KdF-Wagen

Ferdinand Porsche designed cars for Hitler.

Let me say that again, just so we're all on the same page.

Ferdinand Porsche designed cars for Hitler.

I'm not saying that on Remembrance Day to make some sort of point, except to remind everyone that war of any kind is an all-encompassing beast. It seduces many with dreams of power. Its tentacles quickly stretch deep into everyday life, tangling ordinary citizens who would rather be assembling pots and pans…not shell casings.

You'd think that Porsche had been caught up in—or quickly taken by the SS one night and forced to sit at a drafting table while Hitler told him what to draw. But in war, leaders look for every advantage they can find. Before the World War, Porsche made coaches for Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I, and, after it broke out, designed aircraft engines and heavy machines to drag artillery around.

His talents were highly regarded, and many historians say that he cared not for who was paying him, but what the challenge was. Still, it must have been upsetting in 1932 to have a delegation arrive in his office, with a message from Stalin: come visit the Soviet Union.

He toured the country, visiting factories and production sites. Stalin offered him a job: general director of the Soviet automotive industry. 

That would have been wild.

He turned it down, apparently not because of any reason other than the language barrier. (But I hope that being on the other end of a Batphone to Stalin would have been reason enough…)

Of course, we all know what Porsche did instead. Spiegel.de has a great passage touting the connection between Porsche and Hitler: 

At the 1935 German auto show, Hitler was full of praise for Porsche. He said that he was pleased that, thanks to "the abilities of the brilliant design engineer Porsche," it had been possible to "complete the preliminary designs for the German Volkswagen (people's car)."

But today, we're here to talk about the Kraft durch Freude (KdF) Wagen, or "Strength Through Joy" car, the earliest Volkswagen Beetle. An organization set up as, I'm not kidding, a leisure organization, it promoted leisure as a way to break down the social barriers between classes, making activities that were common to the middle class available to everyone. The organization was set up before the Second World War, and continued until 1939—by the end it had been as much about Nazi propaganda as allowing families to cruise up the Rhine.

KdF offered a few products, too, one being a version of the Volksempfänger, the "People's Radio"—essential in the pre-TV days for propagating desired stories. I saw one the last time I was in Stuttgart; the hosts I was staying with grabbed it from a disused storage section under the building. "Hey, look, a People's Radio!" I said, just as interested in its black plastic design as how they acquired it.

"I never thought I'd see one of these Nazi radio sets." 

"Nazi?"

"Yeah…uh…oh…here, let me Google it."

They had no idea. 

Hitler wanted to control the thoughts and the movement of his own people, so expanding from radio production into car design wasn't a big leap, especially with Porsche assigned to the task of hauling two adults and three children to 100 km/h (62 mph) with fuel consumption at no more than 7 L/100 km (32 mpg US). Hitler, ever the car buff, even decreed that it needed to be air cooled because not every country doctor had a garage.

The cars served another purpose, of course: who'd be suspicious of the wide, straight highways he was building all over the country if citizens were able to drive at higher speeds through the countryside? I mean, you could almost mistake them for sections of a runway…

Reichsautobahn was the first name for the roads, and they were promoted in the media as die Straßen Adolf Hitlers, "Adolf Hitler's roads." He even shovelled the first few scoops of dirt.

Like it or not, from Hitler's first sketch of the car he wanted—given to Porsche at a Munich restaurant—the world of automotive history was changed forever. The pressure led Porsche to copy a Tatra design—Tatra later winning millions in damages after the war—and develop it as his own. It led to the rise of high-speed motoring, the much-loved Autobahn, and the early convention of air-cooled flat-four engines, first by Volkswagen, then by Porsche's sports cars.

There's a human cost to all of this, a shadow cast over all of it. Things could be different. 

Remembrance Day is just that. Consider the lives lived before your own, and appreciate the people who died in order to help shape the way the world is today.

Porsche's son-in-law managed the Volkswagen plant in 1941, writing in 1943 that he needed a supply of cheap "Eastern" workers in order to produce the cars to a cost of just 990 Reichsmark. His name was Anton Piëch.

Anton's son, Ferdinand, is the chairman of the Volkswagen Group advisory board, after a career spent facilitating some of the world's best-known cars: the Porsche 906, Audi Quattro, Volkswagen New Beetle, Audi R8, Lamborghini Gallardo, Volkswagen Phaeton, and the Bugatti Veyron.

Kraft durch Freude.

 

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