Thursday, 24 September 2015

Volkswagen - founded by the Nazis - felled by eco-fibbing

The emissions scandal that has engulfed Volkswagen this week is a reminder of the precariousness of even the most apparently established brands in the modern marketplace.  Just as a misjudged aside at a conference sank Gerald Ratner’s jewellery business in 1991, so it seems some eco-fibbing might just torpedo the second largest car manufacturer on the planet.

All of which is rather surprising, when one considers Volkswagen’s thoroughly toxic early history.  Given the almost reflexive opprobrium that is (rightly) directed at companies tainted by association with the Third Reich, is it not astonishing that a company established by the Nazis to build a car that was in integral part of Hitler’s social project – should have survived at all?

Hitler examining a model Volkswagen
Volkswagen was set up in 1937, at Hitler’s command, by the Nazi DAF; the ‘German Workers’ Front’, itself a nazified substitute for the smashed trades unions.  Given that cars were very much luxury items in Europe in the 1930s, Volkswagen’s brief was to design and build a “People’s Car” – that’s what the name means in German – a budget model, which would be priced to be affordable for the average household. and could carry a family of four at 100kmh.  Hitler himself was said to have even made some preliminary sketches. 

It was no pipe-dream.  A purpose-built factory was established in 1938 at Wolfsburg, near Fallersleben, with a projected capacity of 1.5 million cars per year, which came complete with a nearby ‘new town’ to accommodate the necessary workers.  Moreover, the renowned car designer Ferdinand Porsche was brought in to hand-pick the car’s design team.  Wind-tunnels were employed to utilize the very latest ideas in aerodynamics. 

The car that they were to produce was to be officially known as the “KdF-Wagen” – named after the Nazi freetime organisation; Kraft durch Freude, or ‘Strength through Joy’.  It was to be marketed for 990 Reichsmarks; a fraction of the price of other marques then available, and could be paid off by weekly subscription; 5 Reichsmarks per week.  Over ⅓ of a million Germans signed up.  The era of mass popular motoring, it seemed, had dawned.

Of course, the Nazis did not go to all this trouble and expense out of altruism.  To some extent, the KdF-Wagen – like its eponymous, parent organisation – was a propaganda exercise; an attempt to convince ordinary Germans that they were part of a bright, new, consumerist world, ushered in by their Nazi masters.  But it was more than just propaganda eyewash.  By appealing to the ordinary German people – the “Volk” – the KdF embodied the ‘socialist’ element of the Nazis’ ‘National Socialism’; convincing the ordinary worker – who once might have voted socialist – to shift his loyalty to Hitler.  In this way, Volkswagen became an essential component in the Nazis’ seduction of the German people.

Hitler being presented with a prototype "KdF-Wagen"
Of course – like the Third Reich – it did not end well.  Hitler was presented with a prototype “KdF-Wagen” for his birthday in 1939, and 50-odd further completed vehicles were gifted to foreign potentates and Nazi bigwigs.  But none of the 300,000-odd ordinary Germans, who had dutifully paid their dues and collected their stamps, ever owned the car. 

With the outbreak of war in 1939, the Wolfsburg factory shifted production to German military jeeps, consuming in the process many thousands of slave labourers sourced from the local concentration camp. 

The world would have to wait until 1946 to see the first “KdF Wagen” – or as we know it today – the Volkswagen Beetle.

On one level, I suppose, Volkswagen did remarkably well to shed its Nazi past and become one of the world’s most famous and most successful car manufacturers. 

But – given its intimate links to the Third Reich, its use of concentration camp labour, and its central importance to the toxic Nazi ‘dream’ – I personally find it astonishing that the company lasted long enough to be brought low in 2015 by something as banal as an emissions scandal.  Given its hideous early history, it should have been killed off long ago.  

© Roger Moorhouse 2015

Friday, 4 September 2015

"Portrait of a Soldier" - a quite remarkable film.

I had the privilege this week to see a preview of "Portrait of a Soldier", a new documentary by the film-maker Marianna Bukowski about the Warsaw Rising of 1944, in which Polish forces attacked the retreating Germans in a brave, doomed attempt to seize control of their capital.

The film tells the story - through extended interviews, cut with original film footage - of a young female soldier; Wanda Traczyk-Stawska.  Now a sprightly octogenarian, Wanda was 12 when war broke out. Witnessing the horrors of the German occupation of Warsaw, she swiftly developed a desire to fight back, which would be realised when the Rising was launched at 5pm on 1 August 1944.

As Wanda explains, the Rising was supposed to last no more than a few days, wresting the city from German control, before the Soviets arrive to "liberate" it from the east.  However, the Germans responded with unprecedented brutality, while the Red Army waited on the far shore of the river Vistula for Hitler's SS troops to do their nefarious work.  In the event, the Rising lasted an astonishing 63 days.

Wanda began as a messenger, but soon graduated to a fully-fledged fighter.  "I looked like a boy", she said, "I fought like a boy".  She fought throughout the Rising, being awarded the Cross of Valour, and seeing many of her comrades die, before surrendering and heading into German captivity.

Her recollections, delivered with wit and humour, are tremendously affecting. She talks of the remarkable Olympian and photographer Eugeniusz Lokajski, for instance, who was killed that September: "I knew the very best of him", she says.  Her story of the unidentified fighter, eviscerated by German sniper fire, who died in her arms: "the most beautiful boy I had ever seen", will not leave a dry eye in the house.

Warsaw rose in anticipation of Allied aid but little materialized. Over 63 days, the Polish capital was ravaged and systematically destroyed by the Germans, who murdered their way through the suburbs in a horrific attempt to sap their enemy's will to resist by wholesale murder.  Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Wanda reserves her highest praise for the city's civilians, who endured unspeakable horrors and fully ten times the death toll (some 200,000) of the Polish military forces, yet did so with honour and steadfastness.  Only with their support, she says, was the Rising possible.

"Portrait of a Solider" is a thoroughly remarkable film. Combining sumptuous production values, searing original footage and the poignancy of Wanda's own recollections, it provides a new and illuminating viewpoint of one of the bravest and most brutal military campaigns of World War Two.

I urge you to see it.

"Portrait of a Soldier" is released on 8 September via Journeyman Pictures also via ITunes and Amazon Instant Video.