Is there a Jewish Connection to the VW Beetle?
The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen, by Paul Schilperoord. RVP Publishers, New York, 2012. 274pp.
By David Strom
SAN DIEGO — Josef Ganz was the main engineer and inspiration for the VW Bug. Why have we not heard of this amazing man? What kept him out of sight? Simply put, it was Hitler, anti-Semitism, and the rewriting of history.
Josef Ganz, a Jew, a successful engineer, writer and editor of a popular car magazine, challenged the power elite of the German automobile industry. Ganz attacked them in many different intellectual ways. The German auto elite built cars that only the rich could buy. The cars they manufactured were so expensive and old fashioned that the average worker could not even think of buying a car. It was economically out of their reach. The engineering and mechanical style was based on a “horse and buggy” model. The auto industry leaders didn’t bring their engineering thinking into the twentieth century. In short, they weren’t interested in serving the people. Let the poor ride the city transit system if they lived in big cities. The motorcycle was viewed as good enough for the economically poorer classes.
Mass production had come to the German motorcycle industry earlier in the twentieth century. However, mass production was slow to arrive in the auto industry. The owners and leaders in the auto industry were conservative businessmen and financiers. They were not keenly interested in innovation. The engineers they hired may have been competent men but they were to do as they were told, “yes” men who were their bosses did not allow them to be thinking engineers.
Many of the German cars were made by hand, used designs that were adapted from another era, and were expensive. By not bringing out car models for the people on the street, the car remained a luxury out of the monetary reach of most. Ganz wanted to do for Germany what Henry Ford had done in the United States. He wanted a reliable and inexpensive automobile like Ford had created in 1908 with his Model T.
By 1927,because of his critical writing and publications in various motor science journals, Ganz was asked to become an editor of a small-three hundred subscribers-journal on automobile science and innovation. He quickly gave up his job and took up the offer of editor-in-chief of Klein-Motor-Sport. Eventually the name of the motor journal was changed to Motor Kritik.
Josef Ganz fought for his ideas. In the first issue under his leadership, he mentioned what was lacking in Germany was “the German or in a broader sense, the European Volkswagen.” Nothing comparable to the Model T existed anywhere in Europe. Ganz did not view his idea as utopian. It was solvable. Ganz traveled to car shows throughout Europe, went to auto exhibits, took countless test drives and “established contacts with auto designers and manufacturers at home and abroad.” When he tested the cars for drivability, there were very few cement or concrete roads. Traveling short distances out of the city could be hazardous. Ganz reported on all of this interaction with others and his observations about performance and efficiency based on his test-driving skills in his magazine Motor Kritik.
Josef Ganz made numerous suggestions for future improvements. He stressed the importance of ”independent suspension, swing axles, the backbone chassis, the positioning of the engine adjacent to the driven front or real wheels, a low center of gravity, and streamlining.” These ideas were eventually used to create the modern VW Beetle. However, despite his automotive design genius, Ganz was literally written out of the history of the VW Beetle.
Ganz believed in freedom of expression in Motor Kritik. One of the early writers and eventually an editor at Motor Kritik, Paul Georg Ehrhardt, was friends with Ganz in 1930. But with the rise of Nazism and being a close friend of Herman Goring, by 1931 Ehrhardt had become a Nazi and archenemy of Ganz.
Paul Ehrhardt brought many lawsuits against Josef Ganz. He accused him of stealing his ideas and patenting other innovations that he created. One of the worst accusations that Ehrhardt threw at his former friend, Josef Ganz was that he was hindering the industrial comeback of the German economy. With this broadside, Ehrhardt aligned himself with the auto industrialists. As a group, the German auto moguls did not want to incorporate new engineering ideas that might have helped the German economy get better faster from the worldwide depression. Even though Josef Ganz won most if not all the important court battles against Paul Ehrhardt, being branded as an economic enemy made his life far more difficult under the rising tide of Nazism.
In 1933, on the falsified charges brought by Paul Ehrhardt, Josef Ganz was arrested. Eventually, after a few weeks in solitary confinement, he was released without much physical or mental damage done. He knew that he was not going to be allowed much freedom to write and critique cars any longer in Motor Kritik. His safe days in Germany were coming quickly to an end. At the Berlin motor show of March 1934, Ganz’s influence was seen everywhere. “Even Ganz’s greatest rivals came around.” One of them an editor of Motor and Sport an early critic of Ganz “praised Josef Ganz’s role as a trailblazer: Ganz was its most important pioneers and energetic advocates” for change in the auto industry. Where could he go (not an unusual question for a Jew and a mechanical dissident in Nazi Germany)?
Ganz’s friends who were also trying to escape from Nazi Germany were found murdered even in countries other than Germany. Ganz traveled to Paris and knew he was not secure there. He went to Lichtenstein but was not out of harm’s way there, either. With the aid of friends in Germany, Ganz eventually was able to cross the border secretly into Switzerland. There he worked to create a Swiss Volkswagen using many of his old patents and designs. Of course Paul Ehrhardt, the fanatic Nazi who attempted to steal Ganz’s papers before he left Germany challenged him. Ehrhardt was stopped at the Swiss border, detained and initially not allowed into the country.
Throughout the war, Ganz worked and created working models of the future “people’s car.” After the war, and after the death of Ganz’s nemesis, Paul Ehrhardt, the VW Bug came to life in West Germany. The new car had all of the mechanical ideas put forth by Ganz: engine in the rear, swinging axles, and backbone chassis. All of the mechanical ideas pushed by Ganz existed in the car. What it missed was the price tag. Ganz had wanted the car to cost no more than one thousand German marks. It didn’t.
Ganz left Switzerland and immigrated to Australia in 1951. By 1962 he became a naturalized citizen of Australia. Josef Ganz tried to let the world know the truth of the creation of the Volkswagen. In Australian Motor Sports & Automobiles on the cover of the June, 1965 issue, it stated: VOLKSWAGEN SHOCK! HITLER STOLE MY DESIGN SAYS MELBOURNE MAN.
This article and others in support of Ganz brought some results. Suffering from many heart attacks, Ganz did not know that the West German government had contacted the Australian government ”to say that the Germans wanted to give Ganz … an order of merit. The German government needed the official permission of the Australian government. It explained its reasons:
It was his capacity as editor of the magazine “Motor Kritik” between 1928 and 1934 that Mr. Ganz took a keen interest in the development of a German “Volkswagen” and together with other engineers like Professor Porsche, has greatly contributed to realizing this project. Furthermore, by promoting the idea of using rear engines, backbone platform chassis, and swing axle suspensions, he has greatly furthered the German auto industry.
Josef Ganz never received his order of merit. In fact, he never even knew he was nominated for the award. Ganz died in 1967, a few weeks after his sixty-ninth birthday.
Author Paul Schilperoord a European journalist and car expert wrote this fascinating book The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen. It is a bit of history that was deliberately kept from the public. The author did a commendable job of uncovering a bit of lost, strayed and stolen history.
Strom is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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