Reframe: BMW, Mercedes Benz and the Uncomfortable Past.

I was eighteen when I bought my first car. It was a 1996 BMW E36 318i. I had it for three years and had to get towed three times, but I loved it unconditionally to the point where I named ‘him’ Albie. However, after Albie finally died on me for the very last time, he donated his organs for a good cause and I moved onto a slightly newer, younger and sexier car uncreatively named Embie, a Mercedes Benz.

You see, I have an affinity for German engineering and though I now drive a ‘Benz’, I’m still a BMW girl at heart. Because of this very expensive and time consuming obsession, when I went to both Stuttgart and Munich in Germany, I made it my prerogative to visit both the Mercedes Benz and BMW Museums.

If you’re a reader of my blog, you’ve probably realised that I have a deep interest in modern military history, specifically to do with World War II and the Cold War. Everyone seems to know that Hugo Boss designed the uniforms of the Nazi Party, but other than that, most people have no idea what other brands were implicated. Most of them are right before our very eyes.

Want two other brands which collaborated with the National Socialists? You guessed it: BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke AG) and Mercedes Benz (Daimler AG).

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Propaganda from Mercedes-Benz during World War II.

If you want an idea of other brands worked for the NS dictatorship, here’s just a few for your consideration: Bayer (a subdivision of IG Farben which produced Zyklon B), Siemens (designed and constructed gas chambers), Fanta (designed to replace Coca-Cola as the national soft drink), IBM (their subdivision Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft/’Dehomag’ designed documentation systems to aid in a more effective administration of the concentration camps and Holocaust), and Volkswagen (the ‘people’s car’ designed to boost employment and the economy). Yup. That’s just to name a few.

But if you know anything about National Socialist economics, you’ll understand why these companies worked for the NS dictatorship. This is an over-simplification, but essentially, under Nazism, monopolies were anti-German (see Law for the Protection of the Retail Trade, May 1933. Yes, I am fun at parties.) but if that company were to work with a politically beneficial purpose, they were often encouraged.

But in what capacity were BMW and Mercedes Benz involved in World War II?

To put it simply, both BMW and Mercedes Benz were involved in the production of motors and engines – aircraft, tanks and submarines, and produced land vehicles such as automobiles and motorbikes. Hitler’s desire was for a mechanised military, however this applied usually to armoured fighting vehicles or personnel transport; by comparison, there was a lack of consideration put into logistical support vehicles, something which would come to haunt them during Operation Barbarossa and the Russian winter.

BMW

BMW’s origins are centred upon aircraft engines, although their foray into motorcycles prior to the war saw huge technological advancements in that area. BMW’s most famed products during the War were the MW 801 radial engine, the most powerful aircraft engine of the time, produced for the German Luftwaffe. They also produced the highly effective R12 and the R75 motorcycles used by the Wehrmacht, although production of these ceased in 1942 to focus upon aircraft production.

Mercedes Benz

Mercedes Benz had an established history into automobiles and motor works prior to the War, but during it, produced the famed Daimler-Benz DB 600 series of aircraft engines. However, their production mainly centres on the production of land vehicles – the Type L3000 A and S UNIMOG supply (Ger: Universalmotorgerät) trucks, the Types L1500 A and S personnel carriers, and most famously, also built Hitler’s favourite vehicle, the Mercedes-Benz 770, as you can see below.

But how were these products produced? By using forced or slave labour.

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A replica of the entrance gate into Dachau Concentration Camp. The original was stolen in 2014.

BMW employed approximately 50,000 forced or slave labourers, mostly sourced from Dachau Concentration Camp (Ger: Konzentrationslager Dachau), whilst Daimler AG employed approximately 40,000. To put it into perspective, Bayer employed approximately 80,000 (with IG Farben employing 83,000), whilst by comparison, Hugo Boss employed 140.

Forced labourers were absolved of any rights, and were treated inhumanely with very little care taken for their health or safety. They worked 18+ hour days, and were harshly punished for even the smallest issues, and some were executed if they were suspected of sabotage. When a forced labourer was no longer ‘productive’ (ie. they became too weak or sick), they were simply killed, then cremated or buried in mass graves without a name and without any basic human dignity, or their ashes used as fertiliser.

Most companies have released some sort of position statement upon the issue of their contribution to the NS state, and some have established compensatory funds, whilst others have been forced into compensation payments by government bodies. Others were ‘surprised’ by the number. Today, most companies recognise the need to commemorate the victims, and ameliorate their relationship with the public following their deeds.

But it is one thing to confess one’s misdeeds, and another to actively commemorate the victims.

I have come to recognise that there are many ways Germany has healed and progressed from World War II, and that it is unfair to hold the sins of the father to the son. Nonetheless, it is vital that organisations like BMW and Mercedes Benz are not silent on the issue, or do not treat it as an unfortunate time of their company’s history, and it is with a lot of sadness that I say that Mercedes Benz’s efforts are dismal compared to BMW.

Both BMW and Mercedes Benz have acknowledged their contributions to the NS regime but have differed dramatically in their presentation of the past.

Disclaimer: This section is purely my own opinion. 

BMW

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The BMW Headquarter and Museum in Munich, Bavaria.

When I visited BMW World (Ger: BMW-Welt), I noticed that they made an outstanding commitment to how they portrayed their contributions to the NS dictatorship. Upon walking into the BMW Museum, you’ll notice that the museum is divided chronologically, and makes explicit reference and display to their actions. 

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In 2005, BMW committed itself to Project Common Remembrance (Ger: Projekt Gemeinsames Erinnern) in which they document the involvement of BMW AG in armaments industry and forced employment under the NS dictatorship, and ultimately published a book upon the topic entitled ‘The War Economy and Forced Labor at BMW’ (Ger: Kriegswirtschaft und Zwangsarbeit bei BMW), which they dedicate a whole gallery to within the Museum, and actively encourage all individuals to observe and read their photobook compilation as they pass through by noting that it is a ‘crucial’ part of their history. 

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The BMW R75, produced predominantly for use by the Wehrmacht.

 

I didn’t manage to get a photo of it, but BMW’s commitment to commemoration and recognition of the victims were included in almost all of the products (mainly engines) and vehicles displayed. This has obviously been done to give the awareness of the situation, and to ensure that those who laboured upon these products were not forgotten.

BMW has actively acknowledged its role in utilising forced labourers, and though it maintains that it was like most of the German industrial giants at the time in doing so, it harbours remorse for its actions, and seeks to educate the public about force labour and its role in the National Socialist regime.

BMW has since established a recognition and compensation scheme to address all those whom were victims of forced labour during World War II, and actively encourages individuals whom were victims to come forth, tell their story, and receive compensation from BMW from the Compensatory Fund operated through the German Government.

Mercedes Benz

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The Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, Baden-Württemberg.

The entire reason why I write this post tonight is because of my disappointment for Mercedes Benz. Don’t get me wrong, the Mercedes Benz Museum is mindblowingly beautiful. But that’s the thing: I believe the designers consciously excluded most of its wartime contributions to maintain the epic tone of the Mercedes Benz journey.

There were two central thoughts on this topic which I developed from visiting the Mercedes Benz Museum. The first was that their presentation of the fact was basic and sterile, almost as if it was obligatory and mandatory. The second was that Mercedes Benz was a victim of the NS dictatorship, consistent with one of the many popular perspectives adopted in the aftermath.

The language used by Mercedes Benz was fundamental in the development of this perspective. In the presentation of one document in a display (I didn’t manage to get a photo of it), but remember being a little bit incredulous at their statement, ‘Mercedes Benz was forced to accept forced labourers’. The reason for my incredulity is because the decision was not a moral decision; it was a financial decision.

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Furthermore, you’ll see in the image above the kind of language they used in their deliverance of information relating to certain products. As I wrote previously, the Mercedes-Benz 770 was a vehicle favoured by the Führer, and one which was fundamental in his image. Not only was it a powerful and large vehicle almost 4 metres long, but exuded an image of power which one could even say is consistent with Nazi architecture: monolithic, dominant and utilitarian. And yet, Mercedes Benz chose to truncate their discussion with the mere statement, ‘but also members of the NS regime’.

It is this kind of oft-type comment which frequented Mercedes Benz’s discussions, to the point where it was almost forgettable that Mercedes Benz utilised forced labour. That is not to say that they haven’t done something about it: Mercedes Benz has joined BMW in contributing to the Compensatory Fund with the German Government but a Google search of ‘Mercedes Benz and forced labour’ is notoriously sanitary.

It is in my frank and honest opinion that the reason for doing this is in maintaining the tone of having a pure and perfect history built upon excellence. With displays like the one below, you can probably see why. History is always interesting, but not always honest.

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But are BMW and Mercedes Benz required to make their past use of forced labourers a topic of discussion?

Forced labour is not a topic merely consigned to history.

child-labour

As of 2016, 21 million men, women and children are still victims of forced labour – the same amount as those who were forced labourers at some point from 1939 to 1945. Approximately 19 million of them are being utilised by private individuals or enterprises. Many of them experience inhumane conditions with long working hours, and have almost no way of absolving themselves of a life of servitude as they earn close to nothing for their labour, and like during the War, thousands still die from the deplorable conditions.

The discussion on forced labour is not one that should be relegated to history books and said to be a factor of a bygone era. The discussion needs to be had to make people aware of its continued existence with brands like Disney (yes, Disney!), Nike, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Wrangler, Lee’s and Old Navy still utilising sweatshops. The issues of forced labour, ethical production, sustainability and labour rights needs to occur.

Both BMW and Mercedes Benz owe it to those in servitude to be leaders in this discussion.


BMW World/BMW Welt and BMW Museum

Address: Am Olympiapark 1, 80809 München, Germany
Building Opening Times
Monday to Saturday from 7.30 am to midnight. Sunday from 9.00 am to midnight.
Museum Opening Times: Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. Public Holidays from 10 am to 6pm.
Contact: +49 (0)89 1250 160 01
Official Website

Mercedes-Benz Museum

Address: Mercedesstraße 100, 70372 Stuttgart, Germany
Building Opening Times: Tuesday to Sunday from 9 am to 6 pm. Closed on Monday.
Contact: +49(0)711-17 30 000
Official Website