The Origins of Volkswagen

Long before VW’s emissions scandal, the Beetle stood out as a Nazi symbol

Source: Volkswagen’s Dark Past | History Net: Where History Comes Alive – World & US History Online | From the World’s Largest History Magazine Publisher

There is no shortage of companies extant today that trace their lineage into an Axis past. Most of Japan’s major zaibatsu made it through the MacArthur era, albeit modernized in ownership and management. Fiat made fighter planes for Mussolini yet remains Italy’s most blue-chip industrial enterprise. And Krupp, the most infamous of the “merchants of death,” exists today as part of European heavy industry giant Thyssen-Krupp.

Volkswagen is arguably the most visible of these Fascio-capitalist legacies.

I have spent my career working with companies and their reputations, and I have come to understand that history is not destiny: success is rarely permanent, failures need not be fatal, and a founder’s foibles can be expunged. But a company’s skeletons, however well closeted, are brutally difficult to bury because heritage becomes woven into culture in ways that are often variable and unpredictable.

VW is a fascinating case study, a legacy of National Socialism that has been over the past seventy years alternately beloved and reviled outside of Germany. It would be hard to argue that the company has risen above its past.

What will forever plague the firm – and others like it – is the degree to which the ideology that birthed lies dormant within the company’s cultural fabric. One would hope that, like Ford, VW can remain cleansed of the ugliness in its past even as the past echoes through modern Europe. But the burden of assuring as much remains an obligation of the firm’s leadership.

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Rethinking Franklin

Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the closest thing we have to a 20th Century secular American saint. But seven decades after his tragic passing, the time has come for us to set aside some of our received wisdom about his presidency, and examine anew the causes, conduct, and effects of the policies that defined his administration. So long as we approach the task without any other motive than to determine the truth, the effort should be applauded by all sides.

The problem is less one of forgetting the past and its meaning than of remembering the wrong things about it and drawing the wrong lessons from it. The characterization of “Greatest Generation” is a good example of a myth that, in Walter Lippmann’s phrase, is well meaning but unmeaning.

Maury Klein
A Call to Arms: Mobilizing America in World War II

 

Nationalism had been, before the war, a claim pressed by minorities against large multiethnic empires, but after Versailles it became a claim that minority groups asserted against one another.

– Yehuda Mirsky

Building Ships on an Assembly Line

A no-narration documentary showing the construction of a Liberty ship in just 4 days, 15 hours, and 29 minutes. In part, this was an effort to set a record, but in reality, it was a demonstration of a feat that America’s hidebound shipbuilding industry – and the Maritime Administration – doubted was possible. Shipbuilding was, after all, the ultimate bespoke industry.

The film shows the Permanente Metals No. 2 Shipyard in Richmond, California (just north of Berkeley in the San Francisco Bay) assembling the ship from sections as heavy as 80 tons.

It is hard to appreciate today, in an era where industries are disrupted on an almost daily basis – what this represents. But it is part of a story about World War II that was almost forgotten – that  it was less a matter of tactics, or strategy, or logistics that won the war. What won the war at almost every turn was improvisation, adaptability, and chutzpah.