2016-11-03 15:58:15
Volkswagen Parts Ways With the Historian Who Chronicled Its Nazi Past

BERLIN — Volkswagen has been struggling for a year to repair the damage caused by a scandal over its cover-up of diesel emissions, promising honesty and transparency. Now historians are accusing the company of reverting to secretive ways on a different subject: the Nazi past of German automakers.

Over the past 18 years, Volkswagen became something of a pioneer in revealing the company’s employment of thousands of forced laborers during World War II. But it has abruptly parted ways with the company historian who helped make that possible.

When the historian’s contract abruptly ended this week, an angry open letter signed by 75 prominent German academics accused Volkswagen of a vindictive punishment. The historian, Manfred Grieger, and the company have declined to comment on the circumstances behind his departure, citing a mutual agreement to end his contract.

But the mystery over precisely why Mr. Grieger left — and whether he was dismissed — has complicated Volkswagen’s effort to regain public trust, and risks stirring up a dark chapter in company history.

The apparent catalyst for Mr. Grieger’s departure was his critical review almost a year ago of a 518-page study of the World War II labor practices of Audi, a VW subsidiary. The review — and the study, published in 2014 — gained scant attention until a leading German business weekly, Wirtschaftswoche, mentioned both in late August.

“Just this brief discussion in an academic journal then led to talk that Grieger be put on a short leash and limited in his academic freedom, which in turn led the prominent historian to leave,” according to the open letter from the historians. It expressed doubt that the company would continue to pursue other inquiries into its past, in particular over allegations of collaboration with the military leaders of Brazil in the 1970s.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, Volkswagen strongly denied that Mr. Grieger had been dismissed, or that his separation signaled a changing approach.

“The fact is that Volkswagen continues to recognize the achievements of Dr. Grieger and to thank him for the work performed,” the statement read. “Furthermore, the fact is that Volkswagen has examined its history as an enterprise consistently, honestly and strongly, and will continue to do so.”

Mr. Grieger was a co-author of an exhaustive study published in 1996 that exposed how Volkswagen had made extensive use of forced labor during World War II, when its factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, produced an array of weapons and military equipment.

The book, more than 1,000 pages by Mr. Grieger and another historian, Hans Mommsen, was financed by Volkswagen at a time when many German companies were coming to terms with their roles during the Nazi era.

But Volkswagen may have gotten more truth than it had anticipated. The book also uncovered embarrassing information about the Porsche and Piëch families, who since 2012 have owned a majority of the carmaker’s voting stock.

The Wolfsburg factory, still Volkswagen’s main manufacturing center, was originally a Nazi prestige project built under the supervision of Ferdinand Porsche, designer of the car that later became famous as the Beetle. The factory produced military goods including land mines, parts for rockets fired at British cities, hand-held anti-tank weapons and a Jeep-like vehicle known as the Kübelwagen.

Volkswagen was especially dependent on workers press-ganged from occupied countries or borrowed from concentration camps, including Auschwitz, because it was a new company with a limited work force of its own.

While conditions at the factory were slightly better than in the concentration camps, inmates were overseen by SS guards and were poorly fed and frequently beaten or shot for minor infractions. Children born to forced laborers were taken away and housed in a squalid nursery overseen by an SS doctor, where 365 of the infants died.

Hartmut Berghoff, a professor at the Institute of Economic and Social History at the Georg-August University in Göttingen, was the driving force behind the open letter challenging Volkswagen over Mr. Grieger’s departure. He said it showed a tone-deafness similar to the company’s initial approach to the emissions scandal. “Transparency in reacting to the public is not really the strength of VW,” Mr. Berghoff said in a telephone interview.

In its statement, Volkswagen said the company regretted that Mr. Berghoff had not responded to its offer of talks on the matter, which a spokesman, Eric Felber, said had been made last week.

Mr. Berghoff said an email from Volkswagen had gone into his spam folder, so he learned of the offer too late before the academics’ letter appeared.

He questioned whether Volkswagen officials respected Mr. Grieger’s work. “Why then did they part with him?” he asked.

The 75 historians are not the only people upset by Mr. Grieger’s departure. Last week, a former Volkswagen board member and workers’ representative, Walter Hiller, described it as “a scandal.”

And on Tuesday, two more historians specializing in the behavior of German companies during the Nazi era issued a sharp rebuke on the website of Wirtschaftswoche, the business weekly. By parting with Mr. Grieger, they said, Volkswagen was “disposing of an enlightener.”

It all shows “clearly how communication has gone awry at the top of VW,” said the historians, Lutz Budrass of Ruhr-University Bochum and Mark Spoerer from the University of Regensburg.

In his review of the study of Audi’s past, Mr. Grieger criticized the authors as having played down the company’s cooperation with the Nazis and its employment of forced laborers.

After publication of his landmark book, “Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich” (The Volkswagen Works and Its Workers During the Third Reich), Mr. Grieger oversaw the Volkswagen company archives. He made them freely available to researchers and journalists — a surprising decision at a company long known for caution about what information it makes public.

During World War II, Mr. Porsche oversaw construction and management of the factory with help from his son-in-law, Anton Piëch. Mr. Piëch’s son Hans Michel Piëch is currently a member of the Volkswagen supervisory board. Another son, Ferdinand Piëch, is a former Volkswagen chief executive who remains a major shareholder.

At the end of World War II, according to Mr. Mommsen and Mr. Grieger, Anton Piëch commanded a unit of the so-called Volkssturm, a poorly armed citizens’ militia ordered to make a last-ditch defense against invading Allies.

After leading his Volkssturm troops to the front, according to Mr. Grieger’s and Mr. Mommsen’s book, Mr. Piëch retreated to the Porsche family estate in Austria. He took about 10 million Reichsmarks of company funds, worth about $1 million at the time, according to the book.

The family used the money to revive the family engineering bureau, which later evolved into Porsche, the sports car maker, according to the book. The family said that Volkswagen had owed the bureau the funds for work that had been performed.

Ferdinand Porsche and Anton Piëch were held by the Allies for nearly two years after the German surrender, but were never charged with war crimes. Mr. Porsche died in 1951 and Mr. Piëch in 1952.