Volkswagen’s Nazi-Era Blood Crimes

Volkswagen’s Nazi-Era Blood Crimes

Its executives—not Nazi officials—oversaw the murder of hundreds of infants of slave laborers.


Wolfsburg, in Lower Saxony, located in the northwestern quadrant of Germany, is a bright, low-slung industrial city of 125,000, with the sort of modern look of curvilinear roofs and Cubist glass architecture that qualified as futuristic in the 1950s. The main attraction is a vast, open-air museum dedicated to automobiles, aptly titled the Autostadt, that attracts 2 million visitors a year. The skyline is broken only by four tall, dark- reddish smokestacks. “Wolfsburg” is actually an alias. Once upon a time, the city was called Stadt des KdF-Wagens bei Fallersleben: the “City of the Strength Through Joy Car at Fallersleben,” Fallersleben being the nearest town. The car is better known as the Volkswagen, Adolf Hitler’s “people’s car,” and Wolfsburg is still the company’s headquarters and home of its main factory—the largest single auto factory in the world. These days, Wolfsburg is rightfully wracked with anxiety, as the company is embroiled in a massive scandal over rigging its vehicles’ emissions devices to report less pollution than the cars actually belch. The inescapable conclusion is that Volkswagen housed crooks.

About five miles northeast of Wolfsburg lies the village of Rühen. With a population of just 5,000, it’s as small, green, and bucolic as Wolfsburg is sprawling, gray-white, and industrial. It is the quintessence of German quaintness. But this, too, is something of an illusion. Rühen is closely linked to Wolfsburg and to Volkswagen. This calm and pastoral village is the place where Volkswagen’s original sin occurred, the place where it engaged in blood crimes rather than emissions cheating, the place where, almost inconceivably, its executives proved even more reprehensible than the local Nazi Gauleiters.

Then and now, no one seemed to care very much what happened in Rühen in the final years of World War II. Volkswagen, for all its alleged postwar rehabilitation, seemed to care least of all, neither acknowledging its guilt over what happened there nor making any effort to provide compensation for the victims. When, in 1999, those victims, now aged, finally filed a class-action suit against the company—a suit that received four brief paragraphs in The New York Times, and that would have received no attention at all were it not for a CBS News investigation—the case was resolved as part of a larger agreement. . But court records from that suit (which was filed in a US court under international law because the bar for a lawsuit in Germany was too high), as well as the records from an earlier British war-crimes tribunal held in Helmstedt in 1946 that tried several of the company’s employees for “killing by willful neglect,” show that Volkswagen was not innocent. Its executives—not Nazi officials—oversaw the murder of hundreds of infants. Its executives were killers.

* * *

It’s usually impossible to cite the exact moment when a city was born, but Wolfsburg sprang into existence on July 1, 1938, when the Volkswagen factory opened there. Hitler attended the cornerstone-laying ceremony and made design suggestions for the car itself. But before Volkswagen’s Beetles could be mass-produced, Germany declared war, and the factory was refitted to make tanks and weapons. As the war continued, a problem arose: With so many Germans conscripted into the army, it became difficult to find a workforce. As the company’s foundries expanded to serve the war effort, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, the president of Volkswagen and a member of the Nazi Party and the SS, made a suggestion to Hitler: use conscript labor from Eastern Europe. In a letter dated January 11, 1942, Hitler personally signed off on the request, ordering the Reichsführer-SS and head of the German police to “provide the workforce from the concentration camps.” And he ordered that it be done “immediately.”

According to historical records, as early as June 1940 Volkswagen had already begun using forced labor. German historian Ulrich Herbert has documented in his 1997 book Hitler’s Foreign Workers that, at times, as much as 70 percent of the company’s workforce was conscripted, primarily from Eastern Europe. Basically, these workers were slaves, given just a pittance to live on. But Volkswagen subscribed fully to the Nazi racialist theories that categorized non-Aryans as subhuman—and, like the Nazis themselves, it had a pecking order, which factory director Hans Mayr later outlined for Allied war-crimes investigators. Scandinavians were treated slightly better and got better rations than Poles, and Poles, in turn, received better treatment and rations than Russians. (By this time, Jews were regarded as so inferior that those not sent to the death camps were worked to death in the factories.) Still, according to the investigators, even with the laborers subsisting on near-starvation rations, Volkswagen officials would steal food from the kitchen and either eat it themselves or sell it back to the conscripts. Mayr disclaimed any responsibility on the part of himself or the company by telling the investigators, “You know these Russians; they would plunder anyhow.”

But there was something else about Wolfsburg that was notable. Because of the scarcity of men as the war dragged on, many of the conscripts were young Polish and Russian women—an estimated 1,500 Poles and 4,000 to 5,000 Russians—whom the Nazis had brought to the factory. The case of Anna Snopczyk was typical. She was only 19 in May 1941, when she and her mother were carried off in a Nazi roundup in her Polish village. “When you walked down the street there, they would catch you,” Snopczyk later told CBS investigative correspondent Roberta Baskin. “They would immediately take you for forced labor.” Eventually, she was sent to the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, where she said that she “worked gluing the bombs.” But Snopczyk developed an allergy to the glue—the Volkswagen foremen wouldn’t let the women wash their hands until the end of the shift—and broke out in eczema, which necessitated transferring her to a farm near the factory. Though she was still a conscript and still technically under the control of Volkswagen, Snopczyk considered the farm an improvement over the factory. While there, she met a young Polish man who worked on a neighboring farm, and they fell in love and made plans to marry. Anna also became pregnant.

Until March 1943, the Nazis’ policy had been to repatriate pregnant foreign workers to their hometowns. But this was yet another instance where business executives proved even more callous than the Nazis. Fearful of losing able-bodied workers, the Volkswagen executives lobbied the Nazis to rescind the policy, and they succeeded. From that point on, SS head Heinrich Himmler, one of the architects of the Final Solution, instituted a new policy that revoked the permission to return, legalized abortions for Russian and Polish women as a form of population control, and set up nurseries for newborn infants so that their mothers could continue working. On February 11, 1945, Anna Snopczyk bore an infant son, whom she named Józef and baptized herself. She was still obligated to work on the farm, which meant that the child lay unattended throughout the day. Anna agonized for two weeks—until the wife of the farm’s owner suggested that she hand the child over to the nursery that Volkswagen maintained at a former prison camp in nearby Rühen. As Snopczyk later put it to Baskin, “There was no other way.”

The official company policy was for mothers to spend anywhere from nine to 14 days with their newborns before turning them over to Volkswagen’s custody. In reality, according to court filings, mothers and their children were usually separated after two or three days. Then the mothers would return to work, and they were only permitted to visit their babies thereafter by obtaining a police permit, which was highly restrictive.

When the nursery in Wolfsburg first opened, some mothers were allowed to breast-feed their babies after work. Once the nursery was moved to Rühen, that generally proved impossible. Still, Anna had every reason to believe that Józef would be cared for. The nursery’s name—Kinderheim, or “children’s home”—suggested a warm, comforting, protective environment. Moreover, Volkswagen provided doctors and a corps of nurses. As a nursery worker reported of one mother, she “has a lot of good feelings that her child would be taken care of.” Then she added ominously, “But this good feeling is short-lived.”

That’s because the Kinderheim wasn’t a nursery; nor was it warm, comforting, and protective. Instead, it consisted of two primitive, ramshackle wooden barracks with no amenities whatsoever. When Anna visited Józef in the evening, she was horrified. The purpose of the Kinderheim, she realized, was not to save the children but to kill them. And Volkswagen was not simply complicit; the company, not the Nazis, was the perpetrator of the murders.

The medical staff, which was hired by Volkswagen, made no effort to care for the children. According to the testimony at his war-crimes trial, the supervising physician, Dr. Hans Korbel, never examined the infants and only briefly visited the Kinderheim once a week. When one brave nurse, Hilda Lammer, protested to him about the conditions and the babies’ treatment, Korbel told her to mind her own business—and when Lammer persisted, she was threatened with being sent to a concentration camp. In truth, however, Lammer was a lonely voice; the other nurses had no more interest in saving the infants than Korbel did. When the mothers remonstrated with head nurse Ella Schmidt to close the windows to protect their babies—“thousands of times,” according to one—Schmidt refused. Another mother told the war-crimes tribunal that when she visited her baby, “it looked like it was going to die.” She begged the nurse to do something; instead, the nurse got mad and threw her out. The baby died later that day. A nurse named Kathe Pisters told the Kinderheim’s staff members that feeding the children was wasteful: “We will take care that not so many Russian and Polish children will grow up.”

* * *

But things were even worse than that. Volkswagen had a decision to make: save the children so that they could one day become slave laborers themselves, or kill them because, as Russians and Poles, they were racially inferior and deserved to die. Once Volkswagen chose the second course, there was still the matter of how the infants would be killed. One Nazi official from the Office for Welfare visited the Kinderheim in the summer of 1943 and wrote to Himmler about what he saw: “The present handling of the problem is appalling, in my opinion.” He cited the inadequate rations allotted to the infants—a half-liter of milk and one and a half sugar cubes per day each—and wrote that “there are ways to handle this without pain and suffering.” But Volkswagen, more cruel than indifferent, seemed determined not only to kill the children, but to do so in a way that inflicted grievous suffering. “The baby was merely tortured,” as one of the laborers who worked in the nursery put it.

Anna would later describe the scene she saw when she visited Józef after work. “In the evening, right away, the bugs would show up,” she told Baskin. “Cockroaches, beetles, they all came out. He had a green belly, so they must have added something to the food. When I would leave, he would cry.” Mother after mother complained of the same conditions to the war-crimes investigators. One said that she’d turned her child over to the Kinderheim, “in spite of my being at a loss and in an inconsolable grief,” then went to see him that evening. “I noticed that he was bitten by bugs so badly that his little face was all bloodstained. I couldn’t do anything to relieve the suffering of my child but watch stealthily over him and weep seeing the unlimited misery of those human beings.” One investigator found that each baby had dozens of sores from bug bites; one witness testified that insects crawled over the crying infants all night and that the walls, floors, and beds were “alive” with vermin, bedbugs, flies, and lice.

The neglect was everywhere: infants dumped together on beds and bathed 10 to 15 at a time in the same contaminated water, then dried with the same towel; diapers unchanged; windows left open to admit the frigid blasts of winter; sores and infections untended. The stench was unbearable. Not only were the children exposed to insects and cold and infection; they were slowly and systematically being starved to death—“rotting away with each passing day,” as Lammer put it to investigators. The children weren’t fed from 7 pm to 4:30 am—and when they were, the rations were insufficient and often spoiled, the milk too cold for infants to drink. The formula given to babies younger than three months was unpotable. And when a child was too ill to take a bottle, Nurse Pisters, according to testimony, would advise the staff to stop feeding the child and leave it to die.

Mothers were understandably panicked. Some tried to smuggle their infants out of the Kinderheim in handbags; one slipped her son out a window. Others tried to breast-feed them, but Schmidt would have them removed from the premises. Even so, all of the mothers were charged “health insurance” to pay for their children’s upkeep.

The death toll mounted, with as many as 30 children dying every month—until the end, when the number of deaths rose to 60 in the worst months. In the early days of the Wolfsburg Kinderheim, the mortality rate, according to war-crimes investigators, was roughly 25 percent. After the nursery was relocated to Rühen, the death rate rose to 100 percent. Not one child—not even the infant whose mother sneaked him out through the window—was reported to have survived. Not one. The estimated toll was from 350 to 400 children. Although no autopsy was ever performed after a baby died (because the medical staff didn’t care), the primary cause of death was repeatedly listed as “too weak to live” or “feebleness of life”—a diagnosis that investigators called “unscientific and contemptuously casual.” Unrepentant to the end, Korbel placed the blame on the mothers themselves, insisting to war-crimes investigators that the women “bound their breasts” so that they wouldn’t have to feed their children, and that the real reason the infants died was because they were unwanted: “The pleasures of the sexual intercourse exceeded the desire to have a child.”

The agony these mothers suffered continued after the deaths of their babies. Anna Snopczyk received the news that 2-month-old Józef had died not from a Volkswagen official, but from the wife of the farmer to whom she was conscripted. Volkswagen then made her pay for the burial. But at least Anna was notified; others learned that their children had died only when they saw a deduction for burial from their small paychecks. “Burial,” too, was a misnomer: The dead infants weren’t really buried. They were wrapped in toilet paper and stacked in the nursery’s bathroom, where they would sometimes lie for days before being carted away by an undertaker, who might bury them together in a large cardboard box or just dump them into a mass grave without a marker. When a mother begged Schmidt to tell her where her child was buried, the head nurse flatly refused.

These were the crimes of the medical staff. But one might ask: Did Volkswagen executives know about the appalling neglect and high death rate at the Kinderheim? They knew. Several managers visited the nursery. The factory’s personnel director made inspections and knew of the deaths there. One employee testified to war-crimes investigators that factory director Hans Mayr visited “once or twice”; and Mayr, in his own sworn statement, admitted that he was “responsible for all incidents which [took] place in the plant,” including the nursery. It was impossible for him not to have seen the conditions or known about the deaths.

Testimony at the war-crimes tribunal also implicated Volkswagen itself. The company’s handpicked director of the nursery, Dr. Korbel, was convicted by the British Military War Crimes Court in June 1946, sentenced to death, and executed. Head nurse Ella Schmidt was also convicted and sentenced to death, but her sentence was commuted to eight years—after which, incredibly, she returned to Volkswagen as a social worker. As for Anna Snopczyk, she returned to Poland after the war, where she was living when the class-action suit was filed—a suit for which she became the face of the class: Snopczyk v. Volkswagen. She never married and would never bear another child. When asked by CBS’s Baskin if she still thought about Józef, Snopczyk replied, “I try not to think.”

That’s how Volkswagen would prefer it: that none of us think about the company’s blood crimes, that those crimes get lost in the mists of memory—and, frankly, that they had never been discovered in the first place. And that is almost certainly the way it would have been, if a local bureaucrat named Gustav Gruenhage hadn’t disobeyed orders to burn all the Kinderheim records as the Allied troops advanced. (He burned blank sheets of paper instead.)

But even with the records and the convictions, attorneys for the victims maintain, Volkswagen’s post-Nazi rehabilitation has never included a public acceptance of responsibility for the deaths at Wolfsburg and Rühen, a proactive effort to compensate the mothers for their loss, an attempt to memorialize the dead children, or even an expression of sympathy. When Anna Snopczyk sued the company on behalf of hundreds of mothers, Volkswagen managed to avoid a trial because the Kinderheim case was folded into a larger agreement on reparations that was negotiated with and paid for by the German government—without Volkswagen’s involvement. In short, Volkswagen never expunged its guilt. It has simply allowed the clock to run, hoping that as the mothers died, no one would be left to remember the company’s horrors.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy