The following is an excerpt from Neil MacGregor’s new book published by Penguin Books to accompany the exhibition Germany: memories of a nation (until 25 Jan 2015).
When Hitler first came to power in 1933 he was appalled that German car ownership was so low. Motorising Germany, the Nazis decided, should be a key policy. It would show the strength of the regime, as well, of course, as keeping people happy, and providing that Germany was a match for the United States. So Hitler told Ferdinand Porsche to design a robust, easy-to-maintain, reliable car which could be mass-produced for a nation that had very little spare cash. It was to be called the Volkswagen, the ‘People’s Car’. Bernhard Rieger, UCL, has written its history. This is an excerpt from his book The People’s Car:
‘Porsche, who secured almost unlimited funds for this design project, set to work, and the result was the car that we now know as the Beetle. It was a high-quality design. It was air-cooled and very sturdy, so you could park it outside. Before the Second World War, the car was never produced. The Nazis put together a vast factory in Wolfsburg, but production never happened because the outbreak of the war prevented it. Had production taken place, however, it would have been an economic disaster, because Hitler on one occasion simply sat down and said, “We will make this car available for under 1,000 Reichsmark.” This was basically a symbolic price, nobody had ever done the sums, and once they started doing the sums in the Third Reich, all the managers effectively had a nervous breakdown, because they all knew it would be economically ruinous.’
It was in fact the British who first produced Beetles after the end of the Second World War, for their occupation forces. But no British manufacturer was interested in taking it over. But when the factory was handed back to the Germans, all the elements of the German engineering narrative came together. Out of the economic, social and political wreckage of the failed Nazi state, the new West German democracy, with its new currency, the Deutsche-mark, painstakingly rebuilt its old reputation for quality and innovation, and nowhere more so than in the motor industry. It is a development that was due in large measure to the West German government’s insistence on recreating the apprenticeship system – for no fewer than 342 different trades – to ensure the highest possible industrial standards, whatever the product.
We think now of the Beetle as the archetypal German car, which in many ways it was. But it was more than that. It was part of the post-war economic miracle, the Wirtschaftswunder, and it was the new face of the new Germany – democratic, peaceful, part of the new comity of Western nations.
See a 1953 Volkswagen Beetle Export Type I in the Great Court, part of the exhibition Germany: memories of a nation.
You can also see how the Beetle was installed in the Great Court in this short video: