It was November 1989. After a long into-the-evening meeting with Volkswagen execs in Wolfsburg, after the usual after-meeting festivities and after a very short night, I sat groggily behind the wheel of my Audi V8 (as it was called at the time) and headed back to Düsseldorf. Little did I know that what happened that night would gain me the company of sixty near-naked women. Others would gain even more . . .
I planned to hit the Königslutter exit of the Hannover-Berlin Autobahn with the usual élan. That road was not well travelled. Königslutter was the last exit in the free West. Next stop: The Iron Curtain. The death strip. Built to keep East Germans in East Germany.
I intended to make a high speed right turn and go west. Next stop: Düsseldorf. Two hours and forty-five minutes on an empty Autobahn. (These days, six hours is not uncommon.)
I executed the turn. Then, I faced the unbelievable.
The ABS engaged, sending loud shockwaves through the car. All 32 valves clattered with trepidation.
I saw myself surrounded by hundreds, thousands of little Trabant cars, and the occasional Wartburgs. East German cars. All with East German plates. All heading west. What were they doing here? How did they get through the border without being shot?
Suddenly, I was very afraid. “This must be war,” I thought. Thousands of Trabants pressed westward, leaving blue clouds of exhaust in their wake.
I pictured myself in a convoy of refugees, chased by Russian tanks, which were undoubtedly rolling across the border, right at this very minute, 12 klicks behind me. Soon, I would die in the crossfire of German Leopards and British Chieftain tanks, rumbling out of Celle.
I turned on the radio, expecting instructions to seek underground shelter.
What followed was one of the strangest years in the many strange years of Germany. The wall hadn’t really come down yet, it had opened. East Germany was still there. The borders and the guards were still there, but were underemployed. Citizens from both sides could come and go. Nobody gave a damn anymore.
Egon Krenz, who succeeded East Germany’s Erich Honnecker as man-in charge, asked the working masses at a big rally: “What do you want?”
“We want VCRs!” the masses shouted back.
And they wanted cars. Western cars.
Volkswagen had always kept neighborly relationships with East Germany. In 1977, VW had sent 10,000 Golfs to East Germany, a barter deal. In exchange, VW received rolled steel that made the car rust while it was still in the catalog. Even that didn’t succeed in bringing evil capitalism to its knees.
After the wall had come down, VW used their good relationships and quickly bought the Trabant factory. Not for the factory. The factory was hastily closed, with as much environmental responsibility as behooving a plant that made cars out of a mixture of Russian cotton and East German phenol. The car burned easily. East German officials were proud that, by volume, a Trabant had “a higher heating value than a coal briquette.” Too bad the material turned into cyanide fumes when burning. VW bought Trabant for their dealer network. In addition, they recruited hundreds of freshly baked East German entrepreneurs with enough guts to open a dealership.
With the wall, a hungry market had opened, access to more than twenty million people that before had to wait fifteen years for a car. We decided to change that as quickly as we could. Promptly, we had a network of 450 dealers in East Germany.
And it was time to get them all together for a big dealership congress.
Who was elected to organize the historic event? You guessed it, they picked yours truly.
East Germany was not united yet with West Germany. It was a country of its own as far as they and VW were concerned, and as such, East Germany was the responsibility of the Export Department.
The dealer congress was to be held in Berlin. The Export Dept. insisted on meeting in East Berlin.
I didn’t like that at all.
“Come on, let’s show them the good life of West Berlin. There is that great congress center. For starters.”
The Export Dept. didn’t agree. In West Berlin, they would have stepped on the toes of their domestic sales people. As far as VW was concerned, the iron curtain was still in effect. It had to be East Berlin.
I tried logistical logic. You could make the most outlandish statements at VW, as long as they were based on what resembled logic.
450 dealers, with wives and other personnel meant 1200 people.
“There is no hotel in East Berlin that can house 1200 people.”
“No problem, we’ll send them home in the afternoon,” was the response.
I was quickly running out of excuses.
“There is no hall that seats 1200 people in East Berlin.”
“Oh yes, there is: Der Palast der Republik.”
My stomach churned.
The Palast der Republik was an abomination of East German architecture. Opened in 1976, it housed East Germany’s alleged parliament. It was also the venue for the annual congress of East Germany’s communist party. It was a marvel of technology. Huge sections of seats could be hydraulically moved out of sight. The rumor was, it was a precaution against pseudo parliamentarians registering the wrong vote. At the push of a button, the people would vanish. Problem solved.
“Come on guys, we can do better than herding them into a symbol of an oppressive government which they just have disposed.”
“Shut your loose mouth, Bertel.”
The carpet at the Palast der Republik was a bit threadbare, so we purchased what looked like a square kilometer of wall-to-wall carpeting, Volkswagen blue (Pantone 293), at the cost of the GDP of one of the lesser Soviet satellite states.
Two weeks before the event, fate intervened in a gruesome way.
It became apparent that 5000 metric tons of asbestos had been used during construction of the abomination. Keeping up with Western standards, East Germany condemned (in more ways than one) its own house of parliament. It was closed. Betreten Verboten.
Crisis session in Wolfsburg. What now?
Cancelling the event was no option. Can’t possibly show defeat while the West was winning. No way. But we had only 2 weeks to go. Impossible? Sure looked that way.
In my head gelled a secret plan.
“Gentlemen, I think I can make it happen.” I said, turning to the head of the Export Dept.
“All I need is two things: I need your executive assistant 24/7 for the next two weeks. Approvals on the spot. And I need a guy from Finance the night before the event. Bring fifty thousand in cash. No receipts.”
“What’s your plan?”
“No idea yet. I’ll make it up as we go. See you at the conference. Wish us luck”
They had no other choice.
There was a solution I had in mind. But they would have never agreed if I would have told them. East Berlin sported the Friedrichstadt Palast, the communist version of the Paris Moulin Rouge, the Radio City Hall Rockettes, and Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, all rolled into one socialistic experience. They had sixty dancing girls with the longest legs east of the former iron curtain. I knew this was my last chance to put them on the same stage as the latest models of Volkswagen. If I would have proposed that in the first place, they would have locked me away.
Once, I had suggested bringing the real Rockettes to a West German dealer convention. Then, it was shot down in the name of frugality. Now, we were in the first stages of the “Höherpositionierung,” the up-positioning of the Volkswagen brand, and dancing girls were considered gauche, for official events at least. This was my last chance, and I took it.
The Friedrichstadt Palast was down and out at the time. They gladly agreed to hand over their place and their show to us, in exchange for new hard Deutschmarks. For two weeks, we rented the whole Gästehaus der Republik, the East German guest house for visiting dignitaries, conveniently located across the street from the theater. That was our base of operation. There were workers busy ripping out cables. They didn’t bother us. We didn’t get much sleep anyway. The workers showed us the room where all the cables went: Audio and video feeds from every guest room terminated in a monitoring station with big tape machines. They were sorry they couldn’t show us the tapes with the visiting dignitaries and the long legged showgirls from across the street. “The tapes were always collected the next morning.”
We threw together a ballet of our cars and their showgirls. They had a lift that could bring a huge swimming pool on stage. We didn’t know who to throw into the pool. Instead, we lifted a design study of the Golf III on stage, obscured by lots of artificial smoke. We did all that on paper, in script form. There was no time to rehearse.
The night before the event, several semis arrived with Volkswagen’s complete lineup of new cars. Three trucks with West Berlin plates disgorged a group of long haired, burly roadies, better at home at an AC/DC concert than in a communist cabaret. They unloaded trusses, stage lighting, audio and video equipment, and commenced to assemble it on stage.
The director of the Friedrichstadt Palast, an effeminate guy with a ponytail, loved the cars. He was appalled by the equipment that was brought into his place.
“We have the latest in stage technology! Get out of my theater!”
To underscore his point, he switched on a laser that painted a VW logo into thin air. The logo morphed into a bird, and flew away. We kindly asked him to never ever switch the laser on again.
“Communist crap,” said the Über-roadie.
The director fainted, his artistic senses deeply insulted. When he came to, he said that he and his ensemble would not submit themselves to insults and intrusions, and they would walk.
It was time for the guy from Finance and his attache case. I didn’t want to know who got how much, but after the latch of the case slapped close again, everybody was very happy and said Ja to everything.
We had one quick dry-run at 5 a.m. It was a disaster—a good omen in show business.
The main show went off without a hitch. For the last time in history (and maybe the first), one could look up the crotches of 60 long legged dancing girls at a Volkswagen dealer convention. Staying on context, Sales Chief W.P. Schmidt took the stage and said the memorable words: “You must love your customer. You must love the customer more than you love your wife. You must love the customer like you love your girlfriend.” 450 East German dealers had arrived in depraved capitalism, just like they had seen it on Western TV.
The dealers loved it. They felt welcomed like visiting dignitaries . . . excluding the undignifying part in the Gästehaus. A few weeks later, West Germany and East Germany were re-united. To unite the East German and West German dealer organizations took a bit longer; corporate politics proved tougher than the iron curtain. But, hey, it took the Russian army until 1994 to leave East Germany, so there was ample precedent. W.P. Schmidt’s sexy admonitions were taken to heart also. Consistently, (formerly) East German dealers beat out their (formerly) West German counterparts in customer satisfaction. Love for their new girlfriends? Lower expectations of former Trabant drivers? We’ll never know.