The folks wagon. The people’s car.
Volkswagen is the company behind the Passat, Audi, pretty much every high-end car that gets yelled out in songs about luxury (including Bugattis, Lamborghinis and Porsches) and let’s not forget those adorable Beetles. Volkswagen really does make something for everyone and on the roads, these automobiles are about as stylish and non-threatening as can be.
But what if we told you their history was a bit on the dark, ugly, Nazi-leaning side?
Wait, Hitler Made Porsches and Beetles?
Well, not Hitler exactly.
But the Nazi labor union, Deutsche Arbeitsfront, founded the Volkswagen company in 1937 as a way to give German citizens, who typically didn’t own motor vehicles at the time, access to cars that were safe, affordable and could accommodate happy blonde nuclear families.1 This car, known officially as the KdF-Wagen, would end up being the first iteration of the Volkswagen Beetle.
The company’s original name was Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH before being shortened to the much pithier Volkswagenwerk GmBH.
The push to bring automobiles into German homes was part of Hitler’s mission to uplift German morale through a movement he called Kraft-durch-Freude – Strength Through Joy.
Kraft-durch-Freude was a full-on campaign led by the Nazi party that attempted to bring leisure activities to the German people and give them access to arts and cultural events regardless of socioeconomic status. Germany’s Office of Leisure organized trips to the theater, opera, and even vacations and cruises, all for the purpose of helping German citizens make better use of their personal time and become more cultured. The Office of Leisure hoped that all this self-care would also improve people’s productivity as employees.2
A summary of the purpose for the Kraft-durch-Freude initiative and Germany’s Office for Leisure that was written for President Roosevelt noted:
“The task of the Office for Leisure Time is to enable workers to go to the opera, theaters and concerts, which they would otherwise find it impossible to attend–and generally to help workers’ spend their spare time pleasurably and profitably.”3
This all seems pretty harmless. What was the issue?
Well first of all, like many things in Nazi Germany, these Kraft-durch-Freude activities were only available to non-Jewish Germans. KdF was also more about mobilizing citizens in support of Nazi ideals than actually making sure Germans had fun. Rather than actually having people let loose, these holidays and outings were heavily structured and infiltrated by Nazi spies who saw to it that no one stepped out of line.4 Still, the Volkswagen manufacturing plant was built in 1938 and opened with the intent of using the production of the cars to cultivate a new, highly-skilled workforce.
The Nazi party also over-promised a bit on the vehicle front. More than 300,000 Germans actually signed up to pay the weekly fee to own a Volkswagen car. But then…
World War II happened.
Germany officially started the Second World War after invading Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. During wartime, production of “The People’s Car” came to a screeching halt (pun intended). Production of family-friendly Beetle was put on hold and the Volkswagen factory was converted into an armament manufacturer for German weaponry. The Germans did continue producing cars, but instead of KdF-Wagens, factories churned out Kubelwagens, SUV style army tanks, and Schwimmwagens, cars that were adaptable on both land and sea. Not exactly the most universally useful product.
The Nazis were big on forced labor and this was no exception. Nearly 15,000 prisoners of war and concentration camp victims were used to repair fighter planes and build bombs meant to be used against Britain, one of Germany’s chief rivals in WWII.
When it comes to WWII slave labor in Nazi Germany, Volkswagen is probably the biggest culprit. They employed the highest amount of forced laborers and more than half of those laborers were women—some were even pregnant. Mothers who gave birth while working at the Volkswagen factory could expect to have their children taken away from them and placed in a disease and bug-infested home where they would likely take ill and die.5
The U.S bombed the factory in 1945 and promptly surrendered it to the British, who used it for army maintenance until the end of the war. Despite the fact that the British army took a liking to the Beetle after Major Ivan Horst showed it to them (he even painted it green and they ordered 20,000 vehicles), car companies in France, the U.S. and Britain all passed on assuming control of Volkswagen and reverting it back to its original prewar function. 6
Okay so when do we get to the fun, non-war crimes part of the story?
Western Germany (the democratic side of the Post WWII Berlin Wall) took over the Volkswagen company after the war. A man named Heinrich Nordhoff took the reins at the company and it began reproducing the Beetle and developed a few other models including the camper (yes, the one hippies supposedly drove), the Rabbit and the Karmann Ghia.
Although initial sales in the states were sluggish due to the car’s previous Nazi ties, several genius marketing moves caused global sales of the Volkswagen and its flagship model to soar. Some of those marketing moves were the “Think Small” campaign of the late 50s and the introduction of everybody’s favorite Beetle, Herbie the Lovebug.
By 1972, the Beetle surpassed the American-made Ford Model T as the most produced car model in history. Today, Volkswagen sells more than 10 million vehicles annually and recently enjoyed a record year of global sales and growth. 7
So, should I feel bad about wanting a Beetle as my next car?
Not unless you agree with the car factory’s alternate wartime practices, in which case, yes, you should feel pretty bad.
Aside from the fact that Volkswagen today is pretty distant from its Nazi origins, the company did pay a hefty price for its WWII misdeeds. In 1998, Volkswagen established a $12 million relief fund for surviving concentration camp workers 8. So while they may never be able to escape the dark grips of their past, Volkswagen has made an effort to show remorse and make amends to those who were harmed. So you can rest easy and let the wind blow through your hair as you drive your adorable, non-slave-labor made, Beetle across town.
- Bowler, Tim, Volkswagen: From the Third Reich to emissions scandal, 2015
- Land, Graham, Tourism and Leisure in Nazi Germany: Strength Through Joy Explained, 2015
- CBS News, Volkswagen’s Wartime Travesty, 1998
- Wilson, Zachary, The History of Volkswagen, 2010
- Andrews, Edmund L., Volkswagen to Create $12 Million Fund for Nazi-Era Laborers, 1998