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Finding Gems in the Backstory

Sometimes in studying a disgusting subject one unearths a rare gem of positive good. As maligned as the Nazi regime is (and deservedly so), hidden buried beneath its gruesome history one finds something that redounded positively for later generations: the lowly Volkswagen Beetle.

The concept for the Volkswagen Beetle originated in the minds of Nazi collaborationist Ferdinand Porsche and the demented dictator Adolf Hitler. Although Porsche claimed to be apolitical, asserting that his membership in the Nazi Party was merely for the potential business opportunities it afforded, his association with Hitler (Stalin also vied for his design expertise) never seemed to bother him. According to Der Spiegel,

He was an inventor and a developer who was interested solely in his designs. In the end, who he worked for was as unimportant to him as the question of whether the projects were of a civilian or military nature. Solving the problem at hand was what mattered to him, not who was paying him.

I suspect, however, that there was more to it than his drive to design; he was a capitalist without a conscience who was driven by the almighty Reichsmark.

Be that as it may, Hitler was enthralled by the man and his work, calling him “brilliant.” But Hitler thought that he himself was also brilliant, so brilliant that he felt compelled to school Porsche by sharing with him a design of Hitler’s own. That design (though the final outcome looked very little like the end product, Porsche subtly inserting his own improvements) ended up becoming the Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen, or “Strength-Through-Joy Car,” Volk for short. (Hitler’s sketch of his idea is shown here.) It was to be the “people’s car,” and it proved to be the forerunner of the Volkswagen Beetle. (In the accompanying photo, Porsche, in dark suit, is showing Hitler a preproduction model of the car.)

According to Der Spiegel, only 630 Volks were made for the civilian market during World War II, and most of those went to members of the Nazi elite. But Porsche wasn’t concerned about who used his products, whether civilians or the military, or whether they were used for peaceful ends or aggressive and destructive purposes.

His company went on to design and build, based on the Volk design, the Kubelwagen (“bucket car”), which, though originally

designed for the Wehrmacht, decades later was introduced to the Western civilian market as “The Thing.” Porsche also designed and built the Schwimmwagen (an amphibious “swimming car”), Panzer tanks, and the Vergeltunswaffe–Ein (“Revenge Weapon One”), better known to Londoners as the V-1 rocket, or the doodlebug. (A joke among Europeans is that when one gets into a Porsche, he feels like invading Poland.)

The Beetle was slow to catch on in the United States. Only

two of them sold here in 1949-50. That number increased to 551 in 1951 and to 601 in 1952, certainly nothing to write home about. But then the New York ad agency Doyle, Dane, & Bernbach took charge of Volkswagen’s American advertising, and sales took off, driving the lowly little bug to become the best-selling foreign car in the nation with sales of 159,995 in 1960. In 1969, Disney produced the first of six movies featuring “Herbie, the Love Bug,” and sales really took off. By 1972, sales of the Volkswagen had passed those of the Model-T Ford, making it history’s “longest-running and most-manufactured car.” By 2003, more than 21 million of the little buggers had been produced.

None of this is to excuse or minimize anything about the Third Reich or the Nazis and the holocaust they produced. It’s just an illustration of how the backstory of history can be as exciting and interesting as (or even more than) the “big event.” Few people have any good thoughts of that regime or its demented leader, but everyone knows something interesting about the Volkswagen Beetle and its many variations and spin-offs. It’s the discovery of such backstories that adds to the joy of studying history!

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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