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The Driving Force behind the Beetle

Estee Rieder

Who really invented the Volkswagen Beetle? Was it the “People’s Car” – the proud invention of the Third Reich, or was the real inventor an unfortunate victim of industrial theft? New research has turned up a surprising, if not sad, piece of automotive history. The real inventor of the Volkswagen was a Jewish engineer – kidnapped and tortured by the Nazis -- named Josef Ganz.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

 When Moshe purchased his car — a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle, personally imported to Israel by a German embassy employee in Tel Aviv — he never dreamed he’d encounter problems with it on the very first day.

The engine ran smoothly — no problems there. “German efficiency,” Moshe  whispered confidently, happy to have avoided the expense of a more upscale car. But the morning after his purchase, his joy turned to dismay when he found his brand-new car defaced with the words, “Nazis out!

That’s how it was in those years. There weren’t too many cars in Israel, and certainly not many VW Beetles. But any Beetle found on the road ran the risk of being sprayed in the dead of night with anti-Nazi graffiti. Why this happened more often to Beetles than it did to Mercedes-Benzes or to AEG washing machines could be because of the Beetle’s political status: a symbol of the German empire.

The  well-known part of the vehicle’s history begins in 1933. That’s when German auto designer Ferdinand Porsche began working on plans for a small car with a rear engine. Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, expressed interest in the project, asked Porsche to show him the sketches, and even made some suggestions as to the design, technical specifications, and even the name.

Hitler proclaimed to Porsche that the “People’s Car” had to be able to reach sixty-two miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour) and get thirty-three miles per gallon. It would be called the KdF-Wagen, short for “Kraft durch Freude,” (“Strength through Joy”), the name of a Nazi organization devoted to making middle-class leisure activities available to the masses. He even determined a price: 995 German marks.

This latter demand dismayed Porsche; every compact car made by competitors Opel or DKW cost almost twice that much. But he fulfilled all of the Fuehrer’s demands.

A year passed. Hitler addressed the opening of the 1934 Berlin Auto Show, saying: “It is a bitter thought that millions of good and industrious people are excluded from the use of a means of transport that, especially on Sundays and holidays, could become a source of unknown joy for them.”

The first five prototypes of Hitler’s “People’s Car” were built by Porsche in his garage and back yard. The next thirty cars, still classified as prototypes, were built per Hitler’s instructions in the Daimler-Benz plant. These vehicles were issued to SS personnel, who were ordered to drive them as much as possible and report any malfunctions.

On May 26, 1938, under Hitler’s aegis, of course, the cornerstone was laid for the factory that would produce the KdF-Wagen. A special town called Stadt des KdF-Wagens (City of the KdF Car) was even created to house the workers of the newly opened Volkswagen factory. In 1945 the city was renamed after the medieval castle, Wolfsburg, that had been built there around 1300. Wolfsburg still functions to this day as the main production site for Volkswagen models in Europe.

So, far, the clean version of well-known Beetle history.  

It turns out, however, that shrouded in the origins of the world’s most popular mass-production vehicle lies a sordid tale of industrial theft. The victim? A Jew, an auto engineer named Josef Ganz.

The legend of Josef Ganz had always lurked in the background, firing the imaginations of automotive history buffs. And then, in 2004, Dutch auto journalist Paul Schilperoord came across an old edition of Automobile Quarterly. An article in the magazine claimed that the Volkswagen Beetle, widely believed to have been conceived by Hitler as a “People’s Car” for the German masses, was actually the design of Josef Ganz.

An intrigued Schilperoord began intensive research with the objective of uncovering Ganz’s life and work, and rewriting this neglected yet significant part of automotive history. Schilperoord spent five years amassing a treasure trove of material, including a significant portion of Ganz’s original papers, which included many documents, microfilms, and photographic negatives.

Schilperoord published his findings in his Dutch-language book, Het ware verhaal van de Kever: hoe Hitler het ontwerp van een joods genie confisqueerde (The True Story of the Beetle: How Hitler Confiscated the Design of a Jewish Genius). The book revealed the Beetle’s true ethnic heritage, and Ganz’s own sad life story, up to and including his 1967 death in Australia, in poverty and obscurity.


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