Fallersleben (Wolfsburg), Lower Saxony May 26, 1938

On this date in 1938 near Fallersleben in the German state of Lower Saxony, Chan­cellor Adolf Hitler and Nazi dig­ni­taries laid the foun­dat­ion stone for the KdF-Wagen car fac­tory. The state-owned fac­tory was placed under the umbrella of the Nazi Party’s German Labor Front (Deutsche Arbeits­front, or DAF), the national labor orga­ni­za­tion that ran the “Strength Through Joy” prog­ram, or Kraft durch Freude pro­gram. The pro­gram’s ini­tials, KdF, bequeathed the car com­pany, its four-wheel pro­duct (namely, the “wagen”), and the com­pany town near Fallers­leben their first names. Bombed and shelled by the Allies in World War II, the fac­tory avoided whole­sale destruc­tion, emerging as Volks­wagen (literally, “people’s car”) in what is today’s Wolfs­burg. Cer­tainly, the most famous vehicle pro­duced by Volks­wagen was its iconic Beetle, or “Bug” as it was com­monly called in the United States. Pro­duc­tion of the Beetle only halted in 2019 following manu­fac­turing restart in 1945, the year the VW plant was trans­ferred to the British mili­tary government. (Fallers­leben and the adjacent com­pany town, Stadt des KdF-Wagens, founded July 1, 1938, were renamed Wolfs­burg to honor a nearby medieval castle. The fac­tory, the worker settle­ment, and the Arbeits­dorf con­cen­tra­tion camp were located in the British zone of Allied occu­pa­tion.) On August 22, 1945, the British ordered 20,000 Beetles for its military.

The Beetle’s origin lay in the 1920s and ’30s. Con­trary to popular thinking, a pro­lific Austro-Hun­garian inven­tor and engi­neer named Béla Barényi is credited with having con­ceived the basic design for a small, inex­pen­sive, rear-engine car during the mid-twenties. In 1933 Ferdi­nand Porsche, the well-known Aus­trian-born designer of high-end vehicles and race cars who for years had been trying to get a manu­fac­turer to make a small car suit­able for a family, used many cur­rent ideas and several of his own to build a car from scratch. Porsche’s aero­dy­namic beetle-shaped “Volks­auto,” officially known as the Type 1, had a fuel-effi­cient, rear-mounted air-cooled engine that shrugged off freezing German temperatures.

In 1934 Hitler approached Porsche as he and his design team finessed the Type 1 and successor models. The new chan­cellor ordered the pro­duction of a basic vehicle whose engine would be power­ful enough to traverse Germany’s future Auto­bahns, plus was capable of trans­porting two adults and three chil­dren at 100 km/h (62 mph). He envi­sioned a car every German family could afford. His ver­sion of the “People’s Car” would be avail­able through a type of savings scheme known as a Spar­kasse for a modest 990 Reichs­mark (equiv­a­lent to $396 in 1938)—this was about the price of a small German motor­cycle! Because he could, Hitler did an end run around reluc­tant private car­makers by setting up a state-owned com­pany to pro­duce cars based on Porsche’s designs using the pro­ceeds from people buying and then pasting 5RM stamps into their Spar­karten (savings book­lets) (see image below). Sadly for holders of com­pleted saving stamp books, with one exception, not a single KdF-Wagen was deliv­ered into their hands. The sole recip­i­ent was Hitler, who acquired a Type 1 conver­tible on his 55th birthday, April 20, 1944.

World War II changed KdF-Wagen’s civilian produc­tion to mili­tary pro­duc­tion for the Wehr­macht—the Type 82 Kuebel­wagen (“Bucket car”) utility vehicle (the pre-produc­tion model was tested during the 1939 inva­sion of Poland) and the amphib­ious Type 166 Schwimm­wagen became VW’s most com­mon war­time models. As was common­place with much of war­time pro­duc­tion in Nazi Germany, slave and civil­ian forced labor was essen­tial to running the KdF-Wagen plant. In 1998 VW admitted that its pre­de­ces­sor com­pany employed 15,000 slave laborers during the war. German his­to­rians esti­mate that a full 80 per­cent of Volks­wagen’s war­time work­force com­prised slave labor. Many former slaves reported that VW plant mana­gers reached out to the local Arbeits­dorf con­cen­tra­tion camp (a sub­camp of Neuen­gamme con­cen­tra­tion camp near the port of Ham­burg), three other con­cen­tra­tion camps (including Auschwitz), and eight forced labor camps to fill its labor force.

Volkswagen: The War Years, 1939–1945

Cornerstone laid for Volkswagen Beetle factoryVolkswagen Beetle image imposed on savings booklet in ad

Left: On May 26, Nazi dignitaries and guests gathered near Fallers­leben in Northern Germany to lay the foun­da­tion stone for what we now call the Volks­wagen Works. The Fueh­rer delivered the key­note address, pre­dic­ting that this People’s Car, ini­ti­ally known as the Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen, or KdF-Wagen, would be “a sym­bol of the National Socialist peo­ple’s com­mu­nity.” (In the row of guests behind Hitler, holding a dark hat in his hands, is Ferdi­nand Porsche.) The plant even­tu­ally became a mas­sive com­plex known as the “City of the KdF-Car” (“Stadt der KdF-Wagen”) and was pro­jected to produce at least 1.5 mil­lion cars annually. In reality, the plant had only just started small-scale pro­duc­tion of what we call today the Volks­wagen Beetle when the com­pany halted civil­ian pro­duc­tion and con­verted to manu­fac­turing mili­tary hard­ware at the start of World War II. Some Beetles con­tinued to be pro­duced but were reserved for military officials.

Right: It was far beyond the ability of the typical wage earner to pur­chase a car, even one as rea­son­ably priced as the KdF-Wagen. (Average German income was around 32 Reichs­mark a week.) Dues-paying mem­bers of Germany’s only labor union, the DAF, could hardly be expected to fund setting up a car factory to meet the pre­dicted order num­bers. So Hitler and the Nazis offered the car to peo­ple under a savings scheme known as KdF-Wagen Spar­karte (“savings book­let”). The Spar­karte contained 4 cards, each with spaces for 50 stamps. One stamp repre­sented the 5 Reichs­mark paid into the savings scheme. Citi­zens were encouraged to con­tri­bute this amount every week, although they could buy more stamps if they could afford it. Because the car had a price tag of 990 Reichs­mark, savers needed 198 stamps to be eligible to take pos­ses­sion of their car. At 5 Reichs­mark per week, it would have taken about three years and nine months to fill all the cards.Still, around 336,000 indi­vid­uals bought into the savings plan. The car-producing fac­tory itself never became com­mer­cially viable, and only govern­ment inter­ven­tion and the onset of a global war kept it afloat. As for citizens who had reli­giously filled their savings books with the requi­site number of stamps, they never received their cars.

Volkswagen Beetle becomes utility Kuebelwagen, Eastern Front 1943Volkswagen Beetle becomes amphibious Schwimmwagen, France 1944

Left: A German Type 82 Kuebelwagen (literally, tub or bucket car) on the Eastern Front during Germany’s Opera­tion Cita­del, June 21, 1943. Full-scale pro­duc­tion of the Type 82 Kuebel­wagen started in Feb­ru­ary 1940, as soon as VW fac­tories become oper­a­tional. This was over a year before Willys and Ford began delivering Jeeps to the U.S. Army in the spring of 1941. Based on the plat­form of the civil­ian Volks­wagen Beetle, the Kuebel­wagen was sur­prisingly use­ful, reli­able, and dur­able as a mili­tary vehicle. No major changes took place before Kuebel­wagen pro­duc­tion ended in 1945, and only small modi­fi­ca­tions were ever imple­mented. Proto­type ver­sions were assem­bled with four-wheel-drive (Type 86) and dif­fer­ent engines, but none offered a signif­i­cant increase in per­for­mance or capa­bility over the existing Type 82. When pro­duc­tion ceased at the end of the war, 50,435 Kuebelwagen vehicles had been built.

Right: German officers are seen saluting each other on a road somewhere in France in this photograph taken in 1944 by “Kriegsberichter Koll,” a mem­ber of the Propa­gan­da­kom­pa­nie der Wehr­macht. The most numer­ous mass-produced amphib­ious car in his­tory, the Schwimm­wagen (literally, “swim­ming car”) was a four-wheel-drive vehicle used exten­sively by German ground forces during World War II. It entered full-scale pro­duc­tion as the Type 166 in 1941. The Schwimm­wagen had a top speed of 10 km/h (6 mph) in the water. Steering was done using the steering wheel both on land and in water. Some 15,584 Schwimm­wagen were built from 1941 through 1944: 14,276 at Fallers­leben (Stadt des KdF-Wagens) and 1,308 at Porsche’s facil­i­ties in Stutt­gart. The bodies (or rather hulls) were fabricated in Berlin.

The Rise and Fall of the Volkswagen Beetle