In the current climate of reflecting on history and exposing so-called, ‘heroes’ for their, often, not talked about dark sides, is it time the automotive world did the same?
Whichever side of the argument you stand on for pulling down statues of once celebrated historical figures, it certainly gets you thinking and it got me thinking about Ferdinand Porsche. Some of you may not know about his dark past and his involvement with the Nazi party but read on and I’ll give you the facts for you to make your own decision. Is it poor taste for his name to be emblazoned on a car? Or has his dark side been overshadowed by the good he did by providing a platform for the beetle to kick start a war-torn German economy?
A Brief Background
Born in 1875 in Austria-Hungary, Ferdinand Porsche was a talented mechanic and engineer from an early age, attending the imperial technical school in Reichenberg and working with his father in his mechanic shop. He progressed on to work for the likes of the Jakob Lohner & Company, Austro-Daimler, Daimler-Benz and Steyr Automotive before founding his own consulting firm.
It was in 1934 that he received a contract from Adolf Hitler to design a people’s car (Volkswagen) with the first two prototypes being finished by 1935. This design went on to be adapted for war use, turning the civilian beetle into the Kubelwagen and Schwimmwagen built at Fallersleben. This factory had only 10% of its workforce being German nationals and the rest made up of forced labour groups of soviet POW’s and Jews. The facility later became a subcamp of the larger Neuengamme concentration camp that, within its control, housed eight forced labour camps and 4 concentration camps.
In 1937 Porsche applied for German citizenship and joined the National Socialist Worker’s Party, along with gaining membership of the SS (Schutzstaffel) of which he reached the rank of SS-Oberfuhrer (which translates in English as, ‘senior leader’). He was a recipient of the SS-Ehrenring, a personal award of Holocaust architect Heinrich Himmler and the War Merit Cross.
In 1942, he designed the VK 4901 P, a heavy tank that was not selected for production but the 90 prototypes that had been made, were converted into Elefant specification. These were known as ‘the Ferdinand’ and were used by the Panzerjager unit for hunting and destroying tanks. The 65-tonne vehicle was armed with an 88mm anti-tank gun which was accurate to 3km and a 7.92mm MG34 machine gun. The Ferdinand saw service on the Russian front, proving deadly with a 10:1 kill ratio and one quote even suggesting 320 kills for only 16 losses.
After the War
With the war over and the allies victorious, Ferdinand Porsche spent 22 months in prison and died in 1951. It could be argued that being so heavily involved in the Nazi party, even before the outbreak of war, he should have attended the Nuremberg trials and let the law decide whether his actions required further punishment. Instead, he left his business to his son. From here we are all familiar with how the company grew from strength to strength leaving a legacy in both road and racing cars that are quite possibly unmatched.
Volkswagen and Porsche were not alone with Nazi links and forced labour involvement, Mercedes, BMW and Auto Union (the predecessor to Audi) were all involved in some way. Mercedes and Auto Union Grand Prix cars actually wore Swastikas before the war and received funding from the Nazi government. Hitler wanted the world to know German engineering was the best and saw motorsport as a great advertisement.
What are Your Thoughts?
I think there’s a lot to be said about the residents from Porsche’s home town of Vratislavice, who’ve pushed against the town welcome signs referring to the birthplace of Ferdinand Porsche. A private exhibition celebrating his life and engineering career was opened in the town, where Porsche themselves loaned cars for the display but subsequently withdrew from the event, after a dispute with locals wishing to highlight his Nazi past. The exhibition was closed soon after.
I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this potentially touchy subject, as Porsche has a passionate and global following. Would you avoid purchasing a Porsche due to their history? Or did you already know much of this and feel it should be left in the past? Would a rebranding and the removal of the Porsche name be respectful to those affected by his actions? Or should the man be celebrated for his incredible engineering work rather than his political views? I’d also love to know how many of you go out of your way to research the history of the car manufacturers you own, does a story behind a brand make it more interesting and potentially more trustworthy?
Finally, I’m writing this to get people thinking and maybe share something that people didn’t know before. It’s down to you, the reader, to decide how you feel about what you’ve just read and whether it will affect your choices going forward. My personal opinion on Porsche, is that the company should have been rebranded while he was in prison after the war. Changing the name to something that removed the personal link with Ferdinand, would have allowed the focus to be on the sublime engineering and the craftsmanship skills of the employees rather than a potential war criminal.
There are many other car companies out there who have a dark side to their story, such as Mitsubishi and their relation to the Japanese war effort. If you enjoyed reading this blog, join the conversation and let me know if you would like me to dig deeper into the history of other manufacturers!