The wild history of Volkswagen: From Nazi Germany to hippie vans to one of Elon Musk's top electric vehicle rivals




 
Adolf Hitler lays the foundation stone for the Volkswagen factory in Fallersleben in 1938 (left) / Blue and white Volkswagen Transporter (right).
Adolf Hitler lays the foundation stone for the Volkswagen factory in Fallersleben in 1938 (left) / Blue and white Volkswagen Transporter (right).  
  • Alyssa Milano said she swapped her Tesla for a VW, renewing discussion of Volkswagen's dark history.

  • The German automaker was founded in 1937 as a state-owned enterprise during the third reich.

  • Here's how Volkswagen went from Hitler's pet project to one of the world's top electric vehicle makers.

In 1937, Volkswagen was founded in Germany as a state-owned enterprise under Adolf Hitler's rule.

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945) admires a model of the Volkswagen car with the designer Ferdinand Porsche (left).
Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945) admires a model of the Volkswagen car with the designer Ferdinand Porsche (left).  

Source: History.com

Developing an affordable "people's car" was a pet project of the fascist dictator, who championed Volkswagen as "a symbol of the National Socialist people's community."

Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945) gives a speech after laying the foundation stone of the new Volkswagen works at Fallersleben, 27th May 1938.
Adolf Hitler (1889 - 1945) gives a speech after laying the foundation stone of the new Volkswagen works at Fallersleben, 27th May 1938.  

Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

But when World War II began, Volkswagen had to give up its goal of creating a car for the masses and switched to military production.

Adolf Hitler stands behind the cars in a dark coat, preparing to dedicate the new factory.
Adolf Hitler stands behind the cars in a dark coat, preparing to dedicate the new factory.  

Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The Volkswagen plant in Fallersleben used forced labor including Soviet prisoners of war and Jewish concentration camp prisoners - at one point accounting for an estimated 60% of its workforce.

"Ostarbeiter" workers (Nazi term used to describe foreign slave workers from Eastern Europe) in an armaments factory in South Germany wearing armlets as markings.
"Ostarbeiter" workers (Nazi term used to describe foreign slave workers from Eastern Europe) in an armaments factory in South Germany wearing armlets as markings.  

Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

In 1944, a VW engineer enlisted 950 Jewish prisoners from Auschwitz, the largest Nazi concentration camp and killing center, to work at the Fallersleben complex.

Adolf Hitler overlooks a model of the Volkswagen factory and
Adolf Hitler overlooks a model of the Volkswagen factory and 'Kraft-durch-Freude-Stadt' city.  

Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Four concentration camps and eight forced-labor camps were located on Volkswagen company grounds, in addition to a "nursing facility" that separated pregnant workers from their newborns. The program is believed to have killed over 300 children of Volkswagen laborers.

VW
VW's Fallersleben facility was a subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp, where 43,000 people died.  

Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

At the end of the war, Allied forces freed the plant workers and renamed the factory town "Wolfsburg." The city remains home to Volkswagen's headquarters today.

Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, northern Germany on March 26, 2021.
Volkswagen headquarters in Wolfsburg, northern Germany on March 26, 2021.  

Source: Volkswagen

The British military temporarily took over Volkswagen in 1945, instructing the company to produce 20,000 "saloon" models.

The Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany circa 1945.
The Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, Germany circa 1945.  

Source: Volkswagen AG

Soon, the first VW Beetles were exported to foreign markets like France, Switzerland, and Sweden. The first models reached American soil in 1950.

A 1953 Volkswagen Export Type 1 Beetle.
A 1953 Volkswagen Export Type 1 Beetle.  

Volkswagen's Nazi links initially made the cars a harder sell in America. But by the 1960s, VW had become the most popular foreign automobile company in the US.

man stands on the rear bumper of a Volkswagen Beetle as he adjusts the ropes tying an inner tube and dinghy adaptor, to roof of the car, location unspecified, United States, circa 1955.
man stands on the rear bumper of a Volkswagen Beetle as he adjusts the ropes tying an inner tube and dinghy adaptor, to roof of the car, location unspecified, United States, circa 1955.  

Source: History.com

The cult classic VW Westfalia campers, also called the "microbus," were first exported to the US in 1956.

Lines of Volkswagen cars and vans ready for export on the transporter
Lines of Volkswagen cars and vans ready for export on the transporter 'Fidelio' at Bremen Harbour, Germany, bound for the USA.  

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

Originally designed to transport workers and materials, the large van became wildly popular among alternative groups - from California surfers and Woodstock hippies to civil rights activists.

Sunset on a Southern California beach with the US Rubber Custom VW Volkswagen Bus and a group of young surfers
Sunset on a Southern California beach with the US Rubber Custom VW Volkswagen Bus and a group of young surfers  

Source: Insider

The iconic bus still maintains its reputation as a counterculture symbol today.

A colorfully painted Volkswagen bus in San Francisco, California, July, 1967.
A colorfully painted Volkswagen bus in San Francisco, California, July, 1967.  

Source: Smithsonian Magazine

In 1998, Volkswagen announced it was setting up a $12 million reparations fund for people forced to work at Fallersleben under Nazi rule.

Wreaths left by German corporations, including Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank at the Track 17 memorial that commemorates Berlin Jews transported to concentration camps during the Holocaust.
Wreaths left by German corporations, including Volkswagen and Deutsche Bank at the Track 17 memorial that commemorates Berlin Jews transported to concentration camps during the Holocaust.  

Source: New York Times

Over the years, VW has rolled out dozens of new car models, including the "New Beetle" (aka the punch buggy), the Volkswagen Jetta, and the Volkswagen Golf.

Volkswagen
Volkswagen  

VW discontinued the characteristic Beetle line in 2018.

VW
VW  

Source: Insider

The Volkswagen group currently owns ten brands including Lamborghini, Bentley, Porsche, and Audi.

A modern Porsche 911 Carrera S and a 1965 Porsche 911 in Australia in 2020.
A modern Porsche 911 Carrera S and a 1965 Porsche 911 in Australia in 2020.  

Source: Volkswagen AG

But in 2017, VW's reputation was tested once again after the automaker plead guilty to rigging its diesel cars to cheat on federal emissions tests, a scandal that became known as "Dieselgate."

Volkswagen VW CEO Matthias Mueller
Volkswagen VW CEO Matthias Mueller  

The German automaker has since turned its attention to producing electric vehicles as it begins phasing out all its gas-powered models in Europe by 2035.

The Volkswagen ID.4 Pro S AWD.
The Volkswagen ID.4 Pro S AWD.  

Source: Kelley Blue Book

Volkswagen was an early pioneer of EV technology, which it began developing back in 1970 in response to the then-held belief that the world would eventually run out of oil.

Volkswagen is building a battery cell factory at its Salzgitter site for its planned large-scale production of the Group
Volkswagen is building a battery cell factory at its Salzgitter site for its planned large-scale production of the Group's own battery cells.  

Source: Volkswagen

The result was the 1972 "Elektro-bus," a battery-powered transporter van with a range of 25 miles and top speed of 43 miles per hour.

"Project e-Bus:" Volkswagen commissioned west coast electric vehicle conversion specialist EV West to construct an electrified Volkswagen Type 2 Bus in 2019.
"Project e-Bus:" Volkswagen commissioned west coast electric vehicle conversion specialist EV West to construct an electrified Volkswagen Type 2 Bus in 2019.  

Source: Volkswagen

Today, the company sells 9 electric vehicle models across its brands, many sharing a common footprint thanks to the company's MEB technology.

Courtesy of Volkswagen AG
Courtesy of Volkswagen AG  

The car maker's long-awaited modern electric minivan, the "ID.Buzz," is set to come to the US in 2024.

ID Buzz Driving
ID Buzz Driving  

Source: Insider

Former CEO Herbert Diess was known for having a competitive streak with Elon Musk. Under his leadership, VW rolled out the all-electric ID.3 hatchback - rivaling the similar Tesla Model 3.

Volkswagen ID.4
Volkswagen ID.4  

Source: Insider

Volkswagen now aims to overtake American automaker Tesla for the title of the world's largest electric vehicle company by 2025.

A Tesla charging.
A Tesla charging.  

Source: CNBC

During the first half of 2022, the Volkswagen group increased its deliveries of all-electric vehicles by 27%, making it the market leader in Europe. But in the US, Tesla still dominates two-thirds of the EV market.

Elon Musk
Elon Musk  

Source: Volkswagen, Electrek

A study by Bloomberg Intelligence estimated that Volkswagen would overtake Tesla as the world's largest EV brand by 2024 - with one Bank of America analyst predicting that Tesla's EV market share in the US will drop to 11% by 2025.

The Volkswagen ID.
The Volkswagen ID.  

Source: Bloomberg, Insider

Following Tesla CEO Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter, actress Alyssa Milano said she traded in her Tesla for an all-electric Volkswagen due to the rise in hate speech on the social media platform, renewing discussion on VW's third reich past.

Left: Alyssa Milano. Right: Elon Musk
Left: Alyssa Milano. Right: Elon Musk  

Since Musk's takeover of Twitter, Tesla's brand favorability has dropped around 20 points among Democrats and increased around 4 points among Republicans, according to data analyzed by Morning Consult in November.

Elon Musk in a Tesla Roadster.
Elon Musk in a Tesla Roadster.  

Source: Morning Consult

As of now, Tesla is still king - and its CEO Elon Musk has joked that the legacy car maker's infatuation with beating the American newcomer is "free advertising."

Elon Mush holds a Tesla-branded hard hat.
Elon Mush holds a Tesla-branded hard hat.  

Source: Twitter

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