Europe’s number one carmaker Volkswagen is not keen on celebrating the 75th birthday of its German hometown of Wolfsburg on Sunday because of the long shadow cast by Adolf Hitler there.
“It was all just a bit of Nazi propaganda,” a spokesman for the carmaker said, referring to the festivities 75 years ago when the Nazi leader laid the foundation stone for a factory that would build the “Kraft-durch-Freude” (KdF) (Strength through Joy) automobile that went on to conquer the world as “the People’s Car”.
By contrast, Wolfsburg’s municipal authorities see cause for celebration, even if they have earmarked July 1 as the big day because that was when, in 1938 the official decree was signed marking the foundation of the “Town of the KdF car.”
Barely 900 people lived there then.
Now more than 120,000 “Wolfsburgers” — the new name dates from 1945 — are set to celebrate their town’s 75th anniversary.
Both VW and Wolfsburg have had varied histories.
The KdF Car, which became famous as the Beetle, did not go into mass production before World War II.
The factory mostly churned out vehicles for the Wehrmacht armed forces and other military equipment with thousands of slave labourers working in inhuman conditions for the arms industry.
At the laying of the factory’s foundation stone on May 26, 1938, 80,000 troops assembled there while Hitler and the Beetle’s designer Ferdinand Porsche drove past in an open-top car.
During the war, the factory was managed by Porsche’s son-in-law Anton Piech.
It was his son Ferdinand Piech, as chief executive of VW at the end of the 1990s, who finally cut through the tangled Gordian knot of talks regarding compensation for the slave labourers.
VW set up its own compensation fund and opened its archives to historians and scholars to explore its Nazi past.
At this point, the Beetle was only being built in Mexico, long overtaken as the group’s flagship by mass market models such as the Golf and the Passat.
Its subsidiary Audi was simultaneously transforming itself into a top-of-the-range producer, while Spanish unit SEAT and the Czech brand Skoda were also expanding.
VW also became the proud owner of luxury brands such as Bentley and Bugatti, Lamborghini and the motor cycle maker Ducati.
After taking over the reins of the supervisory board, patriarch Piech pressed ahead with the acquisition of truck makers MAN and Scania.
Even a scandal about “pleasure” trips for members of the works council could not prevent the group in its unstoppable rise to become Europe’s leading carmaker.
Nor was it hindered by a bitter power struggle between the group’s new majority shareholder Porsche and the regional state authorities of Lower Saxony with its so-called “golden share”, or blocking minority.
When Porsche chief Wendelin Wiedeking failed in his bid to become the group’s sole ruler in 2009, Piech made sure that Porsche remained in the group as another premium brand.
The battle for control between Stuttgart-based Porsche and VW was a highly sensitive matter not only for the VW’s workforce but for Wolfsburg’s municipal authorities as well.
Not only was VW’s honour at stake with the prospect of becoming merely a subsidiary of Porsche, but the fate and long-term prosperity of Wolfsburg was under threat.
Thanks to VW, Wolfsburg has the most local tax revenues of anywhere in Lower Saxony.
More than 50,000 people work for VW in Wolfsburg which also boasts world-class museums and even a premiere league football team, VfL Wolfsburg.
It is almost a truism to say “VW is Wolfsburg”, but the Wolfsburgers affectionately call their town “Golfsburg”, a pun on the name of the group’s popular small car.
And the town’s daily rhythms are dictated by the sprawling auto plant’s three shifts and it also moves down a gear when the plant shuts for the summer.
In the early 1990s, the town’s home improvement stores experienced an unexpected boom when VW introduced a 28-hour working week in face of slumping sales.
Visitors to Wolfsburg can feel the thump of the pressing plants of Europe’s biggest automobile plant beneath their feet.
However unlike neighbouring towns, it has no old churches, half-timbered houses or grand Wilhelminian villas — the only thing older than 75 years are the trees in the town’s forest.