Porsche and Volkswagen's Nazi Roots

Roundup: Talking About History

Both Volkswagen and Porsche had close connections with the Third Reich. It was Ferdinand Porsche who designed the"people's car," the legendary VW Beetle, in 1934. Adolf Hitler was so taken with the engineer he declared him"brilliant."

Without Ferdinand Porsche, neither automotive giant Volkswagen nor luxury marque Porsche would exist today. The man who would have a huge influence on German car-making was born in Bohemia in 1875 and completed his apprenticeship in his father's mechanical shop.

While working for the Viennese coach-building firm Lohner, which produced coaches for the court of Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, Porsche developed an engine that many engineers are once again working on today: the electric motor. A vehicle equipped with the motor was an attraction at the Paris World's Fair in 1900.

Even at a young age, Porsche enjoyed such a strong reputation that two dictators vied for his favor and service: Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin. But that never seemed to trouble Porsche: 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.

In World War I, he designed aircraft engines for the army of the Austrian emperor and tractors for heavy artillery. Later on, Porsche developed sports cars for Daimler in Stuttgart, before founding an engineering firm with his son Ferry in Stuttgart, which developed cars for two German car and motorcycle makers, Zündapp and NSU.

In 1932, a delegation from Moscow visited Porsche in his Stuttgart office. Shortly thereafter, Stalin invited him to the Soviet Union for an informational visit."At first we thought the invitation was so improbable that we had trouble taking it seriously," Ferry Porsche later wrote in his autobiography."But soon it was made very clear to us that everything was perfectly serious."

Stalin wanted to advance industrial development in the Soviet Union with the help of experts from capitalist countries. He had Porsche taken on tours of aircraft and automobile factories and, in the end, made him an offer to become general director of the development of the Soviet auto industry.

Stalin promised Porsche many privileges and powers. But the German engineer turned down Stalin's offer"after much consideration," Ferry Porsche wrote.

'The Brilliant Design Engineer'

It was not the communist dictatorship that had deterred the senior Porsche as much as the language barrier. How could he manage such a gargantuan task, he reasoned, if he couldn't even communicate in his native tongue?

Stalin's offer" could have had a very decisive influence on my subsequent life," Ferry Porsche wrote. His life would not have been the only one affected.

If Porsche had accepted, the VW Beetle might have become the Soviet Union's"people's car." And instead of becoming a symbol of West Germany's post-war"economic miracle," perhaps it would have become an icon of Russian backwardness -- as the Lada did, years later....

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