‘Voltswagen’ stunt reminds us of firm’s legacy


Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess issued a public apology after using 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 an acronym for “earnings before interest and taxes.”

Diess said he was sorry for what he described as “definitely an unfortunate choice of words” and acknowledged his company’s “special responsibility in connection with the Third Reich.”

Volkswagen was founded in 1937 as part of Adolf Hitler’s push to enable German families to own a car. Hitler was present on May 26, 1938 as Nazi dignitaries gathered near Fallersleben to lay the foundation stone for the Volkswagen Works. He predicted 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 exploited more than 15,000 slave laborers from nearby concentration camps as it manufactured vehicles for the German army.

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. The marketing stunt, done ahead of April Fools’ Day when Volkswagen of America “accidentally” published a draft version of a press release announcing the change, was ill-conceived  — especially considering the suffering and death of their slave laborers who were forced into inhumane conditions behind electrified concentration camp barb wires.

Conjuring up electrified fences to sell automobiles in 2021 is not very smart business for a company with the blood of so many innocents on its hands.

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.”

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 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 Hitler-associated Volkswagen Group. 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.

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.

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, Hitler’s murderous “SS,” as well as the Nazi leader’s personal confidant throughout the Holocaust.