The unknown Jewish engineer behind Hitler’s vaunted Volkswagen Beetle
A Nashville exhibit highlights the contributions of Josef Ganz and others that were swept under the rug when they were blacklisted by the Reich
When the car known today as the Volkswagen Beetle debuted 80 years ago, in 1938, it was heralded as the “people’s car” — volkswagen — of Nazi Germany, the brainchild of Adolf Hitler and Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.
Yet experts say the Nazis omitted a Jewish voice from the creation story: Josef Ganz, a German-Jewish engineer and journalist.
A renowned automotive authority, Ganz developed many concepts incorporated into the Beetle. But he was threatened with assassination, forced into exile and forgotten by history, dying of a heart attack at age 59 in Australia in 1967. Meanwhile, Beetles rolled off postwar assembly lines until 2003, becoming the best-selling car ever.
Ganz’ story is the subject of increased awareness. An exhibit at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, entitled “The Josef Ganz Story: How a Jewish Engineer Helped Create Hitler’s Volkswagen” is running through October 8. The exhibit features cars that influenced Ganz, as well as a postwar Beetle. It is paired with “Violins of Hope,” a touring collection of instruments owned or played by Holocaust victims.
The Ganz exhibit “provides an unknown story,” said Rex Bennett, the exhibit’s curator and the education director of the museum, which has the largest collection of European cars in the US.
“Josef Ganz’s name was removed extensively on purpose. Much credit was given to other people not of Jewish heritage. It brings to life not only an individual engineering story, but someone who deserves a little more credit, frankly, in the creation of the Volkswagen Beetle,” Bennett said.
One factor in Ganz’s revival is a biography by Dutch journalist Paul Schilperoord, “The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen,” published in the Netherlands in 2009. Earlier that decade, Schilperoord first learned about Ganz when he read an issue of Automobile Quarterly magazine from 1980.
“It intrigued me very much, that a Jewish engineer could be behind the success of the Volkswagen,” said Schilperoord, whose website features information about projects by himself and others.
The projects include an in-the-works documentary, and an attempt by Schilperoord and Ganz’ relative Lorenz Schmid to restore a vintage Ganz automobile.
“You can quite clearly see interest is growing in Josef Ganz,” Schilperoord said. “The last few years, my book has popped up in many different places.”
Last fall, Bennett found the book in the Lane Motor Museum library. Bennett had never heard of Ganz; the book left him “floored [and] shocked,” he said.
“He was shut out of the story because of his religion,” Bennett said. “It’s sad and fascinating at the same time.”
The Jewish ‘people’s car’
Born in Budapest in 1908, Ganz became what Schilperoord called a central figure of the German auto industry in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
A mechanical engineer, Ganz was also editor-in-chief of the magazine Motor-Kritik — “the most influential magazine in the German auto industry and also abroad,” Schilperoord said. “He really analyzed cars, and inventions related to cars, with a lot of technical know-how. It was not really done by anyone else.”
The German auto industry had been dominated by luxury cars rendered impractical by the country’s defeat in WWI and the subsequent economic depression. Ganz tackled a key issue — how to create a “people’s car,” dynamic, fuel-efficient and “a little cheaper for the masses,” Bennett said.
“Much of what would go into the Volkswagen, either Josef Ganz patented or he advocated for heavily in his magazine,” Bennett said. “A lightweight, inexpensive, streamlined car with independent suspension and swing axles in the rear of the car” — helping navigate “rough roads,” with each wheel able to handle bumps.
Much of what would go into the Volkswagen, either Josef Ganz patented or he advocated for heavily in his magazine
Ganz learned from his own cars — the Hanomag 2/10 PS, nicknamed the “Kommisbrot” or “soldier’s bread” for its resemblance to WWI army rations; and the Tatra T11, a Czech model similar to the famed American Model T of Henry Ford. German companies such as Adler, Mercedes-Benz and Standard hired him as a consultant to design prototypes including the Adler Maikafer or May Bug and the Standard Superior.
The Standard Superior was released at the 1933 Berlin Auto Show, attended by Hitler, who had recently become Reich Chancellor.
Ganz and Hitler did “not really interact with each other,” Bennett said.
“Ganz was standing by his car at the Standard company display. Hitler and his entourage were walking through. Hitler was a car person — not an engineer by trade, but he liked cars. I think he certainly took mental notes.”
“This particular small car was quite revolutionary,” Schilperoord said, citing swing axles at the back, one chassis tube down the middle and an engine mounted in the rear — which all made it into the Beetle. “Add the basic shape, a streamlined, beetle-like shape, in its conceptual form it’s quite similar to a Volkswagen.”
But its creator had a nemesis: Nazi official Paul Ehrhardt, who had worked with Ganz at Motor-Kritik before they had a falling-out.
“He was the one who outed Ganz as a Jew to the Nazis,” Bennett said.
Ganz faced lawsuits over his many patents, and a halt to his benefits from Mercedes-Benz, Adler and BMW. The anti-Semitic reasons for this were “not explicitly stated in the paperwork, but everybody knew, even his non-Jewish contemporaries,” Bennett said. “He was still a practicing Jew, even up until he left.”
Ganz lost his post as editor-in-chief of Motor-Kritik and according to josefganz.org, the Gestapo arrested him for alleged blackmail of the industry.
A Nazi-backed car
Not all Germans turned against him, Schilperoord said. But Hitler was backing the creation of a people’s car and, Schilperoord said, “[the] government did not want a Jewish engineer to be linked so closely [with the Volkswagen].”
“Hitler wanted to make it,” Bennett said. “He chose a few designs. He wanted Dr. Porsche to headline a government car, a government program. It was not only backed by the German government financially, [the government] was an advocate and proponent.”
Hitler announced the project at the 1934 Berlin Auto Show. That summer, Ganz was targeted in an assassination attempt. He left for Switzerland, whose government hired him to work on a Swiss version of a people’s car. But Hitler and Porsche ultimately received the credit.
“They saw where the styling was going on Josef Ganz’ designs,” Bennett said. “They turned it into something else … The engineering is slightly different on a Volkswagen Beetle. It’s a little bit larger, it cost more.”
But, he said, the Standard Superior and the Volkswagen Beetle were “visually very similar.”
Before WWII, Porsche’s car was not called a Volkswagen Beetle but a KDF Wagen, referring to the Hitler Youth motto “Kraft durch Freude” or “Strength through Joy.”
“There were pictures and fanfare of Hitler driving the Type 1 [model] in big parades,” Bennett said.
Others were also left out of the picture, including Ganz’s French contemporary Paul Jaray; Tatra’s chief designer, Hans Ledwinka; and Erwin Komenda, Ganz’ colleague at Mercedes, who later worked with Porsche.
In 2014, the BBC reported that Tatra threatened legal action against the Volkswagen for alleged infringement of patents, including Ledwinka’s. But 1938, the year of the Volkswagen, also witnessed the Anschluss, and according to the BBC, when the Nazis annexed Austria, they marched into Tatra’s factory there and prevented the public from seeing Ledwinka’s prototypes.
Meanwhile, Ganz “had enemies in Germany trying to block the work he was doing” in Switzerland, Schilperoord said. “There were also some Nazi-sympathetic people in Switzerland making life difficult.”
Overlooked by history
In 1950, Switzerland did not renew Ganz’s residency permit. When his Swiss girlfriend emigrated to Australia, “it seems Ganz followed her to Australia to start a new life,” Schilperoord said.
Ganz continued to work with cars, this time for GM – Holden. He died unmarried and childless.
By then, the car he had once helped create was enjoying success as the Volkswagen Beetle.
Allied bombing had destroyed most of the Volkswagen plant, which produced military vehicles during WWII. But, Bennett said, British liberators felt that the plant held promise for the new nation of West Germany if it resumed manufacturing the Beetle. “The rest is literally history,” Bennett said.
Bennett’s first Beetle was a 1972 edition that he only parted ways with several years ago. He credits it with getting him into cars in the first place. After reading Schilperoord’s book, he realized there was more to the story.
“It was not just Dr. Porsche out of the blue, there were lots of other designers,” Bennett said. “Ganz was heavily influential.”
Noticing various classic cars in the book, Bennett recalled thinking, “We have that car, we have one of those, of course we have a Volkswagen Beetle. OK, we can display these.”
The exhibit includes a 1927 Hanomag 2/10 PS; a Tatra T11 (“we have a large set of Tatras, the largest collection of Czech vehicles outside the Czech Republic”); a Mercedes-Benz 130H; and a 1956 Beetle.
“The one car we don’t have,” he said, is the Standard Superior model displayed at the Berlin Auto Show in 1933.
Schilperoord and Ganz’s relative Schmid are restoring what Schilperoord calls the lone survivor of the original series of this car. They expect to complete restoration to its original 1933 status this summer.
“The idea is to use it to help promote the story of Josef Ganz,” Schilperoord said. “[Probably] somewhere this fall, after it’s fully functioning and restored, we’ll drive it to take part in some classic car events.”
And the Nashville exhibit is working in its own way to restore Ganz’ reputation.
“We bring folks in who are very interested in cars and have no idea about the true story of the Volkswagen Beetle,” Bennett said. “We teach folks something about history, social justice, politics, that they may not have known about.”
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