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.
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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.”