 2001, more than 2,000 recipients in 26 countries benefited from the fund.

Daimler-Benz has also established an $11.8 million fund to make reparations to Holocaust survivors who were forced to do labor for the car company. BMW, on the other hand, has yet to take such action: According to a 2007 documentary (described here), BMW has so far rejected pleas for reparations.

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