[Marxism] Volkswagen Parts Ways With the Historian Who Chronicled Its Nazi Past
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Thu Nov 3 18:37:56 MDT 2016
NY Times, Nov. 3 2016
Volkswagen Parts Ways With the Historian Who Chronicled Its Nazi Past
By ALISON SMALE and JACK EWING
Part of the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany. The facility,
still the automaker’s main manufacturing center, was once a Nazi
prestige project making military goods including land mines, parts for
rockets and anti-tank weapons. Credit Ben Kilb for The New York Times
BERLIN — Volkswagen has been struggling for a year to repair the damage
caused by a scandal over its cover-up of diesel emissions, promising
honesty and transparency. Now historians are accusing the company of
reverting to secretive ways on a different subject: the Nazi past of
Over the past 18 years, Volkswagen became something of a pioneer in
revealing the company’s employment of thousands of forced laborers
during World War II. But it has abruptly parted ways with the company
historian who helped make that possible.
When the historian’s contract abruptly ended this week, an angry open
letter signed by 75 prominent German academics accused Volkswagen of a
vindictive punishment. The historian, Manfred Grieger, and the company
have declined to comment on the circumstances behind his departure,
citing a mutual agreement to end his contract.
But the mystery over precisely why Mr. Grieger left — and whether he was
dismissed — has complicated Volkswagen’s effort to regain public trust,
and risks stirring up a dark chapter in company history.
The apparent catalyst for Mr. Grieger’s departure was his critical
review almost a year ago of a 518-page study of the World War II labor
practices of Audi, a VW subsidiary. The review — and the study,
published in 2014 — gained scant attention until a leading German
business weekly, Wirtschaftswoche, mentioned both in late August.
“Just this brief discussion in an academic journal then led to talk that
Grieger be put on a short leash and limited in his academic freedom,
which in turn led the prominent historian to leave,” according to the
open letter from the historians. It expressed doubt that the company
would continue to pursue other inquiries into its past, in particular
over allegations of collaboration with the military leaders of Brazil in
In a statement issued on Tuesday, Volkswagen strongly denied that Mr.
Grieger had been dismissed, or that his separation signaled a changing
“The fact is that Volkswagen continues to recognize the achievements of
Dr. Grieger and to thank him for the work performed,” the statement
read. “Furthermore, the fact is that Volkswagen has examined its history
as an enterprise consistently, honestly and strongly, and will continue
to do so.”
Mr. Grieger was a co-author of an exhaustive study published in 1996
that exposed how Volkswagen had made extensive use of forced labor
during World War II, when its factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, produced an
array of weapons and military equipment.
The book, more than 1,000 pages by Mr. Grieger and another historian,
Hans Mommsen, was financed by Volkswagen at a time when many German
companies were coming to terms with their roles during the Nazi era.
But Volkswagen may have gotten more truth than it had anticipated. The
book also uncovered embarrassing information about the Porsche and Piëch
families, who since 2012 have owned a majority of the carmaker’s voting
The Wolfsburg factory, still Volkswagen’s main manufacturing center, was
originally a Nazi prestige project built under the supervision of
Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the car that later became famous as the
Beetle. The factory produced military goods including land mines, parts
for rockets fired at British cities, hand-held anti-tank weapons and a
Jeep-like vehicle known as the Kübelwagen.
Volkswagen was especially dependent on workers press-ganged from
occupied countries or borrowed from concentration camps, including
Auschwitz, because it was a new company with a limited work force of its
While conditions at the factory were slightly better than in the
concentration camps, inmates were overseen by SS guards and were poorly
fed and frequently beaten or shot for minor infractions. Children born
to forced laborers were taken away and housed in a squalid nursery
overseen by an SS doctor, where 365 of the infants died.
Hartmut Berghoff, a professor at the Institute of Economic and Social
History at the Georg-August University in Göttingen, was the driving
force behind the open letter challenging Volkswagen over Mr. Grieger’s
departure. He said it showed a tone-deafness similar to the company’s
initial approach to the emissions scandal. “Transparency in reacting to
the public is not really the strength of VW,” Mr. Berghoff said in a
In its statement, Volkswagen said the company regretted that Mr.
Berghoff had not responded to its offer of talks on the matter, which a
spokesman, Eric Felber, said had been made last week.
Mr. Berghoff said an email from Volkswagen had gone into his spam
folder, so he learned of the offer too late before the academics’ letter
He questioned whether Volkswagen officials respected Mr. Grieger’s work.
“Why then did they part with him?” he asked.
The 75 historians are not the only people upset by Mr. Grieger’s
departure. Last week, a former Volkswagen board member and workers’
representative, Walter Hiller, described it as “a scandal.”
And on Tuesday, two more historians specializing in the behavior of
German companies during the Nazi era issued a sharp rebuke on the
website of Wirtschaftswoche, the business weekly. By parting with Mr.
Grieger, they said, Volkswagen was “disposing of an enlightener.”
It all shows “clearly how communication has gone awry at the top of VW,”
said the historians, Lutz Budrass of Ruhr-University Bochum and Mark
Spoerer from the University of Regensburg.
In his review of the study of Audi’s past, Mr. Grieger criticized the
authors as having played down the company’s cooperation with the Nazis
and its employment of forced laborers.
After publication of his landmark book, “Das Volkswagenwerk und seine
Arbeiter im Dritten Reich” (The Volkswagen Works and Its Workers During
the Third Reich), Mr. Grieger oversaw the Volkswagen company archives.
He made them freely available to researchers and journalists — a
surprising decision at a company long known for caution about what
information it makes public.
During World War II, Mr. Porsche oversaw construction and management of
the factory with help from his son-in-law, Anton Piëch. Mr. Piëch’s son
Hans Michel Piëch is currently a member of the Volkswagen supervisory
board. Another son, Ferdinand Piëch, is a former Volkswagen chief
executive who remains a major shareholder.
At the end of World War II, according to Mr. Mommsen and Mr. Grieger,
Anton Piëch commanded a unit of the so-called Volkssturm, a poorly armed
citizens’ militia ordered to make a last-ditch defense against invading
After leading his Volkssturm troops to the front, according to Mr.
Grieger’s and Mr. Mommsen’s book, Mr. Piëch retreated to the Porsche
family estate in Austria. He took about 10 million Reichsmarks of
company funds, worth about $1 million at the time, according to the book.
The family used the money to revive the family engineering bureau, which
later evolved into Porsche, the sports car maker, according to the book.
The family said that Volkswagen had owed the bureau the funds for work
that had been performed.
Ferdinand Porsche and Anton Piëch were held by the Allies for nearly two
years after the German surrender, but were never charged with war
crimes. Mr. Porsche died in 1951 and Mr. Piëch in 1952.
Alison Smale reported from Berlin, and Jack Ewing from Frankfurt.
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