75 years ago, US troops liberated the Volkswagen factory in Germany

The plant used forced labor to build military vehicles; British began civilian production of VW Beetles

5
6035
volkswgen
VW Beetles were in full production by the end of the decade | Volkswagen archive photos

Seventy-five years ago, on April 11, 1945, US troops liberated the Volkswagen factory in Germany and freed about 7,700 slave laborers who had been forced to build Kübelwagen military vehicles for the Nazi war effort.

Thus ended the dark beginnings of Volkswagen while opening the remarkable story of the company’s rise as a global manufacturer of innovative vehicles for the masses.

volkswagen
US troops after their arrival at the Volkswagen factory

In memorializing the anniversary, arguably the most important in company history, Volkswagen has released the in-depth story of the days leading up to and following the liberation, complete with eye-witness accounts from the freed workers who were brought in by the Nazi regime and forced to labor in the factory. 

About 20,000 of them had been imprisoned there over the years, some coming from concentration camps.  After their release, most traveled back to their home counties across Europe and the Soviet Union.

Forced female laborers assembling engines during WWII

When the allied troops arrived at the bomb-damaged factory, there were about 50 completed Kübelwagens ready to be shipped out, and US servicemen pressed them into service. They called them Volkswagen Jeeps. 

More than 80 more of the rear-engine all-terrain vehicles were subsequently built for use by the US and British military, production that laid the groundwork for converting the plant from military to civilian vehicles.

RELATED:  End of an Era: The Last Indy Roadsters tried for comeback
volkswagen
Completed Kübelwagens at the factory after liberation.

The factory was taken over by the British in June; the VW company town where the plant was located had become part of the British Occupation Zone, and with it came the factory. The town was later renamed Wolfsburg. 

The period after the allied takeover of the plant paved the way for the automaker’s rebirth, VW notes in the release.  A complete history of Volkswagen, including accounts from the Nazi era and post-war period, can be found on the automaker’s website.

“Over the eight weeks that followed, the Americans made groundbreaking decisions for the future of the people, the city and the plant,” the release says. “The brief but marked intermezzo of US military rule laid the foundations for democracy, freedom and reconstruction in the region.”

volkswagen
Workers assemble a Beetle after the British started production

Members of the British Military Government were impressed by the little air-cooled cars that Ferdinand Porsche had designed. In December, production of the VW sedans began at the British-controlled auto plant, and they proved to be the start of the VW Beetle phenomenon that would spread worldwide.

In October 1946, the factory celebrated the production of its 10,000th sedan.

volkswagen
Workers gather as the 10,000th Beetle rolls of the assembly line

Confronting the shades of its past, Volkswagen in 1999 created the “Place of Remembrance of Forced Labor in the Volkswagen Factory,” a permanent exhibition in a former air raid bunker at the Wolfsburg plant. 

RELATED:  Hamilton, Rolt partied overnight before winning Le Mans

“All in all, about 20,000 people were forced to work for the former Volkswagenwerk GmbH, including about 5,000 people from concentration camps,” the Volkswagen release says.

“In 1944, two-thirds of the people working at the factory were there against their will, facing racial discrimination. They included Jewish women and men, prisoners of war, and conscripted workers, as well as deported and displaced persons from European countries under German occupation.”

volkswagen
One of the first VW Beetles produced

With the world today on lockdown against an unseen enemy, the Volkswagen story serves to illustrate that great things can come from the worst of times when goodness and decency prevail.

Bob Golfen is a longtime automotive writer and editor, focusing on new vehicles, collector cars, car culture and the automotive lifestyle. He is the former automotive writer and editor for The Arizona Republic and SPEED.com, the website for the SPEED motorsports channel. He has written free-lance articles for a number of publications, including Autoweek, The New York Times and Barrett-Jackson auction catalogs. A collector car enthusiast with a wide range of knowledge about the old cars that we all love and desire, Bob enjoys tinkering with archaic machinery. His current obsession is a 1962 Porsche 356 Super coupe.

5 COMMENTS

  1. I did not know any of this, the occupation of the plant by the U.S. and then the British. Is this the same location of the present Wolfsburg plant? There was a History Channel show about the present plant and how their goal is to build a million cars in a year. What a story! Thanks for sharing. Drue

  2. What about The Childrens Hospital that was run by Volkswagon whos primary mission was to starve jewish and others infants and children to death in dirt and filth???? Unforgivable…..

  3. Note,David that the post WWII management of VolkswagEn can hardly be blamed for the atrocities committed by the previous Nazi management.
    Most Germans today are still trying to live down the behaviour of their forebears. Mind you, having said that: My wife once said to me that while we were going to be in Germany, we should visit Auschwitz. I asked her if she seriously thought it would still exist if it were in Germany. We were going to Poland too. Visiting Auschwitz is not something anyone (with a sense f decency)wants to do but you feel you should while you’re in the area.
    Note too, the correct spelling of Volkswagen

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here