Der Führer and the Volkswagen

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Nazis examine prototype KdF-Wagens at their public introduction ceremony by the Kraft durch Freude

Hitler wanted German consumers to be able to afford a car. He promoted the idea of the Volkswagen (originally KdF Wagen) to the public and automakers.

It was in 1934 that the Reich Association of the German Automobile Industry (RDA) commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to design the “Volkswagen,” according to the official Volkswagen history. A contemporary source, however, says that Adolf Hitler “had talked with…automotive engineer Dr. Porsche [and gave] him the commission to undertake the construction of the…Volkswagen.” Its original name was the “KdF Wagen” or “Kraft durch Freude” (Strength Though Joy).

Autobahn public works project

In order to reduce unemployment, Hitler created a massive public works program to build the massive Autobahn and give Germany an infrastructure in the process. To stimulate German industry, he wanted a car to be developed that the average citizen could afford.

At the time, there was only one automobile for every fifty Germans, compared to one for every five in the United States, as most workmen in Germany used a bicycle or public transportation.

Hitler promoted the idea of Germans buying cars

At an industrial convention, Hitler pushed the idea of a car of the people in every “Aryan” driveway. Germans were not used to having cars. From Hitler’s remarks, it seems to have been a socially unacceptable practice: “It is no more asocial to buy a car than it once was to use a sheet of glass in a window instead of the traditional piece of oilskin.

In the beginning only a few people use an invention of this kind; then it attracts more and more people until it gradually includes everyone…unless the automobile becomes something everyone uses, its dormant potentialities will not be realized.”

The Fuehrer wanted an inexpensive car for Germans

In Germany at the time, automobiles were only bought by wealthy or the upper middle class. Hitler was speaking directly to the automobile manufacturers in his speech. He was presenting an argument that made sense. In essence he was saying that if the overall population and its ability to pay was taken into consideration, then by lowering the overall costs of building cars and thus lowering the price to consumers then the automakers would make a lot more cars and a lot more money.

He said, “The Ford did not replace the better and more expensive American cars; on the contrary, it was the car which first attracted and mobilized the enormous masses of American buyers who later also purchased the more expensive makes.”

Hitler wanted an affordable vehicle for the German people. He wanted the Volk to be able to afford a car, feeling that they should reap the benefits of their hard work. According to the above source, it was “close to Hitler’s heart that this also include those with limited incomes.” The Fuhrer began pushing the auto makers to design such a car–at automobile exhibitions–during his first year in power, “that the automobile industry had to consider it an order or commission.”

RDA could not build car for low cost

According to the official Volkswagen history, the different branches of the RDA had “reservations” about the price tag of 900 RM ($396 US), which was Hitler’s requested price limit. The currency shortages and a limited supply of raw materials were among the concerns of the individual companies that made up the RDA.

There was also skepticism about the economic feasibility of devoting a factory solely to the production of the Volkswagen. Financing this ambitious project was also considered a major concern.

Hitler gave project to German Labor Front

In 1937, because of the concerns of the RDA and its inability to build the car at 900 RM, Hitler gave Robert Ley, the leader of the German Labor Front, an order to use all of the resources available to him–including the “Kraft durch Freude”–to realize the dream of making the Volkswagen a reality.

To that end, Ley formed the “Society for the Preparation of the German Volkswagen,” with Dr. Porsche, auto expert J. Werlin, and leader of “Kraft durch Freude,”(Strength Through Joy) Dr. Lafferentz. Dr. Porsche was a member of both the Nazi party and the SS. Ley provided 50 Million RM in capital from the German Labor Front to fund the project. Working as a team, the four men planned the “factories, methods, and distribution of the new car.” Lafferentz was responsible for the construction of a Volkswagen factory in Fallersleben, near Braunschweig. All of the planning was kept under wraps for four years.

The Volkswagen underwent “hard testing.” In 150,000 kilometers of test drives, it easily maintained a speed of 100 km on the Autobahn. It was powered by a 25 horsepower engine and had room for four or five people. And it was economical: it only needed seven liters of gasoline for 100 kilometers of driving.

When Hitler attended the Automobile Exhibition in 1938 he made the above speech. He explained that the Volkswagen had been in development for the past four years, and “we are convinced not only can [it] be sold at the price we want, but also…use a minimum of workers to produce the maximum amount.” Hitler explained that testing of the car would begin that years, and that it “will enable millions of new customers with limited incomes to afford a car.”

Volkswagen City factory and “Nazi model city”

In May 1938, Hitler laid the cornerstone of Volkswagen City (KdF Stadt), with a factory on10,000 acres of land. A crowd of 70,000 people celebrated the opening of what was called the ‘biggest automobile factory in the world’ with a capacity of turning out 1.5 million cars per year. “At present, 4,000 people are building the factory. Given the shortage of labor in Germany, 2,500 of them are Italian.”

A “National Socialist model city” was planned to start with a population of 30,000 and eventually grow to 60,000. The population was to be primarily the workers and managers of the KdF car factory. By the end of 1938, 150,000 people had ordered the car and were awaiting delivery. In total 336,000 Germans ordered the Volkswagen.

Five marks a week to buy car

A payroll deduction plan was initiated. Subscribers were issued stamps which they used to fill up a stamp book. The cost was five marks a week, or more if a worker thought he could afford it, When 200 stamps were collected, they could be redeemed for a car. Production was due to begin in September of 1938, but only 54 cars actually rolled off the assembly line before the war stopped production of the Volkswagen. The factory was needed to support the war effort.

Who was lucky enough to get a Volkswagen in 1938? Only Hitler for his 49th birthday; Emperor Hirohito of Japan; and an assortment of Nazi party bigwigs.

Sources:

  1. Volkswagen Chronicle
  2. Secret History of the Volkswagen
  3. Unter dem Sonnerad: Ein Buch von Kraft durch Freude (Berlin: Verlag der Deutschen Arbeitsfront, 1938), pp. 177-189.