Confessions resurrect Nazi past Germany: Volkswagen's chief executive may hinder the healing by protesting a book on the company's misdeeds during the Nazi era.


In Germany, exploring the family tree is a risky proposition. Beware the limbs of the 1930s and '40s, for they may be laden with Nazis.

But in recent years it has become fashionable among some of Germany's largest corporations to make the exploration. Giants such as Deutsche Bank and Daimler Benz have commissioned historians to clamber exhaustively through the tangled branches their Third Reich years.

The result has been a series of sober corporate confessionals, detailing everything from Deutsche Bank's role in the "Aryanization" of Jewish property to Daimler Benz's use of slave labor. The reactions have generally been positive, bringing high marks for candor and good intentions without hurting the bottom line.

But earlier this month, Volkswagen -- Adolf Hitler's favorite little car maker -- discovered that such efforts don't always pay off. Even before VW had time to release its 1,056-page mea culpa, titled "Volkswagen and Its Workers During the Third Reich," things began to go awry.

Chief executive Ferdinand Piech started it off by pre-emptively criticizing the book as a deceptive attack on his ancestors -- grandfather Ferdinand Porsche, who founded the company in 1938, and father Anton Piech, VW's chief executive during the war. The present-day Piech implied that the book's principal author, prominent historian Hans Mommsen, had been out to get his family ever since Piech took over as company chairman in 1993.

Nonsense, replied Mommsen, who was assigned to the job 10 years ago by then-Chairman Carl Hahn.

If Piech had kept his grumbling to himself, the book would have probably come and gone the way Deutsche Bank's did, generating a few lengthy reports in the national press, then quietly disappearing.

Instead, he announced his dissent on the pages of Der Spiegel, Germany's leading weekly news magazine. In doing so, Piech only guaranteed more attention to the company's past misdeeds, and it couldn't have come at a worse time -- just as VW is preparing to go to trial in Detroit for allegedly stealing secrets from the General Motors Corp.

10 years of work

In the weeks since, the media have stayed interested enough in the story to exasperate even Mommsen, who has been dismayed to see 10 years and 1,056 pages of work reduced to a few damning phrases and a dissenting review.

The line drawing the most attention is Mommsen's observation that Piech's father and grandfather remained "morally indifferent" to crimes committed beneath their noses, chiefly the use of slave labor from concentration camps to supply up to 80 percent of the company's wartime employment of 16,000. Founder Porsche, Mommsen wrote, "walked through these crimes like a sleepwalker."

Because recordkeeping was so poor, it's not possible to say how many were worked to death. But in one detachment of 120 Soviet prisoners of war employed at the factory, 27 died.

The book also details unsavory items that are already well-known, such as the way Volkswagen's beloved Beetle grew out of Hitler's dreams (and sketches) of a low-cost "people's car" to fill the wide lanes of his new autobahns.

Hitler named that first Beetle the "KdF Wagen," an acronym for Kraft durch Freude, "Strength through Joy," a Nazi slogan along with "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work Makes You Free), which decorated the gates of some concentration camps.

Mommsen also details the way the SS, the Nazi special police, horned in on the armaments industry as the war dragged on, when the VW plant in Wolfsburg (known then as "Strength

through Joy Town") was shutting down its Beetle assembly lines to produce the Kubelwagen (a German army jeep) and an amphibious vehicle called the Schwimmwagen. VW also pitched on the effort to build the V-1 rockets that buzz-bombed London.

In reconstructing this era, Mommsen shakes up some of the conventional wisdom that has surrounded World War II industrial history. One myth, he concludes, is that armaments minister Albert Speer, the young architect and Hitler favorite who later wrote the remorseful "Inside the Third Reich," was a genius who kept production at peak levels despite heavy damage from Allied bombing.

Work called botched

Instead, Mommsen says, Speer got his numbers all wrong and fairly botched things from the start, both at the VW factory and elsewhere.

"The truth is they were not able to use the industrial capacity in any constructive way," Mommsen says.

Mommsen also sheds new light on the postwar resurrection of the factory, when Ford, GM and British automakers turned down chances to buy out the company. It was left to a few British army occupation forces to get the place up and running.

But you'd never know any of this from most of the news accounts since the book's release, Mommsen laments. Each successive telling "gets narrower and narrower," he says, "and there is nothing left."

So, once again Germany finds itself publicized for becoming ensnared in its past, by an executive who, like some of his countrymen, still cannot come to terms with the judgments of history. Such debates in Germany inevitably evoke high-minded commentary and an outbreak of droning talk shows, with each feeling duty-bound to rehash the worst of the book's conclusions.

Compare that to the decidedly American response of Terry Shuler, a Pennsylvanian who has written his own VW book and has just completed a new history of the car, "Volkswagen: Then, Now and Forever," due out in a few weeks: "You would have thought they could have paid somebody off to write something different," he says, laughing.

Author 'not sure'

He believes he may have mentioned slave labor in passing in his new book but concedes, "I'm not sure."

That's because he figures that the world knows by now that Nazi Germany ran its wartime industry on the backs of slave laborers, he says. The world might be more surprised, as he was, to visit one of VW's factories in the Third World, such as the plant in Mexico. He found workers making $11-$14 a day and living in adobe huts without electricity or plumbing.

Besides, Shuler says, "None of this history is anything new."

He is partly correct. Nine years ago, the city of Wolfsburg's archivist, Klaus-Georg Siegfried, wrote his own exhaustive account of the war years at VW, "Armaments Production and Forced Labor at Volkswagen."

Mommsen helped make sure that book was published, and says Siegfried was a great help in his own work.

Nor had Volkswagen exactly swept the issue under the rug in previous years. Besides commissioning Mommsen's book, at a cost of about $2 million, they commemorated the suffering of the slave laborers in May 1995 as part of the observance of the 50th anniversary of the end of the war. Survivors were invited to the plant for a reunion and a ceremony where they were greeted by the mayor of Wolfsburg. Along the way, the company has paid out $8 million to survivors' organizations and has built a memorial to the laborers.

All this should have made the publication of Mommsen's book an occasion for further sober reflection and brief, calm publicity. Instead, Piech opened his mouth to complain, and things quickly got complicated -- which, as any German can tell you, is never surprising when the subject is history.

Pub Date: 11/22/96

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