With 21.5 million sales since production in Nazi Germany until its layoff in 2003, the Beetle Volkswagen was the longest running and most prolific car in history. For decades, people assumed that the “people’s car” was designed by German engineers. Some even believed that Hitler drew the car’s preliminary sketch. But like much of Nazi history this was likely a swindle. In a recent book, The extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz – The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkwagen, Dutch journalist and engineer Paul Schilperoord forcibly argues that Hitler’s car was stolen from the Jewish car designer Josef Gratz.
Smaller is Better
Born in Budapest in 1898, Josef Ganz revealed engineering aptitude from an early age, receiving a patent for an electric streetcar safety device at the age of twelve and inventing an automatic aiming device for antiaircraft guns when he was 17. After fighting on Austria’s side in WWI he moved to Germany, studied mechanical engineering, and began developing a revolutionary car. The idea behind this Ganz-Klein-Wagen was to put smaller, safer, technologically superior cars onto the roads. Ganz was also editor-in-chief of the motoring magazine Motor-Kritik where he espoused his beliefs and criticized Germany’s hidebound car industry.
Ganz built a prototype in 1930. By May 1931 this developed into a car called the Maikafer (May Bug) in token of the month and the car’s puny size. During this time, German designers were stealing each others ideas and racing to produce the first commercially viable mini-cars. In February 1933, the May Bug was displayed at the Berlin motor show opened by Adolf Hitler who had been appointed Chancellor of Germany two weeks earlier. The May Bug and its skimpy 1,590 Reichsmark price tag interested Hitler intensely.
For the Nazi party had a dual ideology, national socialism. While Nationalism promised national pride and security, socialism was supposed to provide social programs for the country’s masses. In reality, German socialism became a form of state control at wages little above the subsistence level. To divert workers’ minds from this reality, socialism also provided workers with dirt cheap pleasure cruises and vacations and cheap sport opportunities, all supervised by the workers’ Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) organization. Of course, the worker’s footed much of the bill by paying dues that passed $200 million per annum by the time war broke out.
Cheap cars were part of the socialist deal. At that time there was one motorcar per fifty Germans compared to one for every five people in America. Hitler wanted to provide millions of low income Germans with small, cheap cars and for this purpose the May Bug was perfect.
Hitler’s concern was not only to bribe the poor worker. He also believed that production of a cheap car would be a powerful stimulus for industry as he made clear at an industrial exhibition in 1936 in one of his shallow, arrogant “either or” speeches.
“Either the automobile is an expensive luxury item for a few people, and hence in the long run not very important for the economy as a whole, or it is destined to have the enormous impact on the economy which by its very nature it can have,” he declared.
“Then, however, it must be transformed from a luxury item for the few to something that everyone uses.”
The Nazis got interested in Gratz’s machine, testing it with their motor corps and writing about in the official army magazine. The problem was that the May Bug’s designer was a Jew.
Kick out the Jew
The Nazis used a double pronged tactic to cut Ganz down to size: harassment and theft. First, they accused him of blackmailing dominant automotive companies by threatening to malign them in his magazine. They arrested him for this alleged crime in May 1933. Released after a month thanks to good connections, he was subsequently forced out of editorial position at Motor-Kritik and consultant positions at BMW and Mercedes-Benz. The Nazis ordered the German press to never print a word about Ganz, forced him out the German motoring world and erased him from automotive history. During the brutal Night of the Long Knives between June 30 and July 2 1934 as Hitler’s henchmen savagely assassinated hundreds of his enemies including rivals in the Nazi party, Gestapo agents arrived at Ganz’s Frankfort home to arrest him only to discover he had gone on vacation to Switzerland to steady his nerves. A friend warned him not to come back.
The Nazis eventually seized his property and patents, and charged him with “economic espionage.” This was typical of Nazi tactics. Later, in 1938, Germany mandated the Aryanization of all patents – new patents were only to be submitted if sponsored by Aryans and all patents held by Jews were to be turned over to German citizens.
In September 1933 when a new version of the May Bug was hailed as the “fastest and cheapest German Volkswagen”, the Nazis appointed an independent consortium led by car manufacturer Ferdinand Porsche to design a people’s car with a price tag of 1,000 Reichmark or less. By 1938, a Nazi propaganda booklet was announcing that before long millions of Volkswagens would be rolling off the assembly lines onto Germany’s new highways.
“The enormous expansion of the German high system, particularly the Reich Autobahn system, which like the growth in automobile manufacturing came from the Führer’s orders, looked far into the future,” the article boasted. “Both projects go along with each other, and today hardly anyone does not cheerfully support Adolf Hitler’s work in these areas. The Führer’s will that the entire people should benefit from their common labors has repeatedly shown itself in recent years.”
“Over the past four years, and with continual improvements, we have developed the Volkswagen, which we are convinced not only can be sold at the price we want, but also can be manufactured in ways that use a minimum of workers to produce the maximum amount,” the article continued. “The model that has resulted from years of work by Dr. Porsche will undergo testing this year. It will enable millions of new customers with limited incomes to afford a car. We owe the best cars in the world to our directors, engineers, craftsmen, workers, and salesmen. Today, I am convinced that in a short time we will also build the least expensive cars… In a few years, hundreds of thousands of workers and lower-level employees will own their own car, and in the foreseeable future millions of KdF cars will travel the best roads in the world, evidence of the accomplishments of a new Germany.”
By the last quarter of 1938, 150,000 Germans had ordered the car and were paying its 990 marks price tag (the equivalent to 35 weeks of wages) in installments. Once a worker paid 750 marks up front he got an order number entitling him to a car as soon as it was produced.
Germans were expected to receive the first cars in early 1940 by which time two factory shifts would begin producing 450,000 cars a year, a figure expected to rise to 1,350,000 annually and significantly surpass Ford, the largest car manufacturer in the world. Workers poured millions into the scheme, 336,000 of them industriously pasting receipt stamps into the booklets that recorded payment for the car. In the end, almost none got the car of their dreams and not a pfennig was ever refunded. World War Two had erupted.
54 Cars Produced
With the outbreak of war the Nazis had greater priorities than supplying workers with cheap cars and the Volkswagen factory began producing weapons and bombs and tens-of-thousands of military vehicles based on the peacetime car. Only 54 civilian cars were produced in total. One was sent to Emperor Hirohito of Japan, others went to Nazi bigwigs, and Hitler was presented with a custom-built black Volkswagen for his birthday in 1942.
After the war, a British Army officer Major Ivan Hirst removed an unexploded bomb jammed between irreplaceable car manufacture equipment, persuaded the British army to order 20,000 German Beetles, and by March 1946 the factory was churning out 1,000 cars a month. Volkswagen was back in business. In the U.S.A., a New York firm led by Jewish director Bill Bernbach made the midget car wildly popular with a brilliant advertising campaign beginning with the slogan, “Think Small,” and car sales flourished worldwide.
Gratz enjoyed less success. Swiss companies stole his patents and he was embroiled in court cases for five years after the war. In 1951, he left Europe for Australia where he worked as an engineer at Holden, the Australian branch of General Motors, before becoming crippled from multiple heart attacks.
In 1965, the Federal Republic of Germany belatedly acknowledged Gratz’s contribution to Germany car industry and offered him the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. But Australian regulations prevented Gratz from receiving the award and two years later he died in obscurity. He would have been forgotten had Schilperhoord not come across an article suggesting that Ganz laid the foundation for Volkswagen and concluded, after five years of research, that despite other German engineers’ work, Ganz was “the spiritual father” of the Volkswagen and the primary developer and promoter of its key design concepts. Although Volkswagen admitted that the book was “highly interesting” and “a new interpretation of the early history of the beetle,” the company did not go as far as admitting any wrongdoing. By the time the last Beetle rolled off a Mexican assembly line in 2003, Gratz had never earned a cent from one of its 21.5 million predecessors.
(Source of propaganda piece: Unter dem Sonnenrad: Ein Buch von Kraft durch Freude, Berlin: Verlag der Deutschen Arbeitsfront, 1938, pp. 177-189)