Friday, December 16, 2011

The Jewish engineer behind the Volkswagen

The Jewish engineer behind the Volkswagen

Written by Joanne Hill

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

TORONTO – The true story of the Jewish engineer whose original designs for the Volkswagen (VW) Beetle were stolen by the Nazis will be published in Canada this month.

Journalist Paul Schilperoord, author of The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz, the Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen, first stumbled across a mention of Ganz while researching an article he planned to write about the car’s history.

“I was simply intrigued that a Jewish engineer… was behind the Volkswagen Beetle, the most successful project the Nazis ever did,” Schilperoord told the Jewish Tribune by phone from his home in Florence, Italy.

More than 21.5 million VW Beetles were built over a period of 65 years. Ganz received no remuneration and no credit for his designs; even his nickname for the car, “May Bug,” was appropriated by the Nazis.

The book describes how a competitor in the auto industry – first alone, then in collustion with car manufacturers, and finally with the help of high-level friends within the Nazi party – worked to destroy Josef Ganz.

Ganz’s “one personal enemy,” Paul Ehrhardt, wanted to take credit for Ganz’s designs; car manufacturers wanted to stop Ganz’s magazine from criticizing their products; and the Nazis wanted to hide the Jewish origins of the Beetle’s true designer.

Schilperoord, a European journalist, is a science and technology writer and car expert. He spent five years researching the book. Although a great deal of original documentation was lost or destroyed, he was pleased by how much he was able to unearth.

“It’s really the first time the story has been told in so much detail,” he said. “I found pieces of the puzzle all over the world.”

In the 1920s and ’30s, cars were large and expensive, while motorcycles, which cost less, were extremely dangerous to drive on new or poorly maintained roads. Josef Ganz was a brilliant, highly inventive engineer who was determined to design a small, safe car that ordinary people could afford.

In 1928, Ganz became editor-in-chief of Germany’s Klein-Motor-Sport magazine. He immediately began to advocate for his vision of a Volkswagen (“people’s car”). Under Ganz’s leadership, readership increased dramatically, and the renamed Motor-Kritik magazine became “the most influential and controversial car magazine of its time. He was a strong force and because of this he became very influential.”

Ganz’s sharp critiques, exposés of industry scandals and refusal to print puff pieces, earned him the ire of carmakers. Some filed lawsuits and tried to convince advertisers to boycott the magazine.

Meanwhile, Ganz continued to work on his designs and had prototypes made of his car.

The campaigns against him escalated. Ganz spent a month in prison in 1933 on trumped-up charges of blackmailing the auto industry and in 1934 the Nazis stopped him from working altogether. At first they banned publication of Motor-Kritik magazine; when the publishers appealed, the ban was lifted with the proviso that Ganz be fired. A new ban was placed on Ganz’s name appearing anywhere in print, whether in publications or on designs. He fled to Switzerland that year but unfortunately his troubles followed him there.

Ganz emigrated to Australia in 1954, where he lived until his death in 1967 at the age of 69. He had long-term relationships but never married and had no children. He has a grand-niece who lives in Zurich.

After World War II, the German government gave Ganz 30,000 Deutsche Marks for the loss of his career “by Gestapo interference.” Towards the end of his life, Ganz told his story to a couple of British and Australian car magazines but the news didn’t catch on.

More than one person described Ganz to Schilperoord as “someone with a very strong sense of justice. He was a difficult person in the sense that he could not let anything go. He kept on fighting, even if he was fighting the Nazi regime… He always wanted to tell the truth.”

The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz, the Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen, will be available in North America this month. For more information, visit

The book was first published in Dutch in 2009 and has since been translated into Portuguese, German and English.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 13 December 2011 )

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