A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did Krups, Braun, and Mercedes-Benz make Nazi concentration camp ovens? Did Hitler name the Volkswagen?

September 29, 1991

Dear Cecil:

In my search for a new coffeemaker, a concerned friend advocated a boycott of both Braun and Krups brands because they were made by German companies that manufactured concentration camp crematoria in the 1930s and 40s. Can this be true? I'm drinking tea pending your reply. Also, did Adolf Hitler really name the Volkswagen?

— Yvonne Pelletier, Chicago

Dear Cecil:

Is it true Mercedes-Benz manufactured the ovens used in the Nazi death camps?

Cecil replies:

Not one of your more light-hearted questions, but what the heck, you ask, we answer. None of the companies mentioned built crematoria, but Daimler-Benz, maker of Mercedes-Benz cars, committed other crimes. Testimony at the Nuremburg war crimes trials suggests the ovens were mostly built by heating equipment manufacturers and such. The crematoria at Auschwitz were built by I.A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, those at Dachau and Lublin by C.H. Kori GmbH. A horrified spokesperson for Braun, a maker of small appliances bought by Gillette in 1967, assures me the firm's main business during the 1940s was electric shavers. Krups mostly made small household products like scales.

How Braun got dragged into this God knows. (Eva Braun?) Krups is probably being confused with the Krupp works, for many years the leading German munitions maker. (You've heard of Big Bertha, the giant cannon used by the Germans during World War I? It was named after Bertha Krupp, the wife of the family-owned firm's patriarch.) Krupp didn't make crematoria either, but it did use 100,000 slave laborers to make weapons at Auschwitz and other death camps. Boss Alfried Krupp was sentenced to 12 years for war crimes but was freed in 1951 — cynics say because the Korean War had just broken out and the U.S. needed Krupp's industrial might as a bulwark against the Reds. Its assets restored, Krupp again became a corporate giant and remains so today.

Krupp doesn't make consumer products but other former slave employers do. Daimler-Benz, for example. The firm avidly supported Nazism and in return received arms contracts and tax breaks that enabled it to become one of the world's leading industrial concerns. (Between 1932 and 1940 production grew by 830 percent.) During the war the company used thousands of slaves and forced laborers including Jews, foreigners, and POWs. According to historian Bernard Bellon (Mercedes in Peace and War, 1990), at least eight Jews were murdered by DB managers or SS men at a plant in occupied Poland. There was a report that Daimler-Benz built mobile poison gas vans, but this has never been corroborated and is doubtful.

Many big German companies used slaves during World War II. The most important was I.G. Farben, the German chemical monopoly. IGF had a substantial interest in one of the companies making Zyklon B, the poison used to gas the Jews. (The director of that company got five years; the heads of the other one were hanged.) The Allies ordered IGF broken up after the war but the pieces are still around, including such well known companies as Bayer and BASF.

I guess you could boycott the products of these firms, but you have to ask yourself how far you want to take this. Tom Fuchs, author of The Hitler Fact Book, notes that a major participant in the Holocaust was the German state railway system, whose management boasted of its efficiency in delivering the Jews to their murderers. Does that mean next time you tour Germany you walk?

As for the VW, Hitler didn't name it but there's no question he helped create it. Ferdinand Porsche had been working on a popularly priced "people's car" (whence "Volkswagen"). At a 1934 meeting Hitler told him to make the car an air-cooled four-seater with a streamlined shape "like a beetle." Your wish is mein command, said Ferd. Hitler announced the new car at the Berlin Auto Show. The Nazis sold VW "subscriptions" and a factory was built, but only a few cars were made before hostilities began. During the war the plant churned out V-1 buzz bombs and a Jeep-like vehicle of a design later sold in the U.S. as "The Thing." Only after the Nazi surrender did civilian VW production begin in earnest.

Ferdinand Porsche was long viewed as an unwilling participant in Hitler's war machine but a recent investigation suggests he and his company may have been in deeper than was previously thought. A five-year study by a team of German historians found that as much as 80 percent of VW's wartime workforce of 16,000 may have been slave laborers.

In 1991 the head of the investigative team, Bochum University history professor Hans Mommsen, declared at a symposium, "It's quite clear that Porsche was responsible for hiring concentration camp inmates for the factory's labor camp." Porsche contacted SS leader Heinrich Himmler directly to request slaves from Auschwitz, Mommsen said.

It should be noted that the investigation was commissioned by Volkswagen itself. The company has dedicated a stone memorial to the slave laborers at its headquarters in Wolfsburg, and I suppose we shouldn't hold current management responsible for crimes committed 50 years ago. But the whole business does put the funky Beetle of one's youth in a new light.

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