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

No comments: