Nazi past casts shadow over Ferdinand Porsche in his Czech hometown

Home town divided over honoring VW Beetle designer, who was in the SS and used slave labour

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 4:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 5:32am

The name Porsche has long made sports-car enthusiasts swoon, but the Nazi past of the famous brand's founder has left his Czech hometown divided over his legacy.

In 2010, Vratislavice opened a memorial to Ferdinand Porsche, who invented the Volkswagen beetle and, in 1898, the first petrol-electric hybrid.

German-based Porsche loaned cars to the memorial to help show off their founder's engineering genius.

Town officials, meanwhile, put up signs reading "welcome to Vratislavice, the birthplace of Ferdinand Porsche".

Not all in this town of nearly 8,000 residents northeast of Prague felt comfortable trumpeting their native son, however.

Last year, a new council could no longer ignore growing protests that Vratislavice, which is in an area annexed by Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, was "memorialising" a man who had worked for Adolf Hitler.

Anti-Nazi war veterans and the Jewish community objected to the facility never mentioning Porsche's Nazi connections, mayor Ales Preisler said.

They condemned Porsche for joining the Nazi SS before the war, and deplored that prisoners of war were used as slave labour at the Volkswagen car plant in Wolfsburg, Germany when Porsche was general manager.

Porsche was an active Nazi who was on very good terms with Hitler ...
Historian Jan Vajskebr

To ease tensions, the council last year renamed the memorial an "exhibition" and added a text saying Porsche had been a Nazi.

The Porsche company, meanwhile, took back its cars but dismissed the controversy, saying it was a "local issue".

"All vehicles in our collection are rotated on a regular basis," was the only explanation given by Porsche spokesman Dieter Landenberger who declined further comment. The facility has been empty since.

About the same time, the town hall removed the signs naming Vratislavice as Porsche's birthplace.

"These things should not be financed using municipal cash," Preisler said, adding Porsche "was a Nazi all right".

Porsche was born in 1875 into the predominantly ethnic German community in Vratislavice, when it was known as Maffersdorf and part of the Habsburg's Austro-Hungarian empire. He left at 18, moving first to Vienna then later to Germany.

His talent for designing engines and cars saw him climb company ranks at renowned carmakers including Austro-Daimler and Mercedes.

When Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, he was quick to ask Porsche to design a "people's car", the predecessor of the VW Beetle.

"Porsche was an active Nazi who was on very good terms with Hitler and used this relationship to push his projects," said Jan Vajskebr, a historian at the Czech Terezin Memorial located in a second world war ghetto and prison. The Nazis set up the site, often known by its German name Theresienstadt, from where tens of thousands of Jews were sent to Auschwitz.

Encouraged by Hitler, Porsche gave up his Czech citizenship in 1935, four years before the Nazis occupied his country.

"He didn't hesitate three seconds," Preisler said.

The engineer spent 22 months in prison after the war and died in 1951, leaving the business to his son Ferry who in turn gained fame with models such as the Porsche 911.

Four years after Porsche's death, the millionth Beetle rolled off the production line.

In all, about 23 million of the vehicles have been built, making the model one of the best-selling cars ever.

Despite the controversy, car collector Milan Bumba, a bus driver, is setting up his own Porsche museum at a brewery, where he already has three Porsches, a 1956 Beetle and a Porsche tractor.

"Porsche had no choice," Bumba, 54 said. "Hitler chose him and if Porsche had refused, he would have ended up in a concentration camp and never achieved anything."