Volkswagen’s history of forced labour

This is another piece in series about the war profiteers in the automobile industry.

Like so many other German brands (Bayer, AGFA, BASF, Adidas, Puma, Hugo Boss), Volkswagen owes a lot to the Nazis. In fact, the car manufacturer would have never existed had it not been for Hitler’s rise to power.

Ferdinand Porsche and Hitler
Ferdinand Porsche (far left) and Adolf Hitler examine a prototype model that will evolve into the Volkswagen Beettle

The following article was discovered as I had half of my blog’s post already composed only to discover, that Frederic F. Clairmont of LE MONDE Diplomatique has already done what I was about to finish. The rest of this post is therefore his article published here  already in 1998 :

In crisis-stricken Europe, the German Volkswagen group, which dates back to the 1930’s, is the largest car manufacturer. Like those at the helm of IG Farben and the Deutsche Bank, its founder, Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951), came to personify the big business which placed itself at the service of the Nazi war machine, benefiting directly from the regime’s generosity and its inhuman labour legislation. Among Ferdinand Porsche’s close friends were, besides the Führer himself, Dr Robert Ley, leader of the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront), Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler and Fritz Sauckel, who rejoiced in the pompous title of General Plenipotentiary for Manpower Allocation (Generalbevollmächtigter für den Arbeitseinsatz).

In just over a thousand pages, two German researchers, Hans Mommsen and Manfred Grieger, describe the role played by Ferdinand Porsche and his firm in Third Reich Germany and the treatment meted out during that period to workers of all origins forced into working in the factories. Under the title “Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich” (Volkswagen and its workers during the Third Reich) (1), this book also lays the foundation stone for as yet unwritten history. It is a well-documented work, written in a clear, detached style far from the outraged passion which sometimes lies behind other material relating to this period (2).

There are a number of gaps, attributable to the refusal of Ferdinand Piech, Porsche’s direct descendant, to grant the authors access to the Volkswagen archives – as if lost honour could ever be recovered. The Peugeot dynasty also declined to open their archives for information on Peugeot’s cooperation with Volkswagen during the period. Even more disturbing, the researchers came up against exactly the same attitude at the French ministry of the interior, which was unwilling, presumably out of concern for the “national interest”, not to disclose information about cooperation with German Nazi business interests by the French bourgeoisie. In fact, most employers in both occupied and unoccupied Europe colluded in Hitler’s crimes. It is well known, for instance, that Swiss and Swedish banks continued to finance German industry after the Nazis seized power in 1933.

Annihilation through work

Porsche, the “great engineer”, as he was known in business circles, was a follower of Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), whose principles of “scientific management” of labour found their application in Fordism. He had visited the Detroit works several times, and German-American engineers recruited from Ford helped in the development of the Volkswagen works. In Detroit, Porsche learned the prime importance of monitoring labour and subjecting workers to a system of constant spying from one end of the chain to the other, using “scientific” methods. He had doubtless also read Henry Ford’s theories in “The International Jew” (3), which was a best-seller in the Weimar Republic. Along with “Mein Kampf”, this fed the imagination of members of the National-Socialist Party (NSDAP).

Porsche had grasped the importance of productivity, and the constant need to increase this productivity became an absolute obsession for him. His SS friend, Fritz Sauckel, responsible for the mass deportation of workers, summed up this need in his first directive on labour: “Foreign workers will be treated so as to exploit them to the greatest possible extent, with a minimum of outlay”. And this rule did not just apply to foreign workers. To the arsenal of conventional methods of increasing productivity (longer working hours, a faster rate of work, new labour-saving techniques), Porsche and the Nazi terror machine added a fourth, which it had rediscovered: slavery.

Hitler’s order offered German capitalists, badly hit by the great recession, the prospects of huge profits. German workers did, admittedly, enjoy full employment, but, as William Schirer has said (4), this was at the cost of being reduced to serfdom and poverty wages. It was not long before these conditions became the lot of the whole of occupied Europe. Competition and flexibility of labour were the watchwords in the Third Reich – structural adjustment in all but name. It made the preparations for the warmongering of 1937 possible. But the slogan “Freude durch Arbeit” (joy through work) degenerated into “Vernichtung durch Arbeit” (annihilation through work), because after this adjustment, there was death. At Volkswagen, the foreign workforce subjected to forced labour was exposed to the cold (photos in the book show young Soviet women, reduced to slavery, working barefoot), incessant beatings, malnutrition and early death.

Barely a month after seizing power (5), Hitler sent a note on industrial policy to the all-powerful German Automobile Industry Federation, whose chairman, as if by coincidence, was none other than Ferdinand Porsche. Concerning, as it did, the complete reorganisation of industry, the first draft of the text had already been submitted to all the leading lights of the German business world. The Führer was at pains to stress that the bourgeoisie had nothing to fear, owing to their unlimited support for the Nazi state. There was provision for aid for the speedy construction of infrastructure, tax benefits and export subsidies, availability of cheap raw materials and labour, and large credits. Was there anything more that anyone could want in the middle of a world depression? To privatise gains and socialise losses: a recipe which was later to be recommended by the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses, also bowing to the Nazi creed, benefited from the boom in the arms industries, the expropriation of the Jewish bourgeoisie and plundering by the Wehrmacht. In parallel, the new labour legislation completely abolished working class organisations which had been built up over more than a century of bitter struggle.

Hans Mommsen and Manfred Grieger’s book is not a biography of Ferdinand Porsche, but the man’s technical feats cannot be divorced from his ideology and his treatment of workers, be they slaves or free. He joined the Nazi party himself of his own free will in 1937, the year in which Hitler completed the first phase of consolidating his power. Two years earlier, a prototype of the legendary Volkswagen Beetle had come off the production line.

The Volkswagen plant was completed in 1938 after Italian labour was brought in (exploitation of foreign workers was to become a constant in Volkswagen’s labour policy). A veritable personality cult grew up around its boss, who, as a model Nazi businessman, was awarded the regime’s highest distinctions. People everywhere were exhorted to follow his example, and the role he played was extolled in documentaries, in the press and on the radio, and, of course, at party meetings.

1938 was also the year in which France and Britain abandoned Czechoslovakia to its fate. Volkswagen, like IG Farben, played a decisive role in the victories of the German army in its blitzkrieg. As Chairman of the Panzer Committee, Porsche introduced innovations which formed the basis for a whole range of armoured vehicles, including the “Tiger” and the “Ferdinand” destroyer. His military production was to encompass a wide range of aircraft, including the Ju 88, the Luftwaffe’s standard bomber, and the Focke-Wulf interceptor, the scourge of the Allied bombers. He also played a vital role in developing and manufacturing retaliatory weapons (Vergeltungswaffen), such as the Fi 103 flying bombs, used indiscriminately against civilians.

During the war in Europe (1939-41), followed by the world war (1941-45), millions of people were reduced to slavery, not to mention deportations and the extermination of millions of people belonging to defenceless minorities. The Barbarossa operation – the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 – was a particular opportunity for Volkswagen to improve its fortunes, in terms of the exploitation of forced labour. In early August 1940, even before the Battle of Britain, everything was in place to plunder the labour force and material resources of the communists.

Of the three million Soviet civilians reduced to slavery, more than half were women. This was the new order to which Ferdinand Porsche had committed himself. Although it must be said that he personally never had blood on his hands, as an SS activist, he was part of the extermination machinery. Without foreign labour, and in particular that of Soviet slaves, the whole of German industry would have collapsed: in the spring of 1945, Volkswagen’s workforce was 90% non-German. It is an extraordinary paradox that the victims of the fascist order helped to prolong the life of German industry.

In Nazi ideology, racism and economic policy were one and the same thing. Witness Hitler’s thoughts on “sub-human” Slavs (Untermenschen): “As for the ridiculous hundred million Slavs, we will mould the best of them to the shape that suits us and we will isolate the rest of them in their own pigsties; and anyone who talks about cherishing the local inhabitant and civilising him goes straight off to a concentration camp” (6). In total, there were more than 5.75 million Soviet prisoners of war: barely a million of these unfortunate people, who had served German shareholders so well, were found alive when the camps were liberated.

In 1943, the year of Stalingrad, Porsche’s friend Himmler mused: “What happens to a Russian or a Czech does not interest me in the slightest… Whether nations live in prosperity or starve to death interests me only in so far as we need them as slaves for our kultur; otherwise, it is of no interest to me. Whether ten thousand Russian females fall down from exhaustion while digging an anti-tank ditch, interests me only in so far as the anti-tank ditch for Germany is finished” (7). Thus spoke the biggest manpower racketeer of all, for whom the word kultur (culture) was synonymous with profits: the funds of German companies needing workers were disappearing into his coffers at a phenomenal rate. The bribes paid to Himmler, Sauckel and the other crooks involved in organising forced labour must have amounted to huge sums, deposited, like the Nazi gold and the proceeds from flights of capital, in Swiss, Turkish, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish banks. The devaluation of human work pointed to the criminalisation of the economy.

Like the mass murderers of IG Farben, Ferdinand Porsche remained an unrepentant disciple of the Führer. So how did he avoid the fate of Himmler (who committed suicide), Sauckel (who was hanged) and others of that ilk? The authors do not attempt an answer. Arguably, the Nuremberg trials fulfilled a wholly justified logic, but it would probably have been unacceptable for American foreign policy, bearing in mind the imperatives of the cold war, to extend blame to survivors from the capitalist oligarchy. At the time, an inveterate racist such as John E. Rankin, the Mississippi Congressional representative, was able to write that the events unfolding at Nuremberg were a disgrace for the United States. He said that all the other countries had washed their hands of what he regarded as an orgy of persecution, and withdrawn from it. He maintained that a racial minority (Jews and communists) was in Nuremberg, two years after the end of the war, not only to hang German soldiers but also to judge German businessmen in the name of the United States (8).

At the end of the war, most of the Volkswagen factories lay in ruins. But this still did not signal the collapse of German capitalism. Volkswagen’s SS friends were no longer there, or they had changed in appearance, but, thanks to the Allied occupation and the Marshall Plan, Volkswagen and the others soon rose from the ashes. The Beetle became the symbol of Adenauer’s “economic miracle”, as Porsche’s Nazi party gave way to the Christian Democratic Union. The transition had been smooth. The times changed and different slogans appeared. And Ferdinand Porsche proclaimed his faith in democracy, the free market and the building of Europe.


Translated by Sally Blaxland



(1) Hans Mommsen and Manfred Grieger, “Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich”, Econ Verlag, Düsseldorf, 1996, 1055 pages, 78 marks.

(2) See, for example, Joseph Borkin, “Crime and Punishment of IG Farben”, The Free Press, New York, 1978; Josiah Dubois, “The Devil’s Chemists”, Beacon Press, Boston, 1952, and Eric Hobsbawm, “The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991”, Michael Joseph Ltd, Penguin Books, London, 1994.

(3) Henry Ford, “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem”, published by Ford Motor Co. in The Dearborn Independent, Michigan, July 1920.

(4) William Schirer, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1959.

(5) Hitlers Reden, Munich, 1934.

(6) “Hitler’s Secret Conversations, 1941-1944”, Signet Books, New York, 1953.

(7) Nuremberg Documents, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, United States Government Printing Office, Washington DC, 1946, vol. 4. Verrecken, meaning to die, is used of cattle.

(8) The Congressional Record, Washington DC, 28 November 1947.


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