Book Rolls Out Volkswagen's Nazi History -- Ferdinand Porsche's Grandson Upset About Details On Slave Labor

BONN, Germany - It's no secret that Adolf Hitler masterminded the Volkswagen Beetle - the affordable "people's car." So in the spirit of openness about its Nazi past, Volkswagen paid $2 million for one of Germany's most respected historians to write a book about it.

Ten years later, the book is out - but Europe's biggest car maker is wondering if its good intentions are going to hurt its business.

"Volkswagen and Its Workers During the Third Reich," by Hans Mommsen, has renewed discussion of VW's use of slave labor during World War II. Complete with photos of Der Fuehrer admiring a Beetle model, it is the most comprehensive - and potentially damaging - history ever written about the Nazi-era birth of the company.

Chapter after chapter details how Volkswagen manufactured hardware for the Nazi war machine using slave laborers: Jews, Russians, Poles and others, many of them former inmates of concentration camps. Some laborers were beaten. Some were worked to death.

Indifferent industrialist

The book says Volkswagen founder Ferdinand Porsche, Nazi party member and grandfather of current VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech, was "morally indifferent" to the slave laborers' misery.

"Porsche walked through these crimes like a sleepwalker," says the book, which paints a more damning portrait of the industrialist than any previous account.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel has said that Ferdinand Piech is upset about the book's negative portrayal - not only of his grandfather but also of his father, Anton Piech, VW's chief executive during the war.

Volkswagen also is apparently concerned that General Motors Corp. could use the book as a public-relations weapon in its battles with VW, Der Spiegel reported. The U.S. car maker has accused Volkswagen of stealing GM secrets, a case currently in Detroit's U.S. District Court.

Germany's Henry Ford

The Volkswagen story starts in the 1930s, when Hitler called for production of a "people's car" - what "Volkswagen" means in English. The idea was to do for Germans what Henry Ford did for Americans: make a car affordable to average people.

Porsche traveled to Ford's Detroit plant in 1936 and was impressed by the American car maker's assembly line and hard workers, the book says. He hired about 20 American automotive technicians of German origin, most of them Ford employees.

And with Nazi banners fluttering and Hitler beaming at Porsche's side, the cornerstone for the Volkswagen plant was laid on May 26, 1938.

But World War II interrupted plans for the "people's car" as VW joined other manufacturers in producing armaments, including V-1 rockets, warplanes, bazookas and bombs.

During the war, about three-quarters of Volkswagen's workers were foreigners. The first were Italians, who built the Volkswagen plants. Because they came from an allied country, the Italians were paid twice what they could have earned at home, and were treated to Italian films and plays, the book says.

Slave laborers were kept in barracks surrounded by barbed wire. In addition to former concentration camp inmates, the workers were prisoners of war and civilians taken from their homes in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

Guards beat those who grabbed for bread or potato peels lying on the floor, the book says. Soviet soldiers and Jews were treated especially brutally: "The Russians were constantly suffering from hunger. The company kitchen delivered hardly anything other than turnips."

It is impossible to say how many slave laborers there were, because they were viewed as "second-class people" whose employment wasn't deemed worth documenting, the authors say.

ECON Verlagsgruppe, publisher of the book, says there are no plans yet for an English translation.