Dictators Get All the Credit
What is it about strong-armed dictators, Buzzkillers? Despite the horrors they inflicted on their own people and people of other cultures and countries, there’s always a “but.” The “but” is usually followed by some achievement they had in the practical matters of national life, as if only dictators can really get stuff done.
“Mussolini was a fascist nut-job, but he made the trains run on time,” is a common one. We busted that myth a few episodes ago. “Stalin brutally collectivized agriculture, but greatly boosted the food supply.” Nope. And one of the most troubling is “Hitler may have been a genocidal maniac and the worst person who ever lived, but he created the Volkswagen.” Variations include that he “designed” or “invented” the Volkswagen.
You guessed it, Buzzkillers, it’s a myth. But it’s a complicated myth because Hitler did push German automakers to put a “people’s car” into mass production, and they followed suit. So he had an important part in the overall story. But when it comes to “creating,” “inventing” or “designing,” the Volkswagen, his art school training just wasn’t enough when it came to sophisticated automobile engineering design and manufacturing.
Here’s what happened. When he came to power in 1933, Hitler re-invigorated the construction of the new Autobahn highway system that had been started in the mid-1920s. He also wanted extensive production of an affordable car that could carry a family, yet still be powerful enough to reach Autobahn speeds of 100kph (60mph). He met with Ferdinand Porsche in 1934 and convinced him to start producing such a car, calling it a “Volkswagen.”
The thing is, Porsche had already designed a “people’s car,” and built a prototype in 1931, before Hitler came to power. And the original design goes back to 1925, conceived by a young Hungarian-Austrian engineer and inventor named Béla Barényi (who also, more or less invented auto safety designs in vehicles). So the idea for a Volkswagen had been around for almost 10 years by the time Hitler met with Porsche. It is highly likely that Hitler knew that German automakers had developed the capability to produce such cars and that they had, in fact, built two prototypes.
Porsche designed and built his Type 12 car by 1931. Many of its design elements would appear in the eventual Volkswagen Type 1. Porsche’s next prototype was even closer to the idea of a people’s car, and looked even more like the eventual Volkswagen “Beetle.” (We’ve put a picture on the website.) In 1932, Porsche’s Type 32 rolled off the production line. It was this Type 32 that Porsche adapted to Hitler’s directives in 1934.
So the car design had been in the works for years, and Porsche had already begun building its “proto-Volkswagen” (the Type 32) by the time Hitler came to power. Hitler’s contribution to the Volkswagen was to put his government’s resources strongly behind it. He met with Ferdinand Porsche in 1934 and, essentially, asked him to build a car type that they had already been building.
Hitler’s role in the creation of the Volkswagen was important, but it was a political contribution, not a design one. He used his power to help the Volkswagen go into mass production. In a similar way, Al Gore pushed the idea of the internet through Senate committees and government agencies.
So, Buzzkillers, although Hitler didn’t invent Volkswagen technology, he cleared the political and economic pathways to make it a success. And that’s the last time I’ll ever mention Al Gore and Adolph Hitler in the same story.