Volkswagen says Brazil staff collaborated with dictatorship

In report, company says security officials at local plant worked with 1964-1985 military junta, leading to arrest and torture of employees

The logo of German car maker Volkswagen (VW) at a northern Virginia dealer in Woodbridge, Virginia. (AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS)
The logo of German car maker Volkswagen (VW) at a northern Virginia dealer in Woodbridge, Virginia. (AFP PHOTO / PAUL J. RICHARDS)

Security staff at Volkswagen’s Brazilian plant collaborated with the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship, leading to the arrest and torture of several employees, according to a landmark report commissioned by the car giant.

The year-long study, led by historian Christopher Kopper of Germany’s Bielefeld University, found that some security officials at the Volkswagen do Brasil factory near Sao Paulo aided the feared political police in identifying political dissenters.

Members of VW’s security department kept blacklists of left-leaning workers and informed the secret police of illegal communist flyers and newspapers found at the plant, the independent report found.

“Works Security monitored opposition activities by the company’s employees, and by its conduct aided the arrest of at least seven members of staff,” the independent study found.

“This happened at a time when the use of torture by the political police was already common knowledge,” it added.

In at least one case, a communist party activist said he was working at the plant in 1972 when he was arrested and led into the Volkswagen Works Security room at gunpoint.

“I was beaten straight away; slapped and hit with fists. They wanted to know whether there was anyone else involved at Volkswagen,” Lucio Bellentani was quoted as saying, who went on to suffer months of torture in police detention.

Kopper said that while some individuals from the security department actively cooperated with the regime, there was no indication they were acting on orders from VW executives.

“[There is] no clear evidence found that the cooperation was institutionalized by the company,” Kopper said.

German car titan Volkswagen, which takes pride in its openness in confronting the firm’s Nazi history, said it had commissioned the report to learn lessons from the past.

It said it would unveil a plaque in tribute to the victims at the Brazil site, and support a local rights group helping children and teenagers.

Facts uncovered by historians looking into companies’ pasts have not always met with a warm welcome in German boardrooms.

Longtime VW chief historian Manfred Grieger quit around the same time Kopper was appointed last year — reportedly over disagreements about how findings related to subsidiary Audi’s activities during the Nazi period were being presented.

The company at the time denied he was forced out and rejected any suggestion of trying to downplay the group’s Nazi past.

In 1938, Adolf Hitler himself laid the foundation stone for the first Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg in northern Germany, tasked with building an affordable car for all Germans — which would go on to become the iconic Beetle.

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