A German car company keeps reminding us of Hitler’s horrific legacy

An ill-conceived marketing stunt done ahead of April Fools’ Day touts a rebranding of “Voltswagen” in an effort to draw attention to the lone electric vehicle it’s currently selling in the United States.

Adolf Hitler and Porsche company founder Ferdinand Porsche (left) ogle a model of the original Volkswagen Beetle. Credit: JNS File Photo.
Adolf Hitler and Porsche company founder Ferdinand Porsche (left) ogle a model of the original Volkswagen Beetle. Credit: JNS File Photo.
Gabriel Eichler

The world press widely reported on March 19, 2019 that the chief executive of Volkswagen had apologized for evoking a Nazi slogan to describe the importance of boosting the group’s profits.

Germany-based auto executive Herbert Diess used the line Ebit macht frei at a company event.

The phrase echoed the words arbeit macht frei, meaning “work sets you free,” which was famously emblazoned in wrought-iron on the gates of the Auschwitz concentration 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.”

He explained that he was referring to the freedom afforded to VW brands in strong financial health and added: “At no time was it my intention for this statement to be placed in a false context. At the time, I simply did not think of this possibility.”

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 Nazi ruler Adolf Hitler’s vision to enable German families to own their first car. On May 26, 1938, Nazi dignitaries gathered near Fallersleben, a district in the City of Wolfsburg in northern Germany, to lay the foundation stone for the Volkswagen Works. 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.

The company actively drew forced labor from the concentration-camp system. One VW plant engineer traveled to Auschwitz and 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. Overall, the Volkswagen plant contained four concentration camps and eight forced-labor camps.

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 camps. The most infamous camp gate under the slogan was at Auschwitz in Poland.

Just when we thought that Volkswagen and its related brands—Porsche, Audi and others—learned their lessons of history, the automaker once again goes ahead and does something deeply offensive, using an April Fool’s “joke” to explain it away.

On March 31, press reports criticized the company’s newest advertising slogan: VOLTSWAGEN.

In fact, according to news reports, Volkswagen of America lied about rebranding to “Voltswagen” in an effort to draw attention to the lone electric vehicle it’s currently selling in the United States, according to Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. It was an ill-conceived marketing stunt done ahead of April Fools’ Day.

This all started when Volkswagen of America “accidentally” published a draft version of a press release announcing the change on Monday, which was first reported by CNBC. The company had declined to comment on the report, and spokesperson Mark Gillies repeatedly declined to say whether the name change was a marketing stunt.

The automaker, which pleaded guilty to deceiving regulators about the true pollution levels of hundreds of thousands of diesel vehicles, then published a press release on Tuesday morning saying the change was a “public declaration of the company’s future-forward investment in e-mobility.” The company said the “Voltswagen” branding would be on all of its EVs going forward.

Volkswagen of America is now expected to reveal that the name change was a stunt, according to Reuters. The larger Volkswagen Group declined to comment.

“We have said, from the beginning of our shift to an electric future, that we will build EVs for the millions, not just millionaires,” CEO of Volkswagen of America Scott Keogh proudly boasted in the press release, which, at publication time, remained on the company’s website. “This name change signifies a nod to our past as the peoples’ car and our firm belief that our future is in being the peoples’ electric car.”

Slate ran the following headline on March 31: “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 the Wall Street firm Wedbush published a note about the change.

NBC News reported that: “Volkswagen’s name change of U.S. ‘Voltswagen’ operations was marketing prank-German automaker Volkswagen will not be changing the name of its U.S. operations to ‘Voltswagen of America.’ ”

The skillful spinmeisters working on behalf of the company will undoubtedly try to sweep this latest incident under the rug.

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), are once again forced to look at the company’s deeply troubling history.

It’s hard to forget the suffering, death of their slave labor victims who were forced into inhumane conditions behind electrified concentrations camp barb wires. The world should still remember vividly the horrific war crimes committed by the company in the service of the Third Reich.

In fact, Volkswagen and Porsche cars originator Ferdinand Porsche was a prominent member of the Nazi Party and an officer of the Schutzstaffel, Adolf Hitler’s murderous “SS,” as well as the Nazi leader’s personal confidant throughout the Holocaust.

Conjuring up electrified fences in an ill-conceived marketing stunt in 2021 in order to sell automobiles is not very smart business, especially for a company with the blood of so many innocents on their hands.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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