Volkswagen funds ADL office in Germany for combating anti-Semitism in Europe
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Volkswagen funds ADL office in Germany for combating anti-Semitism in Europe

Move comes months after carmaker’s CEO drew criticism for apparent wordplay on Nazi phrase ‘arbeit macht frei’

People leave the Volkswagen factory at Gate 17 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
People leave the Volkswagen factory at Gate 17 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

German car manufacturing giant Volkswagen has joined with the US-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to fund a Berlin-based office that will research and combat anti-Semitism in Europe.

“The initiative will focus on assessing the root causes of anti-Semitism, extremism, and bigotry in society and develop programs to counter it through advocacy and education,” ADL said in a release Tuesday.

A Volkswagen spokesman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the venture will open an ADL office in Berlin, the first ADL presence in Europe in more than a decade. The funding, over the three years, is set to be in the low seven figures, the official said, with an option to expand and continue the initiative thereafter.

Herbert Diess, CEO of Volkswagen Group, the largest car manufacturer in the world, announced the bid Monday at the ADL’s annual Washington conference. In an interview with JTA, he said he was concerned about the recent spike in anti-Semitism in Europe, and that Volkswagen had a special obligation to combat racism because of its origins in Nazi Germany.

Herbert Diess, CEO of the Volkswagen AG, attends the annual press conference of the car manufacturer Volkswagen AG in Wolfsburg, Germany, March 12, 2019. (Christophe Gateau/dpa via AP)

“We have more obligation than others,” he said. “The whole company was built up by the Nazi regime.”

The initiative will have four components: education in schools, education in workplaces, lobbying in European capitals, and research through surveys.

The project came months after Diess faced criticism — and questions over his future — for invoking a phrase used by Nazi Germany.

At a meeting in March, the Volkswagen CEO told managers “ebit macht frei,” roughly translating to “profit will make you free,” in an apparent play on “arbeit macht frei,” or “work will make you free.” Ebit is an acronym for “earnings before interest and taxes.”

Diess apologized for his remark later, saying it was “definitely an unfortunate choice of words.”

The entrance to the Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau with the lettering ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘Work makes you free’). (Joel Saget/AFP)

“At no time was it my intention for this statement to be placed in a false context. At the time, I simply did not think of this possibility,” the BBC quoted him saying.

Volkswagen was founded in the 1930s by a Nazi trade union and during World War II used concentration camp internees and prisoners of war as slave labor in its factories.

While the phrase “arbeit macht frei” originated in the 19th century, it is most associated with the Nazis, who emblazoned the saying on the gates of the Auschwitz and other concentration camps they established.

AFP contributed to this report.

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