How the Volkswagen Beetle overcame its Nazi past

It "seems like the only good idea Hitler had," says one vintage Volkswagen hobbyist quoted in Bernhard Rieger's The People's Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle, an engaging history of how a failed Nazi prestige project became a national icon in three different countries. Rieger's account highlights the fact that Volkswagen is not simply a German company that cooperated with the Nazis in order to survive, it has its origins in a key component of Nazi ideology.

Inspired by the success of Henry Ford, with whom he shared both a hatred of Jews and a belief in the power of mass industrialization to improve society, Adolf Hitler first called for the construction of a Volkswagen, or "people's car" in 1934 (he didn't use the term at first but it quickly became ubiquitous in the German automotive press) as part of the creation of a "traffic community" for the emerging Aryan middle class that also included the construction of the Autobahn highway network.

Hitler was a big believer in car culture, telling a Berlin autoshow in 1933 that the motocar gave "manking a mode of transport that obeyed one's own orders... Not the the timetable, but man's will." (Modern alternative transport activists can make of this what they will.)

Based on a design by Ferdinand Porsche (today more associated with slightly more upscale models), the Volkswagen was initially conceived as part of a scheme in which workers would pay a few reichsmarks a month into a savings plan and be rewarded when they reached a certain amount with a shiny new "Strength Through Joy" car, as it was initially known. This turned out to be one of Hitler's many broken promises, as production of the cars stopped with the outset of the war. The Volkswagen factory at Wolfsburg began producing military vehicles using slave laborers imported from Eastern Europe.

It was the British military that started up production of the Volkswagen again after the war in response to a shortage of cars in occupied Germany. (This fact was to provoke much consternation in later years when the Beatle was creaming more expensive British models on the international export market.)

Under the leadership of the charismatic director Heinrich Nordhoff, the ubiquitous Beetles -- the nickname was first used in a New York Times article -- crawling Germany's roads became icons of the country's postwar economic miracle.

In the United States, the Beetle became an icon of a different sort, the car of choice for middle class consumers who either couldn't afford or were aesthetically put off by the finned behemoths coming out of Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. It helped that West Germany came, for many Americans, to thought of as a staunch Cold War ally rather than associated with its Nazi past. In the late sixties, the unpretentious Beatle became the car of choice for surfers and hippies -- the sort of customers who claimed to renounce materialism.

America's embrace of the Beetle was helped along by a the now legendary "Think Small" ad campaign, revolutionary for its time in its use of irony and mocking of the conventions of advertising. (It's influence is all over Apple's current ads, right down to the white background.) Ironically for a car with its origins in the Third Reich, the ads were devised by DDB, a Jewish-owned firm then best known for its ads for the Israeli Tourist Agency and El-Al. Volkswagen and DDB so thoroughly Americanized Volkswagen that when the "New Beetle" was launched in the late 90's, media accounts lauded it as the rebirth of an "American icon."

But Rieger points out, it's a Mexican icon as well. The company was forsighted in setting up a factory in Puebla, Mexico in 1967. Often violent battles with unions and local small farmers make up one of the uglier chapters of Volkswagen's post-war history, but the cars themselves were embraced by country's growing lower middle class. Years after German production halted in 1978, the vochito came to be thought of as a quintessentially Mexican, car, favored for consumers not just because of their price and reliability but because they were, in a way, domestic. Rieger also suggests that the car designed in far away Germany didn't carry the same connotations of yanqui imperialism as American brands. The last Beetle rolled off the Puebla assembly line in 2003 (shown above) , 64 years after it was first intoduced in Germany.

Rieger, a professor of history at University College London, specializing on the history of German technology is stronger on Volkswagen's early German years than its second life on the international market. Some juicy tidbits about the Beetle's impact beyond the three primary countries he discusses -- as a final insult, deposed Ethiopian Emperor and legendary car collecter Haile Selassie was driven away from his palace for the last time in a Beetle -- made me wish there had been a little more cultural rather than industrial history. But it's still a provocative look at one products unlikely journey through authoritarianism and globalization.

Early on, Rieger quotes Karl Marx's baffled reaction to the fact that many consumer goods seem to take on "metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" for their users, completely independent of their actual function. Luckily for Volkswagen, those metaphysical subtleties can also be entirely divorced from the people who initially designed the product.  

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