Richard J. Evans

  • The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle by Bernhard Rieger
    Harvard, 406 pp, £20.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 674 05091 4

When I first went to Germany, in the early 1970s, the roads were swarming with squat, misshapen little beasts, bustling about the city streets or rattling along the autobahns with noisy, air-cooled engines, curved roofs tapering down to the rear bumper and, in older models, tiny oval back windows, so small that I wondered how the driver could see anything at all in his rear-view mirror. Their ugliness, however, was as nothing compared with the horror of a ride in one: sitting in the back seat, as I often had to when being driven around with a group of friends, I became claustrophobic from the low roof, while the loud rattling and whirring of the engine behind me quickly brought on a headache, made worse during the winter months by the repulsive smell of the heating system. Taking corners at speed – or such speed as the vehicle could muster – was a nightmare, as the car rocked and rolled and churned up my stomach.

I much preferred my father’s pale blue Morris Minor, with its upright design, roomy interior and quiet, front-mounted engine. With the British car there was the additional charm of the quaint semaphore-style left and right indicators, which stuck out horizontally from the bodywork like tiny, glowing amber arms (though you sometimes risked breaking them off when you opened the front door). Given the alternative of this practical and yet somehow graceful vehicle, who would want to buy a Volkswagen Beetle? Yet the Beetle was the most successful car of its time, selling more than any other model, as Bernhard Rieger notes in his illuminating and elegantly written history. While more than 1.3 million Morris Minors were sold over the decades, Beetle sales exceeded a million a year in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when one car in three on West German roads was a Volkswagen. In 1972, the Beetle’s total sales passed those of what had been the most popular passenger car of the century, Henry Ford’s Model T. Like other popular small cars, the Morris Minor was exported and manufactured under licence abroad, but it was so emphatically English in style and conception that its popularity was mostly confined to countries of the Empire and Commonwealth. The Beetle, by contrast, achieved large sales in the United States and was still being manufactured in Mexico after the turn of the century.

Though most people chose to ignore the fact after the war, the Beetle was a Nazi car. Hitler was determined to bring Germany up to what he saw as the level of modernity of advanced economies like Britain and America (Rieger’s account is another nail in the coffin of the old interpretation of Nazism as a backward-looking, atavistic sociopolitical force). Relatively few people owned a radio, for example, so Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, introduced the People’s Receiver (Volksempfänger), a cheap and cheerful little wireless, with no shortwave so that listeners couldn’t tune in to foreign broadcasts. Fridges were even rarer, so the government introduced the People’s Refrigerator (Volkskühlschrank). Soon there were many other products. The People’s Car (Volkswagen) belonged to this series, though its official title was the Strength through Joy Car (KdF-Wagen), named after Kraft durch Freude, the leisure programme of the Labour Front, the Nazi successor to the trade unions (though to anyone who’s ever been in a Beetle, strength and joy don’t seem the appropriate terms).

Above all, Hitler was determined to modernise the roads. In the early 1930s, Germany was one of western Europe’s least motorised societies. This was partly because its public transport system even then was second to none – smoothly efficient, quick, all-encompassing. Most Germans didn’t feel they really needed a car. And had they wanted one, they couldn’t have afforded it: the economic disasters of the Weimar Republic had depressed domestic demand. German roads were so empty that Berlin did not find it necessary to install traffic lights until 1925. Three-quarters of the population were labourers, artisans, farmworkers and the like, who couldn’t afford the expensive products of Daimler-Benz or any of the country’s 27 other car manufacturers, whose inefficient production methods and small output meant they produced models available only to the intermittently affluent bourgeoisie. To reach American levels of car ownership, Hitler told the automobile show in Berlin in 1934, Germany needed to increase the number of cars on its roads from half a million to 12 million. Car ownership in Britain was six times higher than in Germany relative to population. To the further dismay of German nationalists, the country’s most successful mass vehicle manufacturers were both foreign: Ford, which opened a factory in Cologne in 1931, and General Motors, which operated the Opel factory at Rüsselsheim. By the early 1930s, Opel cars were dominating the market, with 40 per cent of annual sales.

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