Commentary: The bugs in VW's past

By THOMAS H. LIPSCOMB  |  Nov. 27, 2002 at 2:45 AM
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NEW YORK, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- Sometimes there is nothing like a nice escapist puff piece in a lifestyle magazine to occasion a total reality check. In this case, it was an unassuming article in American Express's October Travel and Leisure.

ARTnews editor Carly Berwick was simply trying to cover the new "Autostadt" theme park in Wolfsburg, Germany, home of Volkswagen. Owned by VW, the Autostadt is sort of an Epcot Center devoted to the car and in particular Volkswagen products including Audi and Lamborghini. Germans who buy VW cars can pick one up at the Autstadt and save the usual dealer delivery fee, and get a free day ticket to the exhibits. Like all theme parks, Autostadt is all very slick and all very contemporary. But as Berwick toured its Zeithaus, or "Time House," devoted to the history of Volkswagen, she noticed a conspicuous absence of material devoted to VW's contribution to the Nazi war machine. When she asked Autostadt's CEO, Otto Wachs, about "the gap" in the Zeithaus, he replied with one of those infuriatingly coy statements that send good reporters digging frantically away: "We do not think there was a real gap. You can have more than detailed information, if you ask." Berwick's instincts were right about the geist missing in Wachs' Zeithaus. Leaving the Nazi period out of Volkswagen's history makes it impossible to make sense of one of the most fascinating incidents of national economic policy since the Industrial Revolution. For understandable reasons VW far prefers claiming pioneer auto designer Ferdinand Porsche as its founder, rather than its real founder -- Adolf Hitler.

Hitler is as essential a part of the foundations of today's VW Corp. as the Doric columns of the Parthenon are to the impact of its sculpted friezes. Just after taking power in 1933, Hitler made an announcement at the Berlin Auto Show that he intended to create a "people's car" the average German worker could afford. Porsche had been spending part of his time for over a decade trying to interest the auto manufacturers he worked for in creating an inexpensive auto, including Daimler-Benz, Steyr and Mercedes, and he had made little progress. Now he asked for a meeting with Hitler. But Hitler was to be no silent partner. Whether the early sketch by Hitler of the car The New York Times was to call the "beetle" in 1938 was Hitler's design, or Hitler's rendering of a design by Erwin Komenda, the specifications were clearly Hitler's. They included several requirements that did not make Porsche's job any easier -- the car had to carry two adults and three children or three soldiers and a machine gun; it had to be able to operate at 100 kilometers an hour, or 60 mph; the engine had to be air-cooled; fuel consumption would have to get 10 kilometers, or 6 miles for every 0.8 liter of fuel; and the price must be less than 1,000 marks, roughly the price of a motorcycle at the time. Porsche and Hitler signed their deal in 1934. Hitler saw the "people's car" as a key element in his after-the-fact seduction of the heavily Communist German labor unions he had forced into marrying his new Nazi German Labor Front on May Day in 1933. After all, fewer than one out of 30 Germans at the time owned an automobile.

So Hitler assigned its production to the "Kraft durch Freude" division of his Labor Front. The "Kraft durch Freude," known as KdF, or "Strength through Joy" movement, was a brilliantly successful and highly popular labor innovation. In the depths of a world depression, it sent ordinary German workers on cruise-ship vacations to the Mediterranean, created public development housing for them, as well as adult education classes, cultural activities and a massive gymnastics and sports program.

By 1938, 10 million Germans, more than half of them workers, were participating in KdF vacation trips. So by 1938, when Hitler and Porsche had progressed through prototypes and were ready to begin production, the new factory town located on the Mittelland Canal in Lower Saxony was named "KdF-Stadt" and the "people's car" it was to produce was named the "KdF-wagen." By now the name "Kraft durch Freude" and its anagram KdF were golden to German workers. So not surprisingly, after years of being tantalized by promises of the coming miracle car designed just for them, over 337,000 of them lined up to buy 5 mark stamps each month to fill their red Labor Front member's books until they could turn them in for a nice shiny KdF-wagen -- any color they wanted, as long as it was blue.

And genius that Porsche was, by the time the "Beetle" was locked into its production version it was a far better car than the one he thought he was designing, with more interior space, more endurance and even better mileage. But, of course, by 1939, when the first KdF-wagens were supposed to be rolling off the production lines in KdF-Stadt, there was a war under way. With typical acid working-class German humor, the story is still told of the disgusted KdF factory worker who had turned in his stamps and still hadn't had his car delivered. He gave up and tried the Johnny Cash "one piece at a time" method of building one out of parts he sneaked home from the KdF factory. When he finally assembled them in 1941, he found he was the proud possessor of a Wehrmacht weapons carrier all his very own. The KdF-Stadt facility turned out more than 100,000 military vehicles such as the indestructible kubelwagen, which became the jeep of the German Army during the war and a favorite of GIs who captured them. It also produced 2,000 V-1 "buzzbombs" bound for targets in England. And it used 17,000 slave laborers and prisoners of war to produce them. Their work was finally acknowledged in 1999 in a "Place of Remembrance" exhibit that writer Berwick found buried in a bunker under one of the original 1938 KdF factory buildings.

After the war, KdF-Stadt was placed in the British sector of occupied Germany. A remarkable British major named Ivan Hirst was responsible for trying to find some economic use for the ruined factory. By the end of 1945 he had managed to build 58 cars. For 1946 he was able to produce more than 10,000 of them.

But in an age of "denazification" Hirst couldn't very well turn out cars whose name celebrated one of the most fondly remembered movements of the Nazi era. So they were now renamed the "Volkswagen." And that was appropriate since 10 years earlier in 1936 Hitler had originally been founded the GeZuVor, or Gesellschaft Zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagen to produce the KdF-wagen.

The irony goes on. As long as Hirst was renaming things, the British decided to change the name of KdF-Stadt itself to "Wolfsburg" after the nearby castle. What the British failed to consider is that the name "Wolf" to any Nazi party insider only referred to one person -- Adolf Hitler. It had been his nom de guerre as a revolutionary in the 1920s; he checked into hotels as "Herr Wolf"; it was the pet name Eva Braun called him as well, and the Deputy Reichsfuhrer Rudolf Hess named his son Wolf in Hitler's honor. Changes like these created Wachs' "gap" between Volkswagen's Nazi origins and the brave new world of the Autostadt.

Earlier this year Wolfsburg -- formerly "Strength through Joy"-ville -- decided to announce a new city motto: "Joy through Discovery." As a foonote, in 1961, 337,000 Germans finally settled their lawsuit in a German court for the KdF-wagens they had never received. They were granted their choice of 100 Deutschmarks or a 600 Deutschmark discount on the purchase of a new Volkswagen. A decade later, Volkswagen decided to quietly take advantage of the already expensed designs of its World War II kubelwagen utility vehicle as the "Thing Car" -- perfect for the beach or as a weekend runabout. It was disguised with color schemes of chartreuse, raspberry and fluorescent orange more familiar to an LSD-addicted surfer than any Wehrmacht veteran.

But the geist goes on. A very distinguished Jewish lawyer in the posh Hamptons on Long Island wasn't falling for that. He bought one in basic yellow, and it disappeared into a paint and body shop nearby. A week later his beach car came out with the camouflage and panzer unit markings of a kubelwagen of the Afrika Korps, complete with palm tree and swastika. To the chagrin of his neighbors along the beach at East Hampton, including the former president of Volkswagen North America, he drove it around for years.

Like a strong stencil wallpaper, the patterns of history keep showing though no matter how many times one tries to paint over them. There seems something irrepressible in history that keeps making reconnections as fast as image makers try to uncouple them. And certainly the world is a richer place for these constant reminders that whatever we try to do, we might as well acknowledge the past since we can never truly escape it. With more than 22 million cars sold to date, perhaps even Volkswagen may learn this someday.

(Thomas H. Lipscomb a veteran journalist who is chairman of the Center for the Digital Future based in New York City.)

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