Adolf Hitler v John Heartfield (Commentary)

This commentary is based on the classroom activity: Hitler's Volkswagen (The People's Car)

Q1: Read sources 2, 6, 8 and 9. Explain the main difference between the way that people in America purchased the Model T to the German people buying the Volkswagen in the 1930s.

A1: These sources show that Americans received delivery of the Model T after making their first payment. The plan was for Germans to receive their Volkswagen car after making their final payment.

Q2: Select two sources that provide information that suggested that the German people were happy about the production of the People's Car (Volkswagen).

A2: In source 3 a German worker points out that "the announcement of the People's Car is a great and happy surprise". He adds that for "a long time the car was a main topic of conversation in all sections of the population in Germany". He confesses: "The politician who promises a car for everyone is the man of the masses if the masses believe his promises. And as far as the Strength-Through-Joy car is concerned, the German people do believe in Hitler's promises".

Ernst Walters pointed out in source 5 that the German people were happy with their economic circumstances under Hitler and that the "little guy" was able to buy a "Volkswagen".

Q3: Use the visual sources to explain how the Nazi government encouraged the German people to buy the Volkswagen car.

A3: The Nazi government used several different methods to encourage German people to buy a Volkswagen car. This included advertising posters (sources 1, 7 and 12); photographs of Hitler with show models of the car (sources 4 and 10); postage stamps (source 14) and a children's game (source 17).

Q4: Select information from the sources that show that the German people were unhappy with the Volkswagen project by 1939.

A4: The German worker had to pay 750 marks before they received a Volkswagen car (source 8). It is estimated that by the end of 1939, 270,000 people had lent 110 million Reichsmarks to the state in this way. However, not one of them ever got a Volkswagen in return as the factory was converted to war production in September 1939. (source 9)

Q5: Why is it that the British Army began producing Volkswagen cars between 1945-1947?

A5: In the summer of 1945 the British Army took over control of the Volkswagen factory. The original intention was to dismantle the entire production line and ship out the machinery and tooling as reparations. Colonel Charles Radclyffe, who was in charge of car manufacture in the British zone, was responsible for carrying out this plan. However, when the Volkswagen equipment was offered to Britain's motor manufacturers, they turned it down. An official British report found that "the vehicle does not meet the fundamental technical requirement of a motor-car... it is quite unattractive to the average buyer... To build the car commercially would be a completely uneconomic enterprise."

Colonel Radclyffe instructed Major Ivan Hirst of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (Reme) to take control of the operation. By the end of 1945, the factory managed to put together 2,490 cars. Many of them were then bartered for materials to make further cars, or for provisions to feed the 6,000 workers and other citizens of Wolfsburg, the company town built before the war as Volkswagen's headquarters. By 1947 Major Hirst was exporting them to other European countries. Eventually, the Volkswagen company was given back to the German people. (source 15)

Q6: Why did 30 Hungarian-born Jews take legal action against Volkswagen in 1998?

A6: German historians has estimated that 80% of Volkswagen's wartime workforce were supplied by concentration camps. On 13th June, 1998, The New York Times reported that: "Two years ago Volkswagen published a history of its wartime operations in which it acknowledged using slave labor. But the company has refused to pay out individual claims for wages, saying it is impossible to quantify the appropriate amounts.... Klaus von Munchhausen, a lecturer at Bremen University, said today that he was suing Volkswagen on behalf of 30 Hungarian-born Jews, all living in Israel, who were chosen for slave labor - rather than the gas chamber - at Auschwitz." (source 16)