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Books | A bug's life

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A review of The People's Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle, by Bernhard Rieger

Did Adolf Hitler invent the Volkswagen Beetle? The muddled connection between the Nazi Party and the world’s third most-manufactured automobile is clarified in The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle (Harvard University Press, $19.95).

Author Bernhard Rieger, a history professor at London’s University College, dedicates this new book to his Beetle-driving parents. Naturally, he would have liked to disprove the car’s skulking significance and corroborate self-serving stories told by the German and American media in the aftermath of World War II.

But scholarship affirms the twinned origins of a sickening political agenda and the saccharine children’s game of “punch buggy.”

Elected German Chancellor in 1933, Hitler’s goals -- aside from a mass ethnic cleansing –- included giving his self-selected citizenry access to a compact car.

Hitler idolized Henry Ford, the man behind the Model T and the assembly line, who was also an outspoken anti-Semite. Rieger writes, “As early as 1922, Ford’s portrait adorned Hitler’s private office in Munich.”

In 1934, Hitler assigned Ferdinand Porsche to create “the people’s car.” The main stipulation: the sturdy vehicle must retail for less than 1,000 reichsmarks (R₥). Immediately, Hitler dispatched Porsche to Detroit to canvass Ford’s factory.

“Hitler had little direct influence on the car’s design,” Reiger writes. “The prototype’s silhouette bore no resemblance to the pencil sketch the dictator probably made during a meeting with Porsche in 1934.”

I’d feared that the Führer had achieved the ultimate touché for his art school rejection by drawing the most iconic car of all time.

Porsche was certain no one could produce or sell said car for less than 1,000 R₥. Even after 170 million R₥ was allocated to fund a production plant and prototypes were publicized, Porsche neglected to divulge the financial predicament. He never had to -- the project was tabled when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.

At the war’s end, the Allies divided Germany into quarters and the first Beetles were produced under British supervision. Eventually, the car became a hit international export and an advertising darling.

Rieger introduces us to all the major characters in the Beetle legacy, including 90s-era Volkswagen CEO Ferdinand Piëch, Porsche's grandson, who helped launch the New Beetle in 1998. At this time, Volkswagen was producing several models, and the original Beetle was retired in 2003. Ten years later, a third, "more masculine" Beetle is hitting the highways.

You may feel better or worse about the Volkswagen brand after concluding The People's Car. I kept recalling how, about 15 years ago, women began to learn Africans might have died to obtain the stones in their cherished engagement rings, otherwise known as conflict diamonds or blood diamonds. The first time I heard a Beetle called " the Hitlermobile," I was shocked. But the association between the tyrannical leader and the "Love Bug" dilutes over the course of the book. I could see myself driving a Volkswagen someday.

Then again, I've never had a car, and I'd rather read about one than own one.

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Jenna Marotta

Columnist (Books)

Jenna Marotta is a party reporter for New York magazine and has written for their five blogs plus The Daily Beast, The A.V. Club, Jezebel, Nerve, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, and Chicago magazine. She is the books editor at SmartPlanet. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure