A historical study commissioned by Audi to examine its corporate predecessors’ ties to the Nazi regime has revealed that Auto Union had exploited at least 20,000 slave laborers and held “moral responsibility” for the deaths of about 4,500 inmates of the Flossenbürg concentration camp who worked at a sub-camp operated for Audi in Leitmeritz, Bavaria. They died and were murdered while slaving for the German automaker. Audi expressed “shock” at the news and said that it is going to be revising company publicity materials about one of its founders, Dr. Richard Bruhn, who was revealed by the study to have close ties to the Nazi leadership. The company also said that it will consider compensating victims. Bruhn, considered the “Father of the Auto Union” was found to have exploited slave labor on a massive scale while serving the Nazi war effort.
Audi told Siegel that it would be changing online profiles of Bruhn at the company’s German website and today the company told Germany’s The Local that it has contacted its operations in other countries asking them to revise their materials on Bruhn, which describe him as having “guided the company with great competence” before the war and securing a “high reputation” post-war which “made it possible to obtain the credit needed to re-establish the Auto Union”. Audi will also be revising displays at the Audi Forum’s “museum mobile” near the company’s headquarters in Ingolstadt and at the Horch museum in Zwickau. Not only is Audi making changes to reflect Bruhn’s less savory actions, Ingolstadt’s mayor, Christian Lösel, told journalists that the municipality was considering changing the names of streets like Bruhnstraße that currently honor the Auto Union founder.
The study said that Bruhn maintained the “closest ties” to the highest ranking Nazis and that after 1942 he was personally responsible for Auto Union’s use of thousands of forced laborers. Bruhn had plans to expand the use of slaves but that was obviated by German reversals on the battlefield. He was a member of the National Socialist party and given the title of “Wehrwirtschaftsfuehrer” (military industrial leader or, more formally, Leader of the Armament Economy). This quasi-military rank was given to the executives of companies that the regime considered important to arming Germany in the 1930s and later to the war effort. Günther Quandt, whose family today controls BMW, was given a similar honor by the Nazis.
The 500 page report, “Wartime Economy and Labour Deployment by Auto Union AG Chemnitz during World War II”, was authored by Martin Kukowski, who heads Audi’s own history department and Rudolf Boch, a University of Chemnitz historian, and published by Franz Steiner Verlag. The authors conclude that, “There can be no discussion about the closeness of Auto Union to [the Nazis].” Auto Union was “firmly ensnared in the National Socialist regime”. Bruhn was not the only Auto Union executive who was an enthusiastic Nazi. In early 1945, company managers were organizing plans to evacuate themselves to escape advancing Allied forces as they continued to use slave labor in their still operating factories.
Auto Union was created in Chemnitz, Germany in 1932 under the direction of Bruhn from the merger of four German automakers, Horch, Audi, DKW and Wanderer. Those four founding firms are symbolized by the four rings in Audi’s logo.
During the war Auto Union made military vehicles for the German war effort and was “ensnared to a scandalous degree in the complex of concentration camps,” according to Kukowski and Boch. At the end of the war, Bruhn was interned by the British occupation forces along with other German industrialists who helped the Nazis. Upon his release, in 1949 he started to get Auto Union going again. Bruhn, who died in 1964, revived the business group in Ingolstadt with funding provided by the United States’ Marshall Plan and started making DKWs. In the late 1950s, Daimler-Benz bought the company, eventually selling its shares to Volkswagen starting in the mid 1960s. After some corporate restructuring, in 1985 the Auto Union name was discontinued and VW renamed it Audi.
The authors determined that the Nazi SS built and operated seven forced labor camps specifically for Auto Union. Those camps enslaved over 3,700 prisoners, a quarter of them of Jewish descent.
Another 16,500 people were forced to work for Auto Union in the company’s factories in Zwickau and Chemnitz, in Saxony. Perhaps the strongest and most shocking charge against Auto Union and Bruhn is the authors’ claim that Auto Union management carried “moral responsibility” for the deaths of 4,500 inmates at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria. They died while slaving for Auto Union at a forced labor camp in nearby Leitmeritz, the study said.
Conditions in the Zwickau concentration camp where many Auto Union workers were held, were “devastating” according to the historians. Prisoners lived in unheated barracks. The authors discovered that when workers at the Zwickau factory became disabled, they were shipped to the Flossenburg concentration camp where they were executed. Near the end of the war, nearly 700 Zwickau inmates were put on a forced march to Karlovy Vary in what is now the Czech Republic and barely half of them survived the death march.
Audi expressed shock and concern over the findings and in addition to revising how the company portrays Bruhn it said that it would look into granting compensation to any former forced laborers who are still alive. Bruhn’s name also graces a number of company projects such as pension plans. Audi board member and head of the company’s workers’ works council Peter Mosch told Wirtschaftswoche, “I’m very shocked by the scale of the involvement of the former Auto Union leadership in the system of forced and slave labour. I was not aware of the extent [of this involvement].” Audi had previously acknowledged some role in the exploitation of forced labor during the Nazi era and has paid millions of dollars into a compensation fund managed by the German government.
Audi follows Daimler, BMW and its corporate parent Volkswagen in commissioning a historical study into ties to the Nazis during 1933-45.
An extensive, five-part, German language series on the study and Audi’s history with the Nazi regime, including interviews with survivors of the forced labor, can be found at Wirtschaftswoche. This TTAC post only touches on the material covered in Kukowski and Boch’s study. Even if you don’t read German, Google’s translator works well enough to give you the gist of the material in the Wirtschaftswoche series and I encourage you to check it out.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. Thanks for reading – RJS