By on November 4, 2016

volkswagen 1938

The sudden termination of historian Manfred Grieger’s contract with Volkswagen is generating controversy in Germany, with some accusing the automaker of trying to put a lid on its dark past.

Grieger spent 18 years on the VW payroll, and was hired specifically to air the automaker’s dirty laundry. During his time with the company, Grieger penned detailed accounts of Volkswagen’s wartime use of forced labor from concentration camps while opening up the company’s archives to journalists and historians.

The New York Times reports that his contract came to an end this week. Some suspect that Grieger’s criticism of a report on Audi’s past led to his departure, and they worry VW could be trying to downplay revelations about its history with the Nazis and Brazil’s military dictatorship.

Before joining VW, Gieger co-authored the tell-all book Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich (The Volkswagen Works and Its Workers During the Third Reich), published in 1996.

The book detailed VW’s use of forced labor — and the deaths that resulted from it — during the Second World War. The company’s production turned to military vehicles and munitions during that time, with concentration camp prisoners brought on to boost output. Among the weapons created with the help of VW’s forced labor were V1 flying bombs — a pulse jet powered guided missile that rained down on British civilians.

Volkswagen’s hiring of Grieger was commendable, though many take issue with how he left. While the historian hasn’t commented on what made him decide to leave, he’s said the decision to end his contract was mutual. A group of 75 academics has since accused VW of punishing the historian, claiming his criticism of a 2014 report downplaying Audi’s wartime past irked company executives.

“Just this brief discussion in an academic journal then led to talk that Grieger be put on a short leash and limited in his academic freedom, which in turn led the prominent historian to leave,” the group wrote in an open letter. The group worries that VW will stop digging into its past.

Volkswagen refutes the claim. In a statement, the automaker said, “The fact is that Volkswagen continues to recognize the achievements of Dr. Grieger and to thank him for the work performed.”

The company continued, saying it “has examined its history as an enterprise consistently, honestly and strongly, and will continue to do so.”

Grieger may be gone, but another figure has popped up to delve into VW’s Brazilian past. The BBC reports the automaker has hired Professor Christopher Kopper of Bielefeld University to investigate claims of torture at the company’s Brazilian operations during the rule of that country’s military junta.

A group of former employees has sued the automaker, claiming they were subjected to torture, arrest and blacklisting during Brazil’s authoritarian era, which spanned 1964 to 1985. They also claim the company collaborated with the junta.

For its part, Volkswagen has vowed to uncover the truth.

In a statement to the BBC, VW board member and legal affairs representative Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt said, “We want to shed light on the dark years of the military dictatorship and explain the behaviour of those responsible at that time in Brazil and, if applicable, Germany.”

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63 Comments on “Sudden Departure of Volkswagen’s Nazi-hunting Historian Sparks Controversy...”


  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    “The group worries that VW will stop digging into its past.”

    Well, group, they’re not obligated to do so. Lots of companies have various atrocities in their pasts, and they don’t talk about it or hire a researcher. Unless you’re volunteering to cover the researchers’ expenses, I don’t see how you can complain.

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      Whether or not they’re obligated to do so, it may be shortsighted of them not to. Some of my family members met their ends at the hands of the Nazis, and VWs are verboten, as it were, to my mother, and certainly were to my grandfather, who personally fought the government that gave the company its name.

      Time has somewhat dulled those wounds for me, though, and the German government’s and German companies’ attitudes toward the Holocaust played a role in that healing. This one incident isn’t enough evidence for me to conclude that VW is trying to ignore the past, but if such evidence builds up, it may be enough to alter my future buying decisions. The A7 may be on top of my list, but there are other good cars. VW may not be obligated to dig into its past, but neither am I obligated to buy products from a company whose policies sit uncomfortably with me.

      • 0 avatar
        CoreyDL

        The amount of people who think like you do, in historical context, is shockingly small these days. As evidenced by Japanese car sales.

        Drudging up the history will potentially only alert younger people to the problems of the past – and that’s who the manufacturers care for.

        • 0 avatar
          PeriSoft

          Fair point. But had you heard of this researcher until he got canned? Probably not. Nor had all those young Audi Q3 buyers. Mr. Grieger’s research probably didn’t show up on Jalopnik and Autoblog; actions perceived as an attempt at silencing him might. And that might give pause to far more people than those whose families were directly affected by the Nazis.

          In a business climate where every percentage point of the market is fought over tooth and nail, this seems like a bit of an unforced error, assuming it’s not just a non-issue being whipped into a story (not necessarily by TTAC, but generally speaking).

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I’d be interested to hear if more info comes around on this.

            However, if I were considering a VW seriously, and all the sudden I find out the company committed atrocities under a regime 70+ years ago and recently fired their historian…

            It wouldn’t affect having a VW on my buying list. The people who committed the crimes are dead. So are the Japanese who built planes and attacked us. So are the English pilgrims who stole from my ancestors.

            Gotta let it go at some point.

        • 0 avatar
          jpolicke

          I know people who still will not go near a German car because of what Germany did to their ancestors, but think nothing of buying a Japanese one. If Japan had not been Germany’s ally and kept out of WWII, how much sooner could Germany have been defeated? The USA would eventually have gotten involved in the war in Europe even without Pearl Harbor. By not having to divide military resources between east and west, the full might of the USA and the UK would have brought Germany down years earlier.

          Giving Japan a pass on WWII is like ignoring the accomplice to a crime.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            VW, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz have their success here because they were players in the German war machine. Baby Boomers resented the living hell out of their parents, who mostly spoiled and coddled them and turned them into the prototypes for the Millennials. German cars caught on as the ultimate up yours to the Greatest Generation. Would Japanese cars have caught on as fast if Japan had remained on the sidelines instead of dragging us into a war that our progressive leadership hoped would got away? It’s hard to say. Maybe they’d have caught on sooner with people that didn’t hate their country, but that may have meant waiting for Generation X.

          • 0 avatar
            dig

            I was waiting on a ferry on the Olympic Peninsula side of Puget Sound some 15 years ago and whilst queued up I saw a new Honda Accord in front of me with special WA plates that said “Pearl Harbor Survivor”. An elderly gentleman got out of the car to walk around a bit and I inquired if he was the said survivor to which he replied that he was indeed. As I was beginning to point out the irony he just said that was a long time ago, I like the car, and registration on a new car in WA is expensive unless you can claim the “special” plates.

            There you go…

    • 0 avatar
      WheelMcCoy

      I’m acquainted with older Jewish people who would never buy a German car. Similarly, I know older Chinese people who would avoid Japanese makes and buy only American cars.

      I get it. And at least the ones I know have the wisdom not to pass on the anger to their children; they don’t insist their kids avoid German and Japanese cars. The point is to acknowledge history so it doesn’t happen again, not to go on and on a punish VW, Germany, and Japan.

      Japan still has trouble admitting their history, creating friction with their Asian neighbors — namely China and Korea. If VW stops being transparent about their history, potential customers can only continue to doubt VW’s emissions numbers and who knows what else.

    • 0 avatar
      baggins

      could be just budget cuts, VW has quite large unexpected expenses

    • 0 avatar
      Xeranar

      As an active Historian (I just sent a piece out on the USW’s history with Black Americans in Pittsburgh) it’s not that unusual to say ‘well, as a private organization they have no obligation to the past’ but I would argue that they have more. They’re in possession of a vast resource of knowledge that may shed insight on future dealings. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to close their doors and shutter their windows against such investigations but it also means they’re likely hiding things they prefer not to discuss.

      Often times a corporation that big has a self-interest in keeping their history keenly up to date if only to fend off transgressors against it. This is worrisome for the VW corporation.

  • avatar
    Verbal

    We can not have omelettes without breaking a few eggs.

    • 0 avatar
      28-Cars-Later

      -Lazar Kaganovich, Jewish Communist functionary who co-implemented the Holodomor resulting in the murder of somewhere between 2.5 and 7.5 million Ukrainians.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lazar_Kaganovich

  • avatar
    Wheatridger

    After 18 years of diligent research, how much was left for the man to discover? There’s a vanishing number of eyewitnesses to WWII still alive, and a limited volume of archives. Is this like the Hillary investigations, a cradle-to-grave witch hunt that can never end, despite lack of indictable results?

    I salute VW – in the good old American manner, of course – for investing in the investigation of this uncomfortable subject. But going forward, I’d rather see them hire more accountability and compliance workers to keep their current factories and workforce running fairly and humanely. At some point, what’s done is done.

  • avatar
    WalterRohrl

    VW has enough current problems to deal with, finding and publicizing more of a historical nature is not helpful at this point. When they still enjoyed a good reputation was the time to repent over past sins. Until they are successful again, it makes corporate sense to let sleeping dogs lie.

  • avatar
    jpolicke

    Not to minimize Nazi crimes, but prior to 1948 there was no “VW” company. A “volkswagen” was a project of the Nazi party built by the state labor organization and promoted as the KdF-Wagen. An auto design cannot commit a crime against anybody. The manufacturing plant was converted to wartime projects as were many others; there was no VAG management around to mistreat anyone. Whatever war guilt VW has it inherited from Audi’s Auto Union past.

    Every business that existed at the time was co-opted into war production. Odd that Benz and BMW, which were well established at the time and whose active participation is widely known are never subjected to the same scrutiny as a company that did not exist at all during the period in question. Or perhaps it’s just more convenient to keep the spotlight on a well-known German company – especially now that it’s in such disrepute via the diesel scandal – than to look inwards at the household brands in the USA that were enthusiastic partners of the Reich.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      Fair point.

      The “People’s Car” was a project of a National Socialist Government – by definition a socialist government will want to undertake large scale national projects that are ostensibly for the betterment of the nation. That project was as much a part of the government as the V2 and the Wehrmacht.

      • 0 avatar
        RHD

        The Nazis were socialist in name only. They purposely misnamed their party to make it more palatable, but were ultra-right wing, by today’s standards. Their deceptive little ploy was and is remarkably effective.

      • 0 avatar
        Pch101

        Argh. You’re part of the school system and don’t know that the Nazis were anti-Bolshevik and that the SPD (socialist party) was banned under Hitler? Seriously?

        • 0 avatar

          The socialist roots of fascism are disappeared, like Nikolai Yezhov, but still everyone ever purged by Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Pol Pot, or Mao was a self-avowed socialist.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            Er, not only were the Soviets not fascists, but they went to war against fascists.

          • 0 avatar

            So when communists go to war with fascists it means they can’t both be socialists, but when communists purge other communists it means something else. Okee dokee.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            The zealousness with which you defend your ignorance is something to behold.

            You know just as much about politics as you do about the law (read: something between null and zero), and it would be great if you give it a rest until you actually learn something.

            Big hint: Stalinists were on the left, Nazis were on the right. The Nazis were fighting the communists from the start, and they were on opposite sides of the Spanish Civil War.

          • 0 avatar
            rentonben

            The Russian Socialists and the German Socialists got along well enough to form the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

            Trouble was that the German Socialists were just better murderers – at least in the beginning.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            The German socialists were banned by the Nazis in 1933.

          • 0 avatar

            And and then Nazis were banned by German socialists. Socialists tend to ban each other because they have no tolerance for differing opinions. Both get involved in sending opponents to concentration camps invented BTW by Russian social-democrats before Nazis. In 30s there was a street fight between national-socialists and social-democrats, Telman vs Hitler. Working class in the end supported national-socialists. Just watch “Triumph of the Will” – very uplifting documentary for Germans back then during depression. If Telman won the fight the future for the Germany would be as bleak as under national-socialists. I am not sure what will happen in US in case of total economic collapse considering growing debt. New generation of Americans have no tolerance to free speech or personal freedom. Interesting that Arthur Clarke makes bleak prediction of new dark age in “Rama II” lasting 70 years.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            Er, Nazism was banned by the allied occupiers and that ban has since been incorporated into the Basic Law (German constitution).

            The first German chancellor to lead under that constitution was Konrad Adenauer, who was a founder of the Christian Democrats (CDU). The CDU was and is a center-right party, which is led by the current chancellor Angela Merkel.

            You’re another one of those posters around here who is incapable of getting his facts straight. Aside from serving as a dependable source of inaccurate information, what is it that you’re trying to accomplish here?

      • 0 avatar

        PrincipalDan, you spoke something that’s considered heresy on the left. As I explained to my younger daughter recently, when you challenge someone’s self-image, things won’t go well.

        • 0 avatar
          Pch101

          Given your track record, I can appreciate that you would be eager to praise those who make factual errors.

          • 0 avatar
            SP

            PCH101, you seem very concerned with specificity in language. But you are relying heavily on “shorthand” concepts of socialism, fascism, right, and left that may not really convey enough meaning to be helpful.

            Sure, you can say Nazis were right wing and Soviets were left wing. But look at the reality of what life was like under those two regimes. Both featured big government, state-run economies, major legal and social restrictions for the majority of people, and secret perks for the privileged few. So what is the relevance of calling one “left” and the other “right”? The terms are just lacking.

          • 0 avatar
            Pch101

            I’m a big fan of factual accuracy. Some of you should try it some time.

            The Nazis protected private property rights and worked with private industry, so no, you’ve blown it, too. One of Hitler’s personal heroes was Henry Ford, who shared his penchant for anti-semitic conspiracy theories.

    • 0 avatar
      RobertRyan

      @jpolicke
      Laurence Hartnett, then working for the British Army, came across this obscure Automaker, that still had an operating factory. He was offered the whole operation for a very small sum. Hartnett rejected the offer and later migrated to Australia, where he tried starting his own Auto company using Renault and other European components. Few in Australia were interested in investing in this venture. Finally as a last resort he asked his employer GM if they were interested. They said yes and Holden was born,Obscure German Company. Volkswagen.

  • avatar
    tylermattikow

    Kaganovich, was Jewish, but his actions had nothing to do with him being Jewish. He was a Stalinist and Stalin was quite anti-semitic, Kaganovich participated in the pogroms that Stalin initiated toward the end of his reign. Kaganovich tried to overthrow Khrushchev in 57, he should have be killed. Amazingly he lived to 97..

    • 0 avatar
      laphoneuser

      Agreed. Just because he born a Jew, doesn’t mean lived as a Jew (actions and behaviors). No different than any other person ignoring the teachings of the religion they were born into.

  • avatar
    drivelikejehu

    The Turks committed genocide on an epic, WW2-style scale against Greeks and Armenians in the 20th century, yet not only are they permitted by Western governments to sweep that under the rug, but in fact their government enjoys continued US and European support as they mistreat ethnic and religious minorities with longstanding roots in their communities.

    The reality is that the historical shame game is about the politics of today, nothing more. The Holocaust, for instance, is a core aspect of the existence of Israel; the country is locked in a perpetual conflict over legitimacy, which is a far more difficult fight than the asymmetric military threats it faces.

    Germany doesn’t just go around giving countries advanced submarines for free so that the recipient can load them up with nuclear weapons. That military capability is an extension of politics, just like war itself.

  • avatar

    VW has been far more open to examining its Nazi roots than BMW’s Quandt family has been about their own Nazi past.

    https://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2011/09/bmw-owners-finally-admit-nazi-past/

  • avatar

    Russia and America won the WWII but get punished instead of Japan and Germany. Russians do not want to buy Russian cars (if they can afford) and Americans boycott American companies. Everything being equal Americans will prefer Japanese or German cars over American ones. Apparently there is more distrust towards USA than former Axis countries. You know why? Because of US war machine and endless wars America conducts with other countries often invading uninvited while Germany and Japan are the most peaceful pacifist nations in history of humankind.

  • avatar
    nels0300

    Just to echo what a few others have said, two things:

    1. The guy was on the payroll for 18 years, what else is there to figure out?

    2. Budget pressures

    Seriously though, is there another car company with this much ugly baggage?

    -Nazi connection

    -Long history of terrible rankings for both JD Power and Consumer Reports

    -Dieselgate

    -New report showing it is the most recalled brand

  • avatar

    Seems like the Boys From Brazil have spoken. The infamous German saying “Wir haben es nicht gewusst” still holds value for the company. Don’t start digging, so we can keep on saying that we didn’t know. That applies to the company’s past as well as to the diesel affair.

  • avatar

    What voting early accomplishes? If you voted later would you vote differently?

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      No crowd. Trump has knowingly been like an Inspire Magazine for violent American dirtbags so why take a chance?

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Should be interesting to see of something like that occurs, and if so, if it was not obviously planned. Maybe the New Black Panthers will be available to cinduct some more voter intimidation?

        • 0 avatar
          WheelMcCoy

          It’s largely an exaggeration. True, two scruffy guys were standing outside the Philly voting station, but I can’t find evidence that it went beyond that.

          The shoving and sucker punches at Trump rallies are happening. Even a reporter who was in favor of Trump got yanked down. Yes, that was a mistake, but the atmosphere is to yank first, and ask questions later.

      • 0 avatar

        I do not know, I vote by mail and then it goes into black hole. Have no idea is my vote counted in the end or not. But it does not matter. What destined to happen will happen. If American system is deemed by evolution to be out of date it will collapse no matter who is sitting in White House just to clear the way for the better system to emerge several hundred years later. Communism and socialism collapsed despite Soviet Union, China (it is still ahead) having leadership with full control over their countries fate.

        • 0 avatar
          28-Cars-Later

          China is about due for a societal shakeup of some kind, if you study their history.

          http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/opinion/sunday/is-china-ripe-for-a-revolution.html

          • 0 avatar

            Their history is a series of uprisings devastating country and replacing old emperor with new one. Advantage democracy has is that it happens without uprising or civil war. You might think that America is permanently on the verge of popular uprising and civil war – half of US population viciously hates another half. Just ask guys like Kenmore. I am sure he is ready to drop A-bomb on Texas. I actually heard and not once that attitude in SF Bay area – they consider Texas more dangerous to humanity than Russia, China and Iran combined. But in reality it is just a talk. They have no guts to fight and possibly die instead waging war on election ballots. In China it is a real threat and Government takes it seriously

          • 0 avatar
            Kenmore

            “Just ask guys like Kenmore. I am sure he is ready to drop A-bomb on Texas.”

            Oh, Christ no. I don’t want the government relocating survivors up nort’ here.

            ‘Cause you *know* that would happen. We still have lots of room and fresh water.

            And A-bombs are *so* 1940s. I’d think a Ruskie would know that.

          • 0 avatar

            Old or not but solves the problem. Declare no-fly zone over Syria and see whats happens.

  • avatar
    carguy

    Let’s run some numbers here. If you were a 20 year old intern at VW in 1940, you’d be 96 years old today.

    There is nobody left alive that was in any position of authority during WW2 – its all history now so let it be just that.

  • avatar
    Joss

    I’m still trying to grasp the catalyst to both WW’s. Something between a Kaiser’s withered arm and Secretary of Navy Churchill ordering the first round of attack on the German fleet.

    Cars are just cars. Trade appliances. Better trade than war.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      Take a large country with a superiority complex, a strong military and industrial know-how, and surround it with countries that are either natural allies or else easily invaded, and you end up with a trouble maker.

      WWI was facilitated by a series of communications mishaps that would probably not have happened had they had something akin to the UN.

      WWII was the byproduct of the failure to utterly defeat Germany in the previous war, which is one reason why unconditional surrender was the only option. An armistice was not possible; Germany had to be destroyed to the core so that it could be reinvented.

      And that’s why it is important to continue to remind Germans of their past. Germany needs to be kept in check or broken apart.

  • avatar
    Shortest Circuit

    Wait, so there is a person on this green Earth that did not know about VW’s dark past?

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