Aus Liebe zum Automobil
(For Love of the Car)
Adolf Hitler, the future leader of Germany, sketched the drawing you see above in the summer of 1932, while enjoying a hot lunch in a Munich restaurant. The former artist, while contemplating ways to set Germany on a modern course, was inspired by his admiration for American auto-maker (and anti-Semite) Henry Ford to formulate an ingenious plan: To reduce unemployment, a massive program of public works would build the worlds first super-highway, the Autobahn, providing the Reich with a modern infrastructure. To stimulate German industry, it was necessary to develop a car the average German could actually afford to own. Hitler would eventually give his drawing to the head of Daimler-Benz, Jakob Werlin, telling him: "Take it with you and speak with people who understand more about it than I do. But don't forget it. I want to hear from you soon about the technical details." Note: The exact provenance for this image is in some dispute.
There was only one motorcar for every fifty Germans, compared to one for every five in America, as most workmen used a bicycle or public transportation. Hitler was hardly the first to conceptualize super-highways and affordable cars, but when he took over the leadership of Germany in 1933, he sought out Ferdinand Porsche, who had been working the problem through on his own. Erwin Komenda, the chief designer of AUTO UNION, was working on the development of a car body with the aid of a wind tunnel, the first such effort. He turned his energies to the KDF project and developed the first body prototype, which would eventually become the most built car body of the last century. A small team of engineers would begin initial development in 1934.
February 15 1936: Hitler utilizes a German industry exhibition to propagandize to a still skeptical Volk on the wisdom of a People's Car in every Aryan driveway: "...the intensive development of our most modern sector of the transport industry depends on the complete freedom of a People to make use of it, and I mean by this the absence of legal and psychological restrictions. 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... It was bad enough that the leaders of the People and the State, obsessed by ideas of this kind, had no understanding of the development of motorization. It was just as bad, however, that German industry, even if perhaps not consciously, thought along the same lines. Hence it had no clear awareness that unless the automobile becomes something everyone uses, its dormant potentialities will not be realized.
Either the automobile is an expensive luxury item for a few people, and hence in the long run not very important for the economy as a whole, or it is destined to have the enormous impact on the economy which by its very nature it can have. Then, however, it must be transformed from a luxury item for the few to something that everyone uses. And I fear that even today the German automobile industry has not realized that the overall development of German automobile production cannot really succeed, unless prices match the income level of the purchasers it targets. The question as to the number of cars which Germany can absorb is very easily answered. a) The desire to own a car is at least as strong in our People as in any other. Indeed I am inclined to say that the desire for a car is particularly strong because it is something our People are denied. You see the most obvious proof of this, Gentlemen, in the enormous and unprecedented number of people who are attending this exhibition. They prove most conclusively how wrong those people were, who only a few years ago thought that these exhibitions were unimportant and uninteresting and hence quite unnecessary.
The German People have precisely the same desire to use a car as, for example, the American People. It is superficial to think that a figure of 23 or 24 million cars is natural and understandable for America, and 500,000 or 600,000 for Germany, when in terms of numbers the German People are equal to more than half of the population of the United States of America. No, the prerequisite in terms of population exists in Germany, too. b) The prerequisite for the fulfillment of this desire cannot, however, be any different to that in the rest of the world. The price of the individual car must match the income of the potential purchaser. This means that there will be people who are in the position to part with 20,000 German Marks or more for a car, because their income is large enough, but their number will not be very large. Reducing the price to 10,000 German Marks already creates a much larger number of potential purchasers. And the reduction of the price to 5000 German Marks will again mobilize a larger group of suitable wage earners. In other words: If I hope to increase the number of cars in Germany to three or four million, the price and the maintenance costs of these cars must be compatible with the income of the three or four million potential buyers.
I suggest that with this in mind the German transport industry undertake a survey of the income of the four or five million better-off Germans. You will then understand why I was utterly determined to initiate the preparatory work on the production of the German Volkswagen, and why I want to see this work completed, and, Gentlemen, successfully completed!
I have no doubt that the genius of the man who has been entrusted with the design and construction of this vehicle, together with those who will later produce it, coupled with the sound economic good sense of all who will be involved, will succeed in keeping the purchase price, as well as the operating and maintenance costs of this vehicle in line with the income of the broad mass of our People, as in America, where we have seen a brilliant example of how this problem can be solved. It is an unfortunate error to think that a development of this kind will persuade the purchasers of the better and more expensive cars to lower their expectations and to purchase a Volkswagen. No, Gentlemen, this car will result in the mobilization of millions of new purchasers, from whom will come those who, consistent with the progressive improvement in our standard of living, will all the more easily be able to purchase a better and nicer-looking car.
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. If we find two or three million purchasers for the new German Volkswagen, there will naturally be some who in the course of their lives will purchase a more expensive and thus better car. A large proportion will, however, never be in the position to buy a more expensive car. Not, however, because they are unwilling to do the manufacturer of this or that car a favor, but because they are prevented from doing so by their limited income.
To deprive these millions of potential purchasers of the pleasure of owning a modern vehicle of this kind, simply in order to avoid the risk that a few of the 200,000 or 300,000 who are better-off might buy the less expensive car, would not only be improper in human terms but make no economic sense. For this would mean artificially halting the most powerful economic development of our People and our country for reasons which are as selfish as they are shortsighted. I know that I am confronting German industry with a major challenge, but I am also aware that a German is no less capable than anyone else in the world. And problems which have been solved in one part of the world, must also be capable of a solution in Germany..."
May 6, 1937: The "Society for the Preparation of the German Volkswagen" is founded. Hitler had decreed that a car should be built for only 900 marks - $396 at the official rate of exchange. Since private industry could not turn out an automobile for $396, Hitler ordered the State to build it and placed the Labor Front in charge of the project. Dr. Ley (who would commit suicide just prior to going on trial at Nuremberg), Porsche, Jakob Werlin, and Reichsamtsleiter Lafferentz (Kraft durch Freude), direct the new organization. Ley's German Labor Front advances fifty million marks in capital.
May 26, 1938: The Führer lays the cornerstone of Volkswagen City (KdF-Stadt), with a new factory on 10,000 acres of land near an intersection of the Autobahn on the Mittelland Canal; in Fallersleben, near Braunschweig. 70,000 people celebrate the opening of 'the biggest automobile factory in the world,' with a capacity for turning out a million and a half cars a year. By the end of 1938, 150,000 people had already ordered the car and were awaiting delivery; 336,000 Germans would eventually fill their stamp-books.
Fünf Mark die Woche musst Du sparen, willst Du im eigenen Wagen fahren
(Save five Marks a week, if you want to drive your own car)
The idea behind the Volkswagen was to stimulate the German economy into the modern era by putting as many Germans as possible behind the wheels of automobiles on the new Autobahn, something the US didn't get around to until the 1950's. The Volkswagen, originally known as the KDF car (Kraft-Durch-Freude or Strength Through Joy), was designed to be affordable to the average consumer, and so was the financing.
Based on a payroll deduction plan, subscribers were issued stamps which they used to fill up their stamp book; five marks a week, or if a worker thought he could afford it, ten or fifteen marks a week. As soon as 200 stamps were collected, they could be redeemed for a car...theoretically. Production was due to begin in September of 1938, but only 54 cars actually rolled off the assembly line before Hitler's war necessitated production be converted to wartime needs.
Only Hitler (as a gift for his 49th birthday), Emperor Hirohito of Japan, and a few Nazi bigwigs actually received one of those 54 cars.
But the folks did end up with some mighty attractive stamps.
July 5, 1941: "'The beauty of the Crimea,' he (Hitler) rhapsodized late at night...would be made accessible to Germans through a motorway. It would be their version of the Italian or French Riviera. Every German, after the war, he remarked, had to have the chance with his 'Peoples Car' (Volkswagen) personally to see the conquered territories, since he would have 'to be ready if need be to fight for them.' The mistake of the pre-war era of limiting the colonial idea to the property of a few capitalists or companies could not be repeated. Roads would be more important in the future than the railways for passenger transport. Only through travel by road could a country be known, he asserted." --Ian Kershaw, paraphrasing Hitler in 'Hitler 1936-1945 Nemesis.'
"Hitler's furthest reaching economic achievement was his plan for the 'People's Car.' Conceived as part of a grand strategy of bringing cheap motor vehicles within reach of ordinary people, the plan to build a car named after the Nazi slogan 'Kraft durch Freude' (Strength through Joy) was never consummated. The program nonetheless ended up by making an important contribution to the war effort. After the war, the clumsily named KdF-Auto attained world fame as the famous 'beetle' and the company producing it, Volkswagenwerk (VW), became West Germany' best-known industrial concern. The 'Peoples Car' was designed from 1934 onwards by Ferdinand Porsche, the veteran vehicle engineer and founder of the Stuttgart car company which bears his name today. Born in northern Bohemia, Porsche made his name in the fledging Austrian vehicle industry and served as technical director and board member at Daimler between 1923 and 1929. He became a member not only of the Nazi Party but also of the SS. The car designer advised Hitler on tank building during the war, but results were not always satisfactory, straining Porsche's relations with Armaments Minister Speer on more than one occasion. The first prototype of the 'People's Car' was produced in 1935, and the VW company was established in 1938 to build the cars at a massive new factory near the small town of Fallersleben between Hanover and Magdenburg. Spelling out the objectives of the 'People's Car' at the VW factory's foundation ceremony at Fallersleben in May 1938, Hitler declared: 'It's for the great mass of the people that this car has been designed. Its purpose is to answer their needs in transport, and it is intended to give them joy.' Unfinished when the war started, the plant was swiftly adapted to military production, building 51,000 army 'bucket cars' as well as 15,000 amphibious vehicles, tank parts, bomb cases and mines. From 1943 onwards Volkswagen also produced the V-1 flying bomb - the pilot-less aircraft which caused havoc in London towards the end of the war. The 'People's' Volkswagen went into mass production only after the war when 20 million cars were eventually built, both at Wolfsburg and in VW works in Latin America." From 'The Germans: The Pivotal Nation' by David Marsh.