In part 2 of our exploration of the dark histories associated with some of the biggest brands in the world, we shift our attention from fashion, and hone in on the automobile industry.
Picking up where we left off, we explore the dark history behind the world's biggest automobile manufacturers. For the fashion world's ugly history, head here.
At its very core, a company must determine what “their price of doing business” is. For some, it means sacrificing profit margins in order to ensure that their products are produced ethically in terms of the utilization of human resources as well as recognizing and evaluating environmental concerns, while others are willing to take a more cutthroat approach to maximize and squeeze every penny out of a product. In the automotive world, most brands are trying to sell consumers on storied histories - whether that be a top-of-the-line car, or something more price-conscious but which still aims for being regal.
Much like in the fashion world, many of the car companies with questionable pasts are linked to World War II. While most would argue that a European brand needed to be complicit with Germany's wishes during the conflict, there's no denying that many of their contemporary successes stem from a tragic, pre- and postwar period. But war time survival isn't the only dirty little secret being swept under the floor mats.
According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the children and great grandchildren of Herbert and Harald Quandt share a fortune worth at least $6 billion - royalties from their overwhelming majority shares that they own in BMW - which they received when Harald acquired them after 1947 when he was a prisoner of war of the Allied forces in the Libyan port city of Benghazi. These heirs and billionaires are the step-grandchildren of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who was the chief architect of the "Final Solution" - representing right of the hundred currently richest Germans.
Patriarch Günther Quandt was an early member of the Nazi party - having joined the movement in 1933. In 1937 Hitler gave him the title of a Wehrwirtschaftsführer (Leader of the Armament Economy), like other industrialists whose businesses supplied ammunition, rifles, artillery and batteries. Not only was Quandt helping Hitler, but he was using 50,000 people as slave labor.
Bonn historian, Joachim Scholtyseck, said of the Quandt family, "The Quandts were linked inseparably with the crimes of the Nazis. The family patriarch was part of the regime."
On May 28, 1937, the government of Germany - who was already under the control of Hitler's National Socialist Party - formed a new state-owned automobile company which at the time was known as Gesellschaft zur Vorbereitung des Deutschen Volkswagens mbH. Later that year, it was renamed simply Volkswagenwerk, or “The People’s Car Company.”
Calling on the expertise of Austrian automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche, the aim was to produce a vehicle for under 1,000 Reich marks (about $140 at the time) - which could not only be speedy but also made in mass quantities. The price also represented 31 weeks’ pay for the average German worker in 1936, making it cheaper than the £100 Fords being made in England.
At a rally in 1938, Hitler proclaimed, "It is for the broad masses that this car has been built. Its purpose is to answer their transportation needs, and it is intended to give them joy.” Hitler's dream car and vision for the future was the early seed for the VW Beetle. According to the BBC, "There was little joy, though, in rival engineering camps. The Czech car company, Tatra, claimed that Porsche had infringed several design patents, notably those by Hans Ledwinka, an Austrian engineer much admired by Hitler. Tatra took legal action, but Hitler invaded Austria, seized its factory and banned Ledwinka’s VW-like prototypes from public show."
The first VW Beetles were produced on a small scale in 1941. By 1945, all production was halted because of heavy damage to the factory by Allied air raids.
Henry Ford is considered by many to be one of the most influential men in all of automobile history. What isn't quite as well known is Ford's anti-Semitic views prior to the start of World War II. According to PBS, "In 1918, Henry Ford purchased his hometown newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. A year and a half later, he began publishing a series of articles that claimed a vast Jewish conspiracy was infecting America. The series ran in the following 91 issues. Ford bound the articles into four volumes titled 'The International Jew,' and distributed half a million copies to his vast network of dealerships and subscribers. The rhetoric was not unusual for its content, as much as its scope. As one of the most famous men in America, Henry Ford legitimized ideas that otherwise may have been given little authority."
Ford's pre-World War II rhetoric gained traction with Adolf Hitler himself. As The Washington Post noted, "Ford is the only American mentioned by name in Hitler’s notorious 'Mein Kampf,' published in 1925."
“You can tell Herr Ford that I am a great admirer of his,” Hitler said. “I shall do my best to put his theories into practice in Germany. ... I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration."
The threat of faulty ignition switches in 800,000 cars which could potentially cause engines to shut off while driving prompted General Motors to issue a massive recall in 2014. GM said Monday that at least 97 deaths have been linked to the faulty ignition switches. Prior to the recall of 2.6 million cars, GM has been charged with knowing that the part was defective for almost a decade. According to a timeline by NPR, GM noted problems in 2001 on the Saturn Ion, in 2004 on the Chevy Cobalt, and in 2005 rejected a proposal to fix the problem because it would be too costly and take too long.
The same year of the GM recall, Toyota was forced to admit that it misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements about two safety-related issues affecting its vehicles - each of which caused a type of unintended acceleration. According to FBI Assistant Director George Venizelos, "Toyota put sales over safety and profit over principle. The disregard Toyota had for the safety of the public is outrageous. Not only did Toyota fail to recall cars with problem parts, they continued to manufacture new cars with the same parts they already knew were deadly. When media reports arose of Toyota hiding defects, they emphatically denied what they knew was true, assuring consumers that their cars were safe and reliable… More than speeding cars or a major fine, the ultimate tragedy has been the unwitting consumers who died behind the wheel of Toyota vehicles."
To avoid prosecution, Toyota agreed to pay $1.2 billion USD in damages to victims and victims' families who were affected by the negligence.
A 500-page report - authored by historians Martin Kukowski and Rudolf Boch in 2014 - discovered that when Audi was operating under the name Auto Union, it struck a deal with the SS. Utilizing 3,700 inmates from Nazi concentration camps, another 16,500 laborers - not interned in concentration camps - also were made to work for the car company in the Saxon cities of Zwickau and Chemnitz, in addition to 18,000 at a plant in Bavaria where more than 4,000 died, the report noted.
“I’m very shocked by the scale of the involvement of the former Auto Union leadership in the system of forced and slave labor,” Audi works council head Peter Mosch told Wirtschaftswoche, a German business news magazine. “I was not aware of the extent [of this involvement],” he added.
Ferdinand Porsche joined the Nazi party in 1937 in connection with his contract to develop a people’s car for Germany (which became the VW Beetle). According to Haaretz, "Unlike other huge German companies, such as Volkswagen and Siemens, Porsche has remained vague about certain aspects of its activities in the 1930s and '40s. The word 'Nazi' does not appear in an anniversary historical brochure it issued this summer. Instead, it mentions "political pressures" in the form of close state supervision of the manufacturing process as well as government orders to produce tanks."
German historian Ulrich Viehover, who specializes in the auto industry, paints a narrative of Porsche quite similar to other German automotive manufacturers who used forced labor - although there is no evidence that any Jew was amongst the 656 workers made to work at Porsche's plant in the Zuffenhausen suburb of Stuttgart.
Check out Part 1 here.