Remembering Volkswagen’s Troubled, and Holocaust, History

The main gate at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

On March 19, 2019, the world press widely reported that the chief executive of Volkswagen (VW), Herbert Diess, apologized for evoking a Nazi slogan to describe the importance of boosting the company’s profits.

Diess used the line “Ebit macht frei” at a company event, which echoes the maxim “Arbeit Macht Frei” — meaning “work sets you free” — which was famously emblazoned in wrought-iron on the gates of the Auschwitz death camp.

Ebit is a commonly used acronym for “earnings before interest and taxes.”

In a statement, Diess said he was sorry for what he described as “definitely an unfortunate choice of words,” and said that he “simply did not think of [the] possibility” that the phrases would echo each other.

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The German chief executive also acknowledged his company’s “special responsibility in connection with the Third Reich.”

Volkswagen was founded in 1937, as part of Adolf Hitler’s vision to enable German families to own their first car. On May 26, 1938, Nazi dignitaries gathered near Fallersleben in northern Germany to lay the foundation stone for the Volkswagen Works. Adolf Hitler was present, predicting that this Volkswagen, initially known as the Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen, or KdF-Wagen, would be “a symbol of the National Socialist people’s community.”

During World War II, the Wolfsburg-based firm manufactured vehicles for the German army, using more than 15,000 slave laborers from nearby concentration camps.

One VW plant engineer traveled to Auschwitz and personally selected 300 skilled metalworkers from the massive transports of Hungarian Jews in 1944. In addition, 650 Jewish women were transferred to assemble military munitions. The official relationship between the Nazi concentration camps and Volkswagen was cemented when the Fallersleben facility officially became a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp.

Although popularized by the Nazis, “Arbeit Macht Frei” was coined by the 19th century linguist, ethnologist, and author, Lorenz Diefenbach.

The inscription appeared at the Dachau concentration camp, set up by Heinrich Himmler in 1933 to use dissidents as slave labor, and later became part of the Nazis’ deception for the real use of the concentration and death camps. The most infamous camp gate that contained the slogan was at Auschwitz in Poland.

Just when we thought that Volkswagen and its related brands Porsche, Audi, and others had learned their lessons from history, the automaker once again did something deeply offensive, and used an April Fools’ Day “joke” to explain it away.

On March 31, press reports widely criticized what was announced as the company’s newest advertising slogan: VOLTSWAGEN. In fact, this was a ploy to draw attention to the lone electric vehicle that the company is currently selling in the United States. It was an ill-conceived marketing stunt done ahead of April Fools’ Day.

In September 2015, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a notice of violation of the Clean Air Act to Volkswagen Group. The agency had found that Volkswagen had intentionally programmed turbocharged direct injection (TDI) diesel engines to activate their emissions controls only during laboratory emissions testing, which caused the vehicles’ pollution output to meet US standards during regulatory testing, while they emitted up to 40 times more pollution in real-world driving.

Volkswagen deployed this software in about 11 million cars worldwide, including 500,000 in the United States, in model years dating from 2009 through 2015.

Regulators in multiple countries began to investigate Volkswagen, and its stock price fell in value by a third in the days immediately after the news. Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn resigned, and the head of brand development, Heinz-Jakob Neusser, Audi research and development head Ulrich Hackenberg, and Porsche research and development head Wolfgang Hatz, were suspended.

The irony lost on many is that poisoning air with diesel gas goes back in history, when — during World War II and the Holocaust — Nazi Germany’s skilled engineers developed and used mobile gas vans on large scale as an extermination method to murder inmates of asylums, Jews, Poles, Romani people, and prisoners in occupied Poland, Belarus, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and other regions of German-occupied Europe.

While the public expects ongoing engineering excellence from Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi, and the other brands in the group, it is not unreasonable to expect a degree of decency and sensitivity when it comes to being honorable.

On March 31, Slate ran the following headline: “What Was VW Thinking With Its ‘Voltswagen’ Prank? A confusing publicity stunt reminds the public of the carmaker’s untrustworthiness.”

The article, penned by Sean O’Kane, stated:

Volkswagen’s various social media accounts also promoted the lie on Tuesday. The @VW account tweeted an image of the fake “Voltswagen” logo and wrote “66 is an unusual age to change your name.” That’s a nod to the age of the American subsidiary — not the larger Volkswagen Group, which was founded in the 1930s before it became part of the Nazi war machine. Volkswagen of America so straightforwardly represented the name change as real that it was reported by The Associated Press, the BBC, and dozens of other outlets, including The Verge. Even Wall Street firm Wedbush published a note about the change.

The skillful spinmeisters working on behalf of the company will undoubtedly try to sweep this latest incident under the rug. On April 1, The Wall Street Journal reported that the chief executive of Volkswagen AG’s US subsidiary said  he took personal responsibility for the prank.

But it still leaves a bad taste in the mouths of millions of people, who upon hearing the names Volkswagen, Porsche, or Audi (formerly Auto Union) — integral parts of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi death machinery — are once again forced to remember the company’s deeply troubling history.

The world should still remember vividly the emaciated slave laborers’ charred bodies hanging on the electrified barbed wire fences of Auschwitz, and the countless horrific war crimes aided and committed by the company in the service of the Third Reich.

It might be a good idea for the company to conduct an honest self-examination — not looking at only technical excellence, but possibly attempting to adjust and eliminate the still lingering culture of lies, deception, and bad attitude in order to make a profit.

Foolishly conjuring up the crimes and atrocities of World War II in an ill-conceived, cheap marketing stunt in order to sell automobiles is not very smart business for a company that holds itself in such high esteem — and especially not for a company with so much blood and suffering of innocents on its hands. Volkswagen should know better.

The author is a journalist with over 40 years of experience, and a child of Holocaust victims.

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