Volkswagen Retrospective

The Engine of German Growth

The Volkswagen Beetle was produced up until 2003.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Volkswagen is one of Germany’s biggest companies and recently overtook Toyota as the world’s largest carmaker by sales.

  • Facts


    • The precursor of Volkswagen was founded by Nazi Party member Ferdinand Porsche in 1938.
    • His mission was to create an affordable people’s car, or a Volkswagen.
    • After the war, VW created the Beetle, which sold more than 21 million models and became a German icon.
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In real life, aristocratic Englishmen don’t really mix with proletarian Lower Saxonians. But here at Volkswagen’s Autostadt theme park in Wolfsburg, they live together: The famous English carmaker Bentley is part of VW’s extended family, as are the Italian Bugatti and Lamborghini.

The Autostadt, which celebrates its 15th birthday this year, translates into English as “Car City,” and offers a fascinating look into the history of one of the best known brands in the world, and the role it played in Nazi Germany.

Wolfsburg owes its name to the wolves that once prowled the area and supposedly induced the inhabitants to seek protection behind the walls of a castle (“burg” in German). Yet the modern version of the city came into existence in 1938, when Volkswagen opened its factory in the area.

During the Third Reich, which ended in May 1945, the area’s location on the Midland Canal was called “City of the Strength-Through-Joy Car near Fallersleben.” But nobody wanted to live there, at least not voluntarily.

Ferdinand Porsche, the brilliant engineer and a high-ranking Nazi party member, was given a factory in the area by Adolf Hitler in order to realize his idea of a car for the masses.

Today's Wolfsburg owes its prosperity to the VW factory which arose out of Mr. Porsche's idea of a people’s car, the Volkswagen.

But in reality, the settlement that developed around it was nothing more than night quarters for workers. The German dictator demanded “a people’s car” that would cost no more than 1,000 Reichsmarks, and the Strength-Through-Joy Car was supposed to fit the bill.

But not one of these cars was built for the common man. Instead they were enjoyed only by a few dozen Nazi party officials who each had a prototype built for their own use.

From 1939 until the war’s end, Germany needed military vehicles, munitions and V1 rockets, so Mr. Porsche’s car factory was turned into one of the largest German armament factories. By 1945, about 20,000 forced laborers from Poland, Holland, France and the Soviet Union, and hundreds more from nearby concentration camps, had toiled there.

At least a fifth didn’t survive, according to historians Hans Mommsen and Manfred Grieger in their book “The Volkswagen Factory and its Workers in the Third Reich.”

The book is based on material from VW factory archives.

The company had faced up to its shadowy past and supported the research. Later, as one of the first of 6,000 German firms to do so, Volkswagen paid into the indemnity fund set up by the German state to benefit former forced laborers of the Nazi regime. VW paid 20 million marks ($11.5 million at today’s value), and the fund totaled 10 billion marks.

Many historians believe Mr. Porsche bore partial responsibility for the laborers’ sufferings. Others such as Mr. Mommsen assert that Mr. Porsche was not a war criminal as such, but a cold technocrat. His grandson Ferdinand Piëch, who until April this year was the chairman of Volkswagen, was also seen by some as sharing some of his grandfather’s managerial qualities.


Ferdinand Porsche, left, presents Adolf Hitler with his original concept of the Volkswagen in 1938. Source: Ullstein Bild


Today’s Wolfsburg owes its prosperity to the VW factory which arose out of Mr. Porsche’s idea of a people’s car, the Volkswagen. The wide pedestrian zone in the downtown area is called Porsche Street.

It was named after him, but most passers-by associate the district’s name with Porsche cars, which also belong to the Volkswagen Group. Not far away, a bronze cast of a tree stump into which a Russian forced laborer scratched his name in 1944 serves as a memorial to all those to whom Mr. Porsche carries a responsibility.

On May 25, 1945, an assembly of councilors followed a decree of the British occupying force and erased from the town’s history the name it had been given by the Nazis. Since then, the city has been called Wolfsburg. The half-destroyed arms factory, in which car production slowly resumed, was simply named the Volkswagen Factory.

In the meantime, VW ranks among the world’s top automakers.

Up to German reunification in 1990, Wolfsburg was situated in West Germany but close to the East German border.

Today, it’s in the middle of Germany.

Millions of Germans who now visit the Autostadt are more interested in the present, and want to experience first hand what makes VW a German legend. Up to 350,000 schoolchildren visit annually. There is no doubt the little VW Beetle was a phenomenon: a rear-wheel drive, four-cylinder egg on wheels.

The last one off the production line – number 21,529,464 – in 2003 is now among the icons of automotive history in the TimeHouse in Wolfsburg.

The TimeHouse is the Autostadt’s main attraction. Classics on show include the Horch 670 V12, of which only 80 were built and the 1931 Bugatti Royale (only six were built). The VW managers paid a total of around €50 million to bring such stars into their collection. The investment has paid off: 2.5 million visitors annually come to the Autostadt.

And all this thanks to a Beetle made in Germany, originally only for Germans, the rolling symbol of the “economic miracle” that began during the 1950s. Unimaginable without the support of primarily Italian guest workers – over the decades, there were 35,000 of them in “Wolfsburgo.”


The Autostadt theme park in Wolfsburg. Source: Michael Lindner


A crucial contribution to the world renown of the Beetle was made by a man from Chemnitz, who sold the VW idea to the Americans. As the head of Volkswagen of America, Carl H. Hahn was tasked in 1958 with achieving respectable sales figures in the world’s largest car market. He had to sell the story of VW to Americans in such a way that they didn’t simply politely nod at the tiny Beetle from their huge road cruisers.

The 88-year-old honorary citizen of Wolfsburg insisted right from the start that VW be introduced to the American market not with pithy slogans about German high-class workmanship, but instead with a creative, original simplicity. In other words, the opposite of what was considered to be the character of the German people. It worked.

The Volkswagen advertising camapign became iconic. American ad writer Julian Koenig of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB) advertising agency set the tone for the VW advertising in 1959, with the strapline “Think Small.”

Mr. Koenig, who served as an archetype for the figures from the television series Mad Men, “was brilliant in the way he understood the business and how he explained it in simple terms,” Mr. Hahn said.

Fantastic ideas were conceived by the advertising professionals and approved by Mr. Hahn. In one ad, a VW hangs on the hook of a tow truck. The caption: “A rare photo.” Another reads: Question: How do you get five elephants in a VW? Quite simple: two in the front, three in the back.


Video: A history of the iconic VW Beetle.


The ad spots came one after another, and sales of the Beetle in the United States rose from 80,000 in 1959 to more than 160,000 in 1960.

Volkswagen went on to conquer the world. Not only did it gain many consumers who in turn switched up from the Beetle to the Polo, from the Polo to the Golf, from the Golf to an Audi, from an Audi to a Phaeton, and from the Phaeton to the Touareg, but it also took into its group brands such as Seat and Skoda, Porsche and Audi, Bugatti and Lamborghini.

Last year, the British Museum presented a widely praised exhibition in London titled “Germany: Memories of a Nation.” One of the highlights was a dark-blue VW Beetle.



Michael Jürgs was editor-in-chief of Stern, a German magazine, and at a lifestyle magazine, Tempo. To contact the author:

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