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Das Volkswagenwerk un seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich.

By Hans Mommsen and Manfred Grieger (Dusseldorf: Econ Verlag, 1996. 1055pp. DM 98).

Hans Mommsen and Manfred Grieger have written the definitive company history of the Volkswagen motor company from its foundation in 1937 to the immediate post-war years. Their richly illustrated book informs the reader in absorbing detail about every aspect of the company, integrating business history, social history and labor history with the history of technology, the history of science and urban history. Overall the reader is presented with valuable glimpses into the microcosm of the German war-time armaments industry and the German war economy more generally. Whilst the authors give due attention to production and distribution details, technological developments, the financing and staffing of the company, its training schemes for skilled workers, workplace relations, the development of the city of Wolfsburg (named rather awkwardly "City of the KdF car" during the Third Reich) and not least the increasing move into armaments production after 1941, there is a justified special concern with the high numbers of foreign slave laborers deployed in the company.

When Volkswagen started production in 1938, it lacked a core of workers and by that time, the employment market inside Germany could not provide them. Hence, the company turned to the hiring of Italian workers already before the Second World War, and it made full use of the deployment of foreign labor schemes implemented after 1939. In 1944, 65 percent of its entire workforce was foreign, significantly more than the average of 30 percent in the armaments sector overall. (p. 529) In great detail the reader is confronted with the everyday brutality with which SS men, foremen and the company police (Werkschutz) treated the foreigners, in particular Soviet and Jewish workers who found themselves at the bottom of a finely graded hierarchy of slave labor abducted from across Europe. In particular the ghastly mass murder of infants and babies of slave laborers in the children's camp at Ruhen as well as the treatment of inmates in the Laagberg concentration camp belong to the sections of the book which no one will be able to forget easily. The authors locate at least part of the blame firmly with the company management: "The perception of the company's elites was guided by a mixture of moral indifference, professionalist lack of realism and National Socialist indoctrination." (p. 47) At the same time it is surprising that the authors tend to avoid more specific questions such as: what could have been done by the company management to prevent the worst horrors? why was so little done? What precisely was the company's moral responsibility for the ruthless exploitation of millions of slave laborers? Was their situation at Volkswagen worse than in other companies? These questions seem all the more important as they would have impacted on a public debate in Germany on whether former Volkswagen slave laborers are entitled to compensation payments. The company itself has always refused to pay. Instead it chose to give DM 12 million to specific projects in those countries from which Volkswagen slave laborers predominantly came: White Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Israel. The authors endorse this as an exemplary form of atonement - a judgement which seems at the very least debatable.

Yet overall, and despite the fact that this work has been commissioned and financed by the Volkswagen company, Mommsen's and Grieger's study is highly critical of the company and its leading personalities, including Ferdinand Porsche whose biographies so far have been mere eulogies on the famous genius of the most popular car ever produced in Germany: the Volkswagen beetle. His close cooperation with the SS over questions of the recruitment of concentration and annihilation camp slave laborers are documented as is his total and unswerving loyalty to Hitler. He is depicted as the unpolitical technocrat whose only interest was in the realization of his technological dreams with little regard for the human cost involved.

The enormous mass of material assembled by the authors also debunks two of the most influential myths surrounding the foundation of the Volkswagen company in the second half of the 1930s, namely the idea that it was part and parcel of the regime's hidden rearmament programme, and the thesis that its main function was to skim off the purchasing power of the German consumer. Instead, the authors convincingly argue, the project of the Volkswagen which would be affordable to the vast majority of the German population was one of Hitler's pet ideas. Following the much admired model of Henry Ford's River Rouge plant in Detroit, the motor-mad dictator wanted the Volkswagen company to produce the German version of Ford's hugely successful "Tin Lizzy." However, after initial trials the Association of German Motor Car Producers refused to cooperate, as they rightly argued that the whole project was uneconomical. The money to finance the foundation of the Volkswagen company was finally put forward by the German Labor Front (DAF). It came largely out of the funds confiscated from the Social Democratic and other independent trade unions banned in 1933. DAF officials perceived the scheme first and foremost as a propaganda coup. They portrayed the Volkswagen as practical social policy which would in the medium term produce the "people's community" (Volksgemeinschaft) of Volkswagen drivers. Workers were encouraged to save money for their "KdF-car," as it was quickly dubbed by the leader of the DAF, Robert Ley. However the system of savings stamps to be bought at weekly intervals for a period of three years was not as popular as foreseen, and would have led to a financial disaster for the DAF, had not the war intervened. For the vast majority of workers, even skilled workers, the "KdF-car" simply was not an affordable item by the late 1930s. Such failure of grand concepts of modernization, which some Nazi technocrats undoubtedly had for the future of Germany, demonstrates what Mommsen has called the "illusion of modernisation" (vorgetauschte Modernisierung) under National Socialism.

The Volkswagen company, in line with many other car companies, started the war with the firm belief that it would be over soon. Hence it was not before 1941 that Volkswagen started to produce its military version of the Volkswagen, the so-called Kubelwagen, and the full transformation to armaments production was only achieved at the beginning of 1943. Mommsen and Grieger highlight the lack of planning and the high degree of organized chaos leading to substantial waste of resources and manpower. Constant improvisation and the ongoing struggle over competencies and authority over policy decisions characterized the company throughout the years of the Second World War. Such a view is in line with Mommsen's much publicized thesis of the structural inability of the Third Reich to produce coherent and stable policies. Hitler makes an appearance as the "weak dictator" (Hans Mommsen) who avoids taking firm decisions wherever possible. In particular with regard to the wider issues (the debates over modernization or the debates between intentionalists and functionalists), it would have been advisable to introduce a stronger comparative note, locating the developments in the Volkswagen company within the context of other companies' experiences during the Second World War. Also, the strong narrative emphasis of the book leaves the analytical arrangement of the vast amounts of facts by and large to the fifty-page introduction. However, minor criticisms should not deflect from the fact that this is company history of the highest order which will set standards for years to come.

Stefan Berger University of Wales, Cardiff
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Author:Berger, Stefan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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