VW: The People's Car

Michael Burleigh on the origins of Volkswagen. 

Hitler inside an early VW Beetle.Historians are not usually subsidised by the subjects of their research. Business historians are an exception. Most of the time this relationship does not matter very much, since the work that results is usually only consulted by past and present employees or other business historians. The paying public does not rush to buy histories of the postal or railway services or multi-volume works on the banks and oil giants. At its best, business history is a respectable branch of knowledge; at its worst, it is corporate vanity publishing.

German concerns go in for business history too, but since their history includes the period of the Third Reich, there are special problems. One way of getting around the awkward parts of the story is to appoint official business historians with exclusive access to the firm's archives which cuts out independent scholars. Official historians can be relied upon not to embarrass their patrons. Thus, in 1986 a team from the ‘Society for Business History’ produced a volume to mark the centenary of Daimler-Benz, after promising in a confidential memo to show that the automobile concern: 'supported the National Socialist regime only to an unavoidable extent for a company of its importance.'

The end product dutifully showed the concern's famous three point star reluctantly being tugged into a swastika. Noting the fact that the chairman of Daimler-Benz was also on the board of the 'Society far Business History', a group of radical historians produced an alternative history of the concern's complicity and criminal involvement in the Nazi's exploitation of forced labour. An American historian, Bernard Bellon, also experienced difficulties in getting access to Daimler-Benz wartime records.

The Volkswagen concern owed its very existence to Hitler's desire to make motoring available to the masses at a time when cars were a middle-class luxury, more like coaches than the functional boxes most people now drive about in. The Stuttgart designer, Ferdinand Porsche, turned Hitler's vague ideas and sketches into reality through the cheap vehicle known as the 'people's car'. This went on to become the phenomenally successful 'Beetle'.

A gigantic factory arose at Fallersleben on the Luneburg Heath, which in turn spawned the town now known as Wolfsburg, a wonder of the industrialised world. The factory, modelled on the Ford plant at Rouge River, was partly funded by assets confiscated from the trade unions, and built by Italian construction workers loaned by Mussolini. Although hundreds of thousands of Germans saved regularly through a government scheme in order to acquire the new car, the outbreak of war meant a switch to the manufacture of aircraft, bazookas, mines, tank tracks, the Vl rocket, and military vehicles such as the 'bucket' car. The money saved was effectively plundered since few 'Beetles' were actually produced before the war, apart from the prototypes very publicly used by SS test drivers.

Because of a reluctance to conscript German women into the workforce, Nazi Germany resorted to using vast numbers of foreign workers; around 7 million by 1943-44. Some 70 per cent of the workforce in the Volkswagen factory were foreigners, prisoners of war, concentration camp inmates, and young people, many of them women and girls, abducted by industrial snatch squads from cinemas, churches or trains in their occupied homelands. Their treatment in the plant depended on their position in the Nazi racial hierarchy, so that 'western workers', Belgians, Dutch or French, generally enjoyed better conditions than their 'eastern', i.e. Polish, Russian or Ukrainian, counterparts. Poorly housed and fed, the nominal wages of these workers – excepting concentration camp prisoners who were rented out from the SS – were subject to every conceivable deduction, and labour discipline was enforced by in-house SS factory guards and special 'work disciplinary training camps', which tended to cripple anyone sent there. Children born to female 'eastern workers' were starved to death in a children's home at nearby Ruhen, an offence for which the factory medical officer was subsequently executed by the British, Although Ferdinand Porsche and his son-in-law, Anton Piech, who ran the plant, were detained after the war by the French in connection with their wartime attempt to take control of Peugeot (some of the French firm's managers ended up in concentration camps) no charges were ever brought against them.

The details of this squalid story were first revealed in a two-volume history of Volkswagen's exploitation of foreign forced labour by the Wolfsburg archivist and historian, Klaus-Jorg Siegfried, who without any significant funding, nevertheless assembled an impressive array of eyewitness accounts by former foreign workers. Reading these books, one might ask what more was there to learn. However, in 1986, Volkswagen commissioned the widely – if not universally – regarded contemporary historian, Hans Mommsen, to produce a history of the concern during the Third Reich. Although the project has so far cost over 3 million DMs, the only tangible product has been a slim interim report, whose principle conclusions were made public at a symposium in Wolfsburg in October 1990.

Alternative and radical journalists accused Mommsen of whitewashing Ferdinand Porsche, and suggested that the money expended upon the research project could have been given to surviving former foreign workers by way of compensation. The foreign workers and a small caucus of Wolfsburg citizens – the car workers are solidly Christian Democrat – called for changes to the number of streets and institutions named after Ferdinand Porsche. Both journalists and former foreign workers took exception to Mommsen's use of the phrase 'multicultural society' to describe the wartime labour force, and to his insistence that any compensation should go to youth exchange programmes in the 'workers' countries of origin, lest payments to individuals result in 'manifestations of secondary corruption'.

Pointing to the example of an engineer who apparently protected concentration camp prisoners he had selected in Auschwitz to work in the factory, Mommsen recommended caution in making judgements about individuals, questioning in the same paragraph whether Porsche's motives in exploiting forced labour were 'a priori criminal'.

One of the odder aspects of the symposium was that although two members of the Volkswagen board were prepared to write off Porsche as an 'amoral technocrat', dismissing as a 'fiction' the idea that he had been 'misused' against his will, Mommsen seemed more concerned with the alleged 'illegality' and rigours of Porsche's post-war detention in France (the French government refused Mommsen access to its archives) than with the pain he had caused other people. Indeed, Porsche's family were reduced to citing Mommsen's report in order to defend the reputation of the 'designer genius' from remarks made by members of Volkswagen's own board!

Crude suggestions that Mommsen had been bought off by a concern whose annual turnover is 68,000 million DMs can be dismissed out of hand. Regardless of whatever infelicities of phrase or tone, he is one of Germany's leading historians of the period. What is not so easy to pass over is the gulf which separates a historian's attempts to treat this subject as past history i.e. to introduce a neutrality of tone to an area still largely dominated by black and white, and the perceptions of that period among people for whom it was one of life's tragic experiences. Whose perspective on the subject is the right one? Should we accept the attempts of not only German historians to 'historise' the Nazi period in terms of their self-professed 'objectivity'? Do attempts to depict normality in the Third Reich detract from the period's overridingly salient features, namely exploitation, terror and genocide?

One of those most outraged by Mommsen's findings was Joseph Rovan, an emeritus professor of German history at the Sorbonne and a former inmate of Dachau. Commenting in Die Zeit on Mommsen's attempts to defend his performance at the symposium, Rovan remarked:

That a 'respected' historian could still defend his insensitive blunder despite the indignation which his use of the words: 'multicultural society' to describe the emaciated, starving, demoralised mass of foreign workers, Soviet POWs, and concentration camp inmates provoked, is further proof of the inability of the historian to grasp what happened.

At the symposium, a member of Volkswagen board commented that Mommsen's study was not the final word on the history of the concern, but rather 'an aid to make what happened more comprehensible', thus implicitly backtracking from what had been billed as the definitive history.

To date, Volkswagen continues to resist the payment of compensation to individuals on the grounds that the bureaucratic problem of tracking down survivors would be enormous. However, it still compensates those Germans who saved in order to own an elusive 'Beetle'. Anton Piech's son, Ferdinand, named after grandfather Porsche, has just been designated Carl Hahn's successor as boss of Volkswagen. The word on the street in Wolfsburg is that the official history shows few signs of appearing, and that VW will probably write off the whole unfortunate project as a tax loss.

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