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The "People’s Car" on New Paths (January 29, 1948)

In 1938, the National Socialists began building a large car manufacturing plant near Wolfsburg. The factory was supposed to produce the affordable “Volkswagen,” or “People’s Car,” for the masses. After the factory was built, however, the National Socialists decided to use it for armaments production. At the end of the war, the British military government took over the administration of the factory, and, in 1946, it began producing the “VW Käfer,” or “VW Beetle,” for its own needs. This report by Zeit editor Josef Müller-Marein (who used the penname Jan Molitor) commemorated the production of the twenty-thousandth Volkswagen in January 1948. The article illuminated, above all, the workers’ aloof attitude toward both their factory’s checkered past and their current work.

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The “People’s Car” on New Paths

A celebratory visit? Of course, the twenty-thousandth Volkswagen produced since the end of the war was on its way. Reason enough to pay some attention to the event! And so the twenty-thousandth car, black as coal, was polished to a fine shine. This made the little car look much statelier than its peers, which, in their greenish-gray uniforms, stood in front of it and behind it on the “conveyor belt” in the huge assembly hall.

The “assembly belt” does what it is supposed to do: it assembles. On the rear wall of the hall, where it begins, the car’s steel frame is placed on the belt: it then paddles away at a snail’s pace. “A stream flowed by and carried me along,” the frame could say. But it would be an exercise in empty wordplay to pretend this image sprang from a fairy tale, and to get carried away, perhaps to the point of comparing the men who are standing on the right and the left to fisherman on the bank of the stream. They are workers, hunched-over, rushed, hungry workers. They have wrenches and hammers in their hands and are putting wheels on the steel frame. And the assembly belt moves.

Now the engine is mounted. (The engines – hung like hams at the butcher’s shop in peace time – come swaying along at head level, fastened to a running streamlet that flows into the stream.) Soon the moment arrives when the body – the one polished to a shine – is clapped on. Bundles of cable are pulled. And the assembly belt moves. Even to laymen’s eyes, the celebrated object is already recognizable as a car. Its engine takes a deep breath inside the body and begins to shift into neutral.

Just listen: the spiffy child can already honk – the first cry! But the giant hall is not a spirited maternity ward. These births are all carried out with pliers, hammer, and screws. And there is so much noise that one can barely hear the voice of the man who is giving a celebratory speech at the end of the “conveyor belt” at the very moment when the polished black car is supposed to take its first steps. Incidentally, a triumphal arch has been set up at the end of the assembly belt. Its inscription makes clear that this is the twenty-thousandth. Hail to thee!

Now the man at the foot of the arch – what should he say? The usual, of course, the usual. But when he gets to the point where he thanks everyone who “has made this great factory [Werk] possible” (that’s more or less what he said), you see the workers nudging and winking at each other. That’s because it’s not that easy to give a speech at the Volkswagen plant near Fallersleben, where countless hollow phrases once resounded! Who made this factory possible? You automatically think that it was the same person who made the rubble in all the cities possible as well. (And the Volkswagen plant, too, is about half destroyed on the inside, despite the fact that its kilometer-long façade along Mittelland Canal is splendidly preserved.) Or you wonder if this word Werk* simply refers to this black car and its greenish-gray predecessors? It was all made possible by the occupation authorities, who also kept all of the cars produced at the factory for themselves, with few exceptions. But thanks?

Alas, there was not much of a party atmosphere to be felt here. A few workers – though they had been told that something was about to happen – did not take a single step toward the arch. They said: “Not a step! There’s no flower pot to be won, and it doesn’t exactly smell like a holiday roast, either!” They used the brief break, which was intended to be festive, to fold their arms a little. And since they were not listening, they did not hear the speaker say: Until now, the colleagues in the Volkswagen plant had been quiet and had done their duty, but given the food situation, they wouldn’t be quiet much longer and keep working calmly as before . . . Then the celebrated car with the number “20,000” on its license plate rolled off the assembly line. The crowd at the arch dissolved. The machines screeched, hammered, hissed – utterly determined to get to the next 20,000 Volkswagens. No trumpet blared, no fanfare resounded.

* In addition to factory, Werk can also mean work or achievement – trans.

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