The ‘Good German’ Goes Global the Volkswagen Beetle as an Icon in the… — Volkswagen Atlantic

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Volkswagen Atlantic

The ‘Good German’ Goes the Volkswagen Beetle as an Icon in the Republic


Fig. 2.

ad from the early ’60s a phrase that has entered German. It praises the Beetle’s reliability as the cause of its phenomenal proclaiming ‘it runs and runs and (‘und läuft …’).

this car would secure prominence in postwar German was by no means a foregone conclusion. many a popular material the Beetle has taken numerous and turns over its long as a commodity from Nazi to the present. Rather than a merely functional object, the car to articulate and communicate a broad of sentiments that, given its highlight key aspects of West collective identity. A large of people including politicians, line workers, management advertising agents, car dealers last but not least, countless drivers played important in making this vehicle an success that gained significance despite inauspicious 2 In 1945 the Volkswagen was burdened by its in the Third Reich, an ambivalent that might well obstructed its adoption as the new republic’s Both in Germany and abroad, it was knowledge that the car’s design features – its round its torsion-bar wheel suspension, its rear engine – stemmed the 1930s. It was also well that Ferdinand Porsche had Hitler’s support to develop an robust family vehicle as of the dictator’s plans to advance motorization so as to demonstrate National purported commitment to creating a racially pure ‘national [promoted as the Volksgemeinschaft ]’ in the sphere of Finally, it was common knowledge the Nazi regime had financed and VW’s factory in Wolfsburg, largest auto plant to buttress portrayals of Nazi as a powerful, highly productive and modern country on a par with the States. 3 After 1945, the more than any other pushed ahead mass in the Federal Republic, turning the of individual car ownership into a for millions during the 1950s and Moreover, with more twenty-one million sales VW’s export success restore West Germany on the economic stage. From perspective, the Beetle signalled the achievements of postwar reconstruction and the integration into a new international Still, how a product that life as a National Socialist project came to be adopted by as a symbol of the postwar order an open question. 4

Despite the links with the Nazi the Volkswagen and its production site a collective marker of West from the earliest postwar No period of critical detachment or silence preceded the Volkswagen’s embrace after 1945. In the year of the Federal Republic’s a photo-book entitled Kleiner auf großer Fahrt (Small Car on a Big already extolled car and factory as most convincing emblem [ ]’ for ‘the genuine values of country and this people’. 5 along these lines are a of public commentary to this When Spiegel TV produced a on Germany’s socio-economic difficulties in it chose to interview several of Volkswagen workers in Wolfsburg, that the city still noteworthy indicators of national even after unification. 6

its long-standing eminence the Volkswagen a promising focus for a study of how Germans made sense of new country and its place in the world. article approaches the topic two lines of inquiry. First, it how the West German public the Beetle in a domestic context the car emerged as a symbol of dynamic during the 1950s and 1960s. its phenomenal commercial success, the struck contemporary observers as the embodiment of the values West embraced as they rebuilt ruined country. But commentators by no ignored the Volkswagen’s origins in the Reich. Tales about the reveal how contemporaries imagined the between the Third Reich and the Republic, positing links and between both. Recent has emphasized that in the 1950s and West Germans frequently themselves as history’s victims than its perpetrators, as a result of bombing as well as mass and rape at the Second World end. 7 Still, it remains how they came to embrace new state as a success and how they this success to the recent 8

Second, West Germans saw the Volkswagen in exclusively domestic Its global appeal made an contribution to its iconic status. Germans attentively followed how the turned into a sales hit registering with relief the it inspired in countries near and They viewed the car as their yet prominent representative on the international It was a source of collective pride the ‘ Wirtschaftswunder [economic miracle]’ of the and 1960s rested on foreign for German goods, generating celebrations of the new republic as an ‘ Exportweltmeister world champion]’. The Beetle’s signalled to West Germans their country had left its pariah status and become of the international community. Few industrial have matched this lasting attractiveness in highly markets across the globe. As as the mid 1950s, it emerged as the most import vehicle in the United a position it retained into the 1970s. After the collapse of the US during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the career took off during motorization in Mexico, where VW has a large plant in Puebla 196 7 . In 1993 annual production of the classic in Puebla peaked at 100,000 cars. 9 As news of the fortunes in foreign lands back to the Federal Republic it among citizens of the Federal a view of their country’s in the world that, as we shall was as selective as it was self-flattering. As a symbol of the miracle’ the Volkswagen contributed to a partial understanding of the country’s role which continues to in current German debates globalization.

The following pages the Volkswagen Beetle in domestic and context, accounting for the vehicle’s to continuing symbolic eminence in Three aspects uncover how the between domestic and international lent the Beetle exceptional in the German imagination. To begin VW emerged as an icon of West postwar reconstruction. Moreover, the surprising popularity in the USA signalled to observers their country’s to the wider world. Finally, activities in Mexico demonstrate the public’s reluctance to acknowledge country’s role in processes of globalization. By bringing into how the German public has positioned vis-à-vis the past, the success of the Republic as well as its place in the world, this study us to probe core elements of collective identity. As we shall the Beetle embodies a very notion of normality that has as durable as the car itself.


Having produced and military vehicles during the the Volkswagen works survived the postwar years intact British authorities began car at Wolfsburg to alleviate a serious shortage in their occupation Although the British motor identified the German vehicle as a powerful competitor, plans to the facilities from Wolfsburg to failed because of divisions government departments in Whitehall as as the difficulty of accommodating a factory would dwarf all car plants in the UK. 10 In Heinrich Nordhoff, who had worked for Motors affiliate Opel in the and subsequently ran Germany’s largest factory during the war, director general at the Volkswagen A textbook patriarch, Nordhoff was to the company’s strategy until his in 1968, overseeing Volkswagen’s into one of the Federal Republic’s firms. Predicated on constant and technical improvements of Ferdinand basic design from the ‘Nordhoff’s single-minded pursuit of a policy’ exploited an exploding for basic motorization in West as well as booming international for inexpensive, dependable vehicles. 11 1948 and 1962, annual rose from 19,244 to cars while VW’s workforce increased from to 78,000. 12 During Nordhoff’s ‘Volkswagen’ not only became a household name; the company Wolfsburg and its main product towered as one of the most prominent, symbols of the West German recovery, turning into the weekly Der Spiegel called only mild mockery German miracle’s favorite 13

The city of Wolfsburg – Volkswagen’s headquarters to this day – loomed in the Beetle’s iconography in the postwar Situated in agrarian countryside than ten miles west of the with the GDR, and previously as City of the Strength-Through-Joy Car ( Stadt des ), Wolfsburg gained its name – a nearby medieval castle – the period of British administration. plans to accommodate factory in a new model town had been in 1939, at the war’s end the place mainly of a large, partly factory building, numerous barracks for forced labour and a few residential dwellings. As the post-war prospered and the population rose (to by 1958), a construction boom dramatic housing shortages and an urban infrastructure. 14

With its large number of German from eastern Europe, struck visitors as emblematic of the social reconstruction apparently in the early Federal Republic. Todtmann’s Kleiner Wagen auf Fahrt (Small Car on a Big Journey, was among the first publications to on Wolfsburg as a city where ‘stranded from all areas and … made a virtue of necessity’ by a new ‘type’ of community ( Gemeinschaft ) in ‘nothing counts as much as [ Leistung ]’. Seeking to ‘prove how they are about thoroughly anew and rebuilding decently’, went on, Wolfsburg’s inhabitants an ethos of achievement that the basis for a ‘raw and roughly … form of democracy’ born out of need and necessity’. 15 Although never specified what of democracy he had in mind, his assessment hard work turned into a noteworthy social became a familiar theme in writing. The topic loomed as in Horst Mönnich’s novel Die (The Car City, 1951), an bestseller, which attracted Nordhoff’s praise for ‘truths lie deeper than the surface’. too, expressed admiration for the workers, who ‘saw their in Wolfsburg and ‘rolled up their 16

Hard work and dedication, consensus had it, put the company in a position not to prosper but also to offer its safe jobs that, 1950 on, paid the highest and benefits in West Germany. 17 Volkswagen’s local taxes the transformation of a temporary barrack into a medium-sized city, inhabitants enjoyed up-to-date state-of-the-art housing, new schools and amenities. In 1957, a conservative pointed out that the company done much for the well-being and the of Wolfsburg’s inhabitants. 18 Such derived partly from planned public-relations initiatives, which Volkswagen trumpeted its In 1955, the management ensured no fewer than 1,200 were on site to cover the celebrations marking the production of the one Beetle. This ‘extravaganza in of the economic miracle [ wirtschaftswunderbare ]’, as one reporter put it, comprised three of performances, including ladies the Moulin Rouge in Paris, African gospel choirs and female dancers, before spectators; it culminated in a lottery in Nordhoff magnanimously distributed Beetles among the employees. An by Nordhoff concluded the festivities and characteristically with a rallying cry for a new target: ‘And now on to the next 19

As a self-confident site of disciplined production whose economic under a patriarchal leader the workforce material benefits and urban development, Wolfsburg and its provided a social microcosm rendered visible to contemporary what West Germany’s minister Ludwig Erhard the ‘social market economy’. to this concept, the state’s was to establish a political order protected free enterprise, entrepreneurship with a sense of responsibility, expanded property among the wider population and put in social safeguards for the weak. 20 its significance for economic politicians, for the public the concept remained nebulous and enigmatic throughout of the 1950s. Trends in Wolfsburg, demonstrated in concrete terms the boom did benefit citizens the social spectrum, even as the new republic continued to suffer persistent unemployment and poverty the second half of the 1950s. and Wolfsburg offered not only an of recovery but also a promise of prosperity. Erhard himself did to encourage this view. In the to the 1957 Federal elections, for he floated a highly popular to complement public ownership of with an issue of ‘people’s [ Volksaktien ]’ in order to spread [of the company] to the man in the street’. 21

It was, of the car Wolfsburg produced that potently embodied the promise of In the 1950s, a prospect with an utopian appeal began to on the horizon: universal car ownership. The of passenger cars in West increased from 515,608 to between 1950 and 1965. from the middle classes, real incomes doubled in the was fuelling a process of mass and signalled the beginnings of affluence, if was it still limited by material 22 In 1956, for instance, vehicles under DM 5,000 made up two thirds of all new registrations. 23 While a of automobiles including Borgward’s (DM 3,850), the ‘Goggomobil’ (DM 3,280) and bubble car ‘Isetta’ (DM 3,890) in Werner Abelshauser’s words, the well-being, … the sense of liberty … and the prestige’ of car ownership, no model remotely approached the popular with its market share of a third during the 1950s. 24 At DM the VW cost more than of its competitors, but it offered the best in the small-vehicle market. Test in the West German automotive consistently praised the car for combining and power during operation, in technical design, and meticulous Requiring little maintenance and few the Volkswagen was deemed ‘the car on the [German] market’, because it cheap to operate in the long Even when journalists in the second half of the 1950s the Beetle was no longer the ‘most car’ they remained by its ‘economy’ and ‘indestructibility’. 25

Beyond highlighting the financial under which the German miracle unfolded, the emphasis on the thrift and reliability developed cultural resonance. The Volkswagen’s argued the company, reflected a framework that lent to the postwar order. VW went to lengths to position its product as a of sobriety and solidity. Like design products, the Volkswagen a strong appeal in West because its plain appearance starkly with National brash promises and the chaos of 26 At the beginning of the 1950s Heinrich maintained that a new landscape of stood behind the Volkswagen’s to prominence. Forced to turn into a virtue’ after the he declared (resorting to Todtmann’s ‘people in Germany [had] realistic’. ‘Rather than the which we came to despise the the accursed war forced it upon us, we the useful and serviceable [ das Nützliche und ], the truly progressive.’ 27 Detaching the from the Nazi era, linked his product to values moderation and utility, which, in his dominated the culture of the postwar Gute Fahrt (Safe VW’s monthly magazine for owners, took up this It welcomed the postwar years for ‘real values gradually to the they deserved’. The small car Wolfsburg appealed because of its and trustworthiness. It was ‘true to itself and to its and so signalled a ‘normalization of life’. 28 The virtues, according to VW’s own PR, stood for new, stable of normality that ordinary could rely on.

The company’s to identify the Volkswagen with new normality struck a chord the wider population. Through its the Beetle gave values thrift and dependability a pervasive and presence in West German In the late 1950s, when declared the model technically and began lobbying Volkswagen for a the citizens of the Federal Republic defended it as a much-loved token of 29 One aficionado used the most idiom of loyalty and obedient available to middle-class man: ‘I [my Volkswagen] like a dog on the street with its faithful eyes’. 30 affection was rooted, as another pointed out, in the car’s dependability. ‘How light-heartedly one it, how strongly one trusts it! … This is a guarantee that VW-drivers’ will be spared as much as possible – a very important in our hectic times.’ 31 Statements these lines were than mere expressions of attachment; they highlight Eckart Conze has termed a for compensatory stability’ that ran many spheres of life in the Federal Republic. 32 The Volkswagen was proof that the achievements of the rested on solid, reliable

That this automotive of the postwar order had its origins in the Reich was common knowledge. Germans, however, held on to a sanitized interpretation of Volkswagen in the Reich which disconnected the car National Socialist ideology, it as an unpolitical legacy of the immediate While journalists celebrated the and endurance of the so-called ‘Kübelwagen’, the vehicle based on the Beetle which the VW works had mass-produced the war, they never the wartime abuse of forced in Wolfsburg. 33 Praise for the ‘Kübel’ a collective denial of the Wehrmacht participation in atrocities and emphasized the honourable conduct of the Germans on the 34 Beyond the ‘Kübelwagen’ the public that the Volkswagen emerged from the Nazi era gained its expression from the erstwhile of the official Third Reich scheme who had paid up to 1,000 into a savings account by National Socialist organization Through Joy ( Kraft durch . or KdF ). Of course, the members of this had never received a single Under the leadership of retired and former party member Stolz, 40,000 of the ‘VW-Savers ( )’ set up an association to demand compensation for investment loss after the Although it represented only a of the more than 300,000 who had joined the scheme before the association’s activities attracted interest for more than a

Fig. 3.

In this 1956 ad presented the idea that the was a friendly, faithful companion in gendered terms. Entitled Better Half’, the image that this car stood by its

In 1949 Stolz initiated evolved into the young largest civil suit, by 1961 had generated no fewer eight verdicts on all three of the civil-court circuit. To press its the savers’ association remained silent about the vision of a national community of consumers had ideologically underpinned the Volkswagen in the 1930s. Instead Stolz and his insisted that joining the instalment scheme had not amounted to a act. Both members and of the party, Stolz declared and again, had paid money the scheme to secure a car: attention to the political side is an 35 Moreover, the association characterized its as ordinary, average people. Volkswagen savers, Stolz were ‘industrious, hard-working and people’ from ‘non-propertied who had lost ‘their hard-earned 36 By placing virtues such as hard work and self-denial in the the association identified its members as savers who could see themselves as badly deceived’ and blameless 37 Not even when Stolz his followers to wear on their small round badges combined black, silver and red did the with the colour, shape and of the former Nazi party trigger public comment on the leanings of VW-savers. 38 As it strove to its members as apolitical, the savers’ benefited from the position by the Volkswagen works. The Volkswagen for obvious PR reasons, did not emphasize the regime’s role in founding the works, thereby leaving the political claims of the savers’ Notwithstanding their legal the savers and Volkswagen inadvertently to downplay the ideological contours of the scheme in the Third Reich. consensus as to the supposedly apolitical of the Volkswagen not only explains the public response to the substantial won by the savers in 1961; 39 it also intelligible the ease with the little car from Wolfsburg into a symbol of postwar For the Süddeutsche Zeitung this was an ‘emblem of German diligence, – and flexibility’; it was not an object weighed by ideological ballast. 40

Only did a sense that National had left a problematic moral affect the Volkswagen as a postwar As a result of mass motorization, the of people … in road in West Germany rose 8,800 to almost 13,000 1952 and 1956. 41 The ensuing on the causes of this increase, was to persist into the mid 1970s, the question whether car owners be trusted to operate their responsibly or whether the state had the to enforce road discipline stringent traffic laws. The of traffic regulation triggered in parliament and press about the between state, civil and the individual, with strong overtones. Since excessive was one of the most frequent source of speed restrictions were a topic and provoked a robust demanding ‘free roads for citizens’. The introduction of speed meant modifying a 1952 Law that had removed restrictions imposed by the Nazi regime to fuel for the wartime economy. speed limits – a process began in 1957 – reminded at one journalist of Nazi laws. 42 state officials were reluctant to advocate a political that recalled regulatory of the Third Reich.

Moreover, comprehensive speed suggested that politicians had whether West German possessed the character traits to the freedom of the road. In the early this topic was much on minds. German travellers from trips abroad by the courtesy with which encountered each other Rather than better one passionate car lover wrote in the explanation for lower accident was ‘that the French driver is polite and considerate in the same way the English driver is polite and German roads, by comparison, wartime battlefields: ‘Whenever I a journey, I feel as if I’m off to the front. You know whether you will get home safe and sound’. 43 In reading mass motorization a deficit in civility among Germans, who continued to display they had supposedly learned in of war. Here, then, a legacy of the Third Reich was Suspicions about the suitability of the character for mass motorization as late as the 1960s. ‘Are drivers reckless [ gemeingefährlich ]?’ one journalist in 1963. 44

Despite the paramount contribution to West mass motorization, its reputation did not from the controversies about safety. After all, debate centred on individual While public exchanges reveal unease about consequences of the recent past, never focused on the vehicles drove. Since automobiles’ features were not subject to scrutiny, technical flaws contributed to hazards on the road did not into view during the Car traffic was widely acknowledged as a public danger, but contemporaries drivers rather than as its source. The Volkswagen Beetle retained its aura as a friend an unproblematic pedigree whose assured the West German that good times had to stay.


If the functioned as an icon in the Federal it gained this status not for embodying the advent of postwar but for leading an export drive commanded domestic and international On the assumption that the West market alone would prove too small to support the corporation, general director Nordhoff took an early decision to develop sales The management had succeeded in turning the into an export concern by when annual international (177,657) first overtook the of vehicles delivered to the domestic (150,397). 45 The United States the most significant export Annual Beetle sales in the US at a meagre 887 in 1953, but by 1955 had risen to about 32,000 and in they reached 120,422. 46 By VW had secured the largest share of vehicles on the US market.

The success of car with a Nazi past in a enemy country within a of the war’s end had many causes. to sell the vehicle in the United immediately after the war had failed in because of raw memories of recent In the early 1950s, Germany’s as a former war enemy began to be among American politicians and the public, not least due to persistent efforts on the part the government in which ran an extensive visiting for US-journalists. West Germany to be seen as a Cold-War ally and foremost, and a former dictatorship and second. 47 Once the cultural of its Nazi pedigree had been the car recommended itself through its which Nordhoff had boosted in the 1940s in particular to enhance competitiveness in export markets. At the of the 1950s, his strategy began to pay In November 1951 America’s car magazine, Road and Track . the ‘deutschkraftwagen’ for its ‘light weight and balance [that] produced gratifying the most fastidious’. A later, this magazine that ‘it is difficult to attach criticism to the little Volkswagen’. 48 The public was equally taken the engineering that went the car, because its quality owners from expensive Together with a high value and a modest purchase ($1,547 in 1956), the car’s low costs added to the appeal. And their car did require an inspection or Volkswagen drivers profited Nordhoff’s foresight in establishing a network of dealerships offering services at comparatively moderate

Here was a small, efficient, and cheap car – and it entered a boisterous market. After decades of austerity caused by the Depression and by the Second World War, were out on a spending spree lasted until the late The auto sector was particularly because the expansion of suburbs all the USA created additional demand for of individual transport. The Beetle particularly attractive among middle-class families in the suburbs who a handy, reliable and economical car for everyday use. Detroit this market segment in the late 1950s, when it the so-called ‘compact cars’. US-made compacts squeezed out other European competition, matched the Beetle neither in nor quality. As a consequence, this import managed to defend and its position in the USA, reaching sales of 423,000 in 1968. 49 In a where far larger automobiles set the part of the Beetle’s appeal from what American considered its unconventional oddity. 50

The German press followed the American progress closely. observers emphasized that the of reliability and quality, which had the company a synonym for national at home, commanded respect in the too. They repeatedly out that Americans praised the car for its as well as its moderate maintenance and costs. 51 Reports along lines construed the car’s in the United States in terms were eminently familiar to readers, implying that dedication to hard work and production standards offered a example for returning Germany to the scene. These news not only suggested to West that their culture crucial values with the States in the realm of consumption; it showed them that took their new ally because they valued the as a product of substance. In fact, few provided better evidence to the German public of their recovery than Volkswagen’s on the much-vaunted American market.

At the same time, German noted that Americans the Beetle as an unusual and peculiar – a ‘different’ car, a ‘thing zip [ Ding mit Pfiff ]’. 52 Its appeal the ‘technical and cultural intelligentsia’ caught their eye. 53 The appeal in the middle class two things to German observers. the car made inroads into a prestigious segment of the market. its increasing presence on American and highways resulted from its to attract discerning, self-confident ‘These people know who are. They do not need a big car to like more than are’, a German provincial pontificated. 54 Rather than drivers susceptible to hype, reading implied, the car appealed to customers supposedly devoid of anxiety. These owners, readers learned, loved vehicles despite the taunts its size and shape that out the ‘volks’ as a slightly bizarre Its reputation as mildly wacky predisposed the Beetle for lead in ‘cults and pranks [ Kult und Ulk ]’, German journalists reported bemusement. 55

More than one ran through accounts of the Beetle as an quality product. One was that the humorous reception counteracted mixed reputation, persistently by a ‘dark atmosphere of the uncanny [ des Unheimlichen ]’, as a leading weekly put it twenty years after the end. 56 Another was pride in secured a prominent presence in American culture through a that convinced through and unpretentiousness. Satisfaction at achieving through a smart, simple went hand in hand a notably sober tone in coverage. German criticisms of as a car society of excess were uncommon. Even rarer statements that played on the stereotype of American cultural vis-à-vis the Old World. The Spiegel claim in 1965 that were only now discovering the that the ‘Germans had long offered an exceptional insight notions of German cultural 57 More representative was the storyline by a who dismissed as an exaggeration the management that the Beetle had become ‘a of America’, and settled on the more claim that one ‘cannot America’s roads without the He thought it was sufficient to say that the ‘revives the somewhat faded of the label ‘Made in Germany’. 58 A tone that steered of triumphalism marked the coverage of strength in the American marketplace.

Volkswagen Atlantic

West Germans cherished the as a symbol of their country, comments did more than upon the Beetle as an international They also helped to how Germans viewed their own in the world. In line with attempts to show that the Republic had rejected the fantasies of domination that had motivated the German writers were to trumpet postwar international in triumphalist terms. ‘The is a good German’, an illustrated magazine found, as it reflected on the for the car’s worldwide proliferation. 59 The responses to the Beetle’s transatlantic corresponded with the ‘style of that West German abroad adopted from the 60 Beyond reassuring West that the Beetle projected an international presence, the car also acceptance by the Federal Republic of a position vis-à-vis the United Delighted as he was to see a series of Volkswagens across Times Square on a evening in 1965, a German reminded himself that VW had a share of only three per in the US, although the company exported one of its production across the Atlantic. 61 America’s economic importance for VW, the made it clear that the remained a niche product the Atlantic. As they acknowledged the undisputed Western leadership, from the Federal Republic to the self-proclaimed ‘export world-champion’ a role in the world economy. reliable, modest, unorthodox and – these antonyms of Germany’s behaviour in international affairs strongly through reports the Beetle in the United States. signalled how, despite dynamic, rapid economic West Germans wished to be on the international stage. The Beetle, met a profound desire to compensate for tarnished reputation in the world. By with the small car itself, the German public imagined the Republic as a small country strictly limited power.


If the owes its iconic status in the Republic to sales abroad, the car to sparkle in the German imagination less salubrious aspects of its history have failed to an imprint on public awareness. all symbols, the Beetle derives its salience as much from remains unsaid about it as what is said. As we have motifs presenting the Beetle as and harmless are central to its iconography. overtones are conspicuous by their in its early public appearances. publicly detaching the vehicle’s from National Socialist the marginalizing and downplaying of Volkswagen’s power in the global economy effectively cloaked the car in apparent

Thanks to profits from its product, Volkswagen developed a major international automotive from the late 1950s. in the United States it did not rise the secondary level, it established in many a significant emerging In Mexico, as in some other strong Beetle sales VW to gain and defend a leading from the 1970s to 1990s. Volkswagen was by no means an underdog. its Mexican production site in has steadily gained prominence in global corporate strategy the 1970s. After Wolfsburg to make the Golf in the mid 1970s, gradually became the main manufacturing the Beetle. While VW Beetle production in Mexico 2003, some of its business and practices were distinctly But if the contentious nature of Volkswagen’s operations had the potential to mar the Beetle’s as a friendly machine, it left not a on the car’s iconic body in Germany.

Volkswagen entered the market through a subsidiary in and opened a comprehensive production for Beetles in Puebla in 1967. The invested more than DM 330 in this Central American because, with growth averaging over seven per between 1963 and 1971, was seen to be pursuing a highly development strategy. 62 Praising the for political stability and steady growth, the German press so far as to label Mexico the ‘Japan of America’ in 1966. 63 This coverage reflected wider assessments of the economic policies by the government of the left-leaning Partido Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary PRI) from the 1950s. The PRI a strategy of ‘import-substituting industrialization’ beyond strengthening the agrarian through land reform, to establish a dynamic manufacturing behind high tariff so as to reduce dependence on foreign 64 Mexican officials identified the sector as a key industry for their drive, decreeing in 1962 car manufacturers must produce at sixty per cent of the parts for vehicles locally if they to maintain their sales in the country. To secure a foothold in it deemed a lucrative future VW erected in Puebla a sizeable plant featuring a training a foundry, a paintshop and assembly which by the early 1970s between 8,000 and 12,000 65 The Beetle became Mexico’s car with a market share from twenty-five to thirty-two per between the late 1960s and 1970s. While German and VW’s managers were that this product exceptional popularity, executives in criticized Puebla for low productivity and over the plant’s losses in the 1970s. 66

Beyond an expanding market, a workforce as well as employer-friendly arrangements for industrial relations Volkswagen to Mexico. The PRI, all but monopolized state power 1946 and 2000, exerted influence over industrial through its trade union the Confederación de Trabajadores Mexicanos of Mexican Workers). This particularly important during over pay and labour conditions. If between workers and employers not be resolved, they were to an arbitration board under the of the Ministry of Labour, which to rule in employers’ favour. In the 1970s, however, this of industrial relations broke amid protests by assembly-line in Puebla who charged trade-union with indifference to their collusion with the management and Against this background VW set up one of the country’s few independent trade defending their strengthened position throughout a series of economic crises which Mexico into turmoil the Eighties. 67 As production of the Beetle into the new millennium, industrial at the plant remained tense. locals considered themselves to secure work at VW in Puebla, high wages and benefits did not repeated conflict. 68 As part of its to integrate global manufacturing more closely, Volkswagen to introduce organizational changes in processes aimed at raising in Puebla from levels had stayed below international all through the 1980s. Moreover, the strove to cut the wage and benefits In an economic environment where of annual inflation periodically 140 per cent, such measures triggered industrial strife culminated in lengthy strikes, protests, and mass redundancies.

their recurrent and protracted the clashes between Volkswagen and its workers remained marginal and opaque in the mainstream media of the Republic. When employers and in Puebla began to thrash out a settlement after more seven weeks of work in the summer of 1987, the leading daily Frankfurter Allgemeine ( FAZ ) chose to report that the had ‘predictably’ rejected demands for increases of 100%. The company had now an offer of thirty per cent, the went on, while the trade had lowered its negotiating position to per cent. Within a German such figures were to appear excessive, but the account to point out that annual in Mexico was running at 120 per cent. The in the article’s concluding paragraph VW headquarters in Wolfsburg had begun to local managers for their tactics received no further 69 This report displayed as interest in workers’ living and conditions as did a piece five later informing German that, in reaction to a minority strike, the local management had out all 14,000 employees with the aim of them redundant. 70 FAZ coverage of in Puebla thus provided context.

Readers seeking to the local dynamics between and workers in Puebla had to turn to . a left-leaning daily sympathetic to critiques of neocolonialism. This pointed out in 1987 that the had opened negotiations with for a fifteen per cent pay cut despite inflation and annual profits of DM 200 Personnel costs, the report amounted to no more than ten per of overall expenditure, not least average daily wages at a mere DM 12. 71 The newspaper also that the sense of frustration protest actions like the of a motorway and threats to occupy VW extended beyond issues of 72 Lack of protective clothing as leather gloves as well as unwillingness to provide affordable for children were among grievances. 73 When the paper VW’s conduct in Puebla to standards in the Federal Republic, the emerged in a distinctly unflattering While a manager stated wages and benefits in Puebla twice as high as at other car plants, tageszeitung relativized assertion by commenting that Mexican workers earned per day than West German in an hour’. 74 Moreover, the company’s in the summer of 1992 to fire its workforce of 14,000 was a measure ruthlessness was ‘inconceivable in German 75 Interviews with employees considerable distrust of the German One female assembly-line worker up her view of the situation in the following ‘The Germans supposedly to teach us something but in reality just go off with the money we earned’. 76

Tense industrial in Puebla received no mention President Weizsäcker’s state to Mexico in November 1992. Weizsäcker toured the company’s site as an example of German-Mexican reporters stereotypically proclaimed between both countries to be as as the sky over Mexico. 77 That criticism of Volkswagen’s business in the late 1980s and early emerged only in a newspaper suspicions about global as a matter of principle is not particularly However, silence on this in the mainstream media indirectly the Beetle as an icon in Germany. parts of the German public unaware that VW’s American operations relied on that were within law but would have been illegal in the Federal Republic. ignorance about its practices protected the company’s domestic as an exemplary employer, silence animosity between workers and at its Mexican production site the Beetle itself from Reports of conflict-ridden industrial could have tarnished the with the stigma of exploitation. As a of silence about developments in the Beetle retained its iconic


Of it would be wrong to attribute the persistent prominence in the Federal solely to wilful media of Volkswagen’s strong-arm tactics in The decision to concentrate Beetle in Mexico in 1978 had already the car out of the West German limelight, and practices in Mexico were on the of little interest to the German Transfer of Beetle production to came on the heels of a profound at Wolfsburg which culminated in lay-offs; it also coincided the onset of the Oil Crisis, the rise of concerns and long-term mass 78 As its production in Germany ceased, the began to seem like a of the past, from a time expansion and full employment had the Federal Republic. The commercial of the Beetle’s successor, the new Golf underscored this break. Of the Golf was no symbol of a country in On the contrary, it gained such in the 1980s that, by the turn of the a witty best-seller by Florian declared its author’s membership of Golf’, an age cohort born 1965 and 1975 which up in a country allegedly as boringly as the Beetle’s successor. 79 More safer and faster than the the Golf became the transport of the economically secure middle in a Federal Republic in which developed dynamically as mass persisted and grew especially manual workers. The Golf, stood for a rich country recalcitrant problems in its labour

In (re-)united Germany, the Beetle has to be regarded as a historical commodity nonetheless holds important for the present. During hot debates welfare reforms in 2005, Horst Köhler weighed in a speech that opened on the note: Germany has become to itself. For a long time, we neglected the recipe of success brought the Federal Republic and affluence, stability and prestige the war. Those were when no one yet spoke of globalization, but the ran all over the world – and ran and ran and ran. At time, the Federal Republic was by an order that encouraged and social progress. 80 Part of a demanding welfare cuts, speech encouraged workers and to become more like the reliable and tough Beetle in to build a better future on the of the past. In effect, the President the little car as a role model to past growth and make the Republic again what it had been.

Köhler’s address both explicit and tacit that continue to lend the public prominence in the Federal To begin with, this retains its status as an embodiment of the that supposedly made a postwar order. As a result of its robustness and dependability, the vehicle soon after 1945 as a of a reliable postwar normality by increasing prosperity. As an unpretentious it spoke of the solidity of a public that satisfied consumer that had been illusory 1945. While the Beetle a postwar icon partly the Federal Republic, in advancing motorization, fulfilled what had an empty dream under the it gained a stable, lasting with normality during the Republic’s consolidation phase. Due to its to fame in a period of expanding and full employment, the car also a benign chapter of Western As a symbol of postwar normality, the continues to hold up to the German a socio-economic promise from the that, since the advent of unemployment in the mid 1970s, has remained for decades. Yet German speakers who the car as a role model overlook the that the Beetle’s success under atypical circumstances, are highly unlikely to return. Germans refuse to acknowledge as the historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler has the quadrupling of average earnings 1950 and 1973 occurred in ‘an exceptional situation in modern economic history’. 81 As it derives of its symbolic energy from a for a normality that evolved in an unusual phase in history, the combines both nostalgic and dimensions – nostalgic because it speaks of lost social and utopian because it refuses to this loss.

That tensions run through the Beetle as a of Germany’s place in the world is out by Köhler’s remark that no one of ‘globalization’ in the car’s heyday. At the of the ‘export miracle’ in the 1950s and West Germans considered the their unofficial representative on the scene. The sympathy which the car abroad signalled to them the Federal Republic had gained within an international, American-led that assigned their a secondary role. While no one may talked of ‘globalization’ at the time, the subsequently labelled as such was in full flow, and among its beneficiaries and promoters were Germany and its corporations. The circumstance Volkswagen developed into a multinational company with sites in Latin America no imprint on the Beetle’s iconography in however. Put differently, the car conveys of the ways in which, beyond exports, German companies the government) have contributed to the of a global economy. Neither the car speak of the considerable power can wield in global markets. The is thus well suited to the Federal Republic as mostly a bystander rather than an champion of globalization. Many have recently taken self-characterization one step further by their country as a prey of economic developments. A storm of for instance, met Social Democrat Müntefering in 2005 when he foreign investors as locusts descended upon German like a biblical plague, behind them ruin and in the form of unemployment. 82 These of the ‘export world champion’ as a victim of foreign financial take up messages which the has conveyed for decades. As a picture of economic innocence, this car not disturb the self-image of the Federal as a secondary country which to flex its muscle on the international but owes its global presence to work and a dedication to quality.

The still carries many of the that first turned it an icon in West Germany in the and 1960s. It retains its association quality and durability, conveys of socio-economic expansion and underpins of unified Germany as a minor player. Beyond its sales there appears little is exceptional about the vehicle – and is exactly the source of its continuing As a symbol of postwar normality, it a very flattering picture of peaceful, likeable and small. Its prominence as a national symbol how far the German public has detached from the power fantasies of the century’s first half. At the time, its continuing appeal speaks of the difficulties Germans in acknowledging prominent features of the they inhabit, namely life in a unified nation despite mass unemployment, considerable international economic When they think of the Germans have no need to these aspects of normality.

I would like to thank the Academy for funding the research for article. I am also grateful for suggestions and help from Buettner, Martin Geyer, Juárez Núñez, Friedrich Ethan Kleinberg and Johannes as well as from seminar in Munich, Cambridge, Middletown, CT and

Volkswagen Atlantic
Volkswagen Atlantic

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