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Keeping the memory alive

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the “Place of Remembrance of Forced Labor in the Volkswagen Factory”. Why it’s so important.

Noise, stuffy air, fear. The earth trembles with every impact. “Here in this bunker, forced laborers were imprisoned when the bombs fell,” says Dieter Landenberger, Head of Volkswagen Heritage, during a guided tour of the memorial site on the Wolfsburg site. The ground must have swayed like on a ship in rough seas because of the swampy subsoil. They were imprisoned so that no one could escape – as surviving forced laborers report. After all, arms production was dependent on the work of forced laborers. They did not assemble civilian Volkswagens here, but military vehicles as well as parts for airplanes, bombs and other war equipment such as mines and anti-tank weapons. “The injustice committed against the forced laborers must never be forgotten. That’s why there’s a memorial,” says Landenberger.

It’s important that there is this memorial so we can learn from the past.

Niko Parlow trainee IT specialist
Dieter Landenberger, Head of Heritage, guides Volkswagen apprentices through the memorial site in the bunker of Hall 1

Today, on a glorious winter’s day, Landenberger takes twelve trainees from the Volkswagen Group down to the bunker in Hall Number 1. Two former trainees, Miriam Hilger and Alexander Silbermann, who helped set up the memorial in 1999, are also there. “At the time, I was very touched by the way in which the company’s history had been dealt with,” says Silbermann. “Like many people here in the area, Volkswagen influenced me from childhood as if it were a family business. When volunteers were needed to build the memorial up, I contacted them immediately.” Hilger says: “The topic was already important at that time, even 20 years ago there was neo-Nazi graffiti on the walls. Today, however, it is being discussed more openly.”

It’s great that there’s a memorial and that a big, influential company like Volkswagen is positioning itself against the lurch to the right.

Anne Mundstock Volkswagen trainee industrial clerk

Inhuman conditions

A total of around 20,000 forced laborers were exploited under sometimes inhuman conditions at Volkswagenwerk GmbH. Many of them were between 15 and 25 years old. In the years 1943 and 1944 they accounted for up to 80 percent of the workforce – at other armaments plants the average was 30 percent. From 1938, the Volkswagen plant in the rural and sparsely populated region near the town of Fallersleben was built from scratch, which meant that there was only a very small permanent workforce. Soon afterwards, Germany began the Second World War, which further exacerbated the labor shortage.

That’s pretty crass, 20,000 forced laborers. A whole football stadium full. Today we have an obligation to oppose racism and fascism.

Timo Klante Youth and Trainee Representative
Reflective faces of the trainees during the discussion about the impressions after the visit to the memorial site

“Almost all German companies had forced laborers, but Volkswagen made disproportionate use of involuntary labor,” says Landenberger. At first, they were Polish women, but soon people from all over Europe were forcibly recruited. In addition to prisoners of war, around 5,000 concentration camp prisoners were also deployed from 1942 onwards. According to the racist ideology of the National Socialists, forced laborers from Western and Northern Europe were treated better than those from Eastern Europe. This applied in particular to Soviet prisoners of war and concentration camp prisoners.

It’s unimaginable what happened.

Luca Leo Kramp trainee IT specialist

System of fear and arbitrariness.

Self-made ring, made of aluminum by the former forced laborer Pierre Bernard

During the guided tour through the bunker, the group learns about the conditions of the time, about the treacherous system of fear and arbitrariness, about everyday working life and about individual fates. “I had a real lump in my throat,” says Jörn Kruse, a budding IT specialist, afterwards. “Even standing down there, where the forced laborers were locked up during the air raids at the time, was very emotional for me.” Down there, that’s Bunker 1 in Hall 1 on the Volkswagen site in Wolfsburg. While robots weld body parts together upstairs, the history of forced labor at Volkswagen during the National Socialist era is told downstairs in the memorial. An exhibition with eyewitness accounts, official documents and personal objects that former forced laborers made available for the exhibition – such as the self-made aluminum ring that the Frenchman Pierre Bernard left to the memorial site. Embedded in the ring is a small portrait of his wife – two weeks before his deportation they had married.

It’s important that we stand up against the shift to the right in society!

Nora Siems trainee industrial mechanic

20 years of the memorial site

In December 2019, the Heritage Department looks back on the 20th anniversary of the memorial. At that time, the memorial was established as a component of the culture of remembrance, the roots of which go back even further. In the mid-1980s, Volkswagen began to come to terms with its National Socialist past – first through the citizens of Wolfsburg, then on the initiative of the Works Council and finally on behalf of the Group Management in 1986. And this process was thorough. The historian Hans Mommsen was commissioned in 1986 to research the history of the company under National Socialism. The result: “Volkswagen and Its Workers During the Third Reich”. The study, written together with Manfred Grieger, was published in 1996 and has been the standard work on Volkswagen's history and the links between companies and the National Socialist regime ever since.  

The memorial in its present form was opened on December 17, 1999 and tells of the early chapters in the history of the Volkswagen Group. Since its opening, around 3,500 internal and external visitors have taken part in guided tours of the Heritage department each year. The memorial is open to anyone interested: The visitors come from all over the world, from the company as well as from schools, universities and other companies.

I found the exhibition very informative, the atmosphere down in the bunker was very oppressive.

Marlon Müller trainee IT specialist for application development
  • Corporate archive

    In the memorial in the former air-raid shelter in Hall 1, historical exhibits are on display

    Volkswagen AG opens its historical identity for customers and employees worldwide. The Group archives, in Wolfsburg, provide the raw materials for this purpose. Only the important documents reach the archive, where they can be researched and used. The archive contains over 9 kilometers of documents, over one million photos, 5,000 films, around 100,000 publications and more than 12,000 plans and drawings, as well as digital data. The archives are the starting point for historical research and the foundation for legal protection. This source base can be used to answer questions about the history of Volkswagen and its products.

Up until the 1980s, Volkswagen had been struggling to come to terms and find direct contact with former forced laborers. Today there is the exhibition and me and others are invited by Volkswagen to Wolfsburg, where much has changed. The people in Wolfsburg are very interested. And good companions on a heavy walk, to the graves.

Sara Frenkel-Bass (97) former forced laborer (1943 – 1945) from Lublin (Poland). Today she lives in Antwerp (Belgium)

My deepest wish is that there will never be such a bad time again.

Jean Baudet (97) former forced laborer (1943 – 1945) from Nice, France
The former forced laborer Jean Baudet and his homemade tricolor

Jean Baudet (97), former Volkswagen forced laborer (1943 – 1945) from Nice, France: “As one of the last survivors and on behalf of all my deceased comrades who, like me, had to perform forced labor in the Volkswagen plant between 1943 and 1945, I would like to express my gratitude to Volkswagen. I would like to express my gratitude to Volkswagen for the fact that 20 years ago the company erected a magnificent memorial to forced labor on the site of today‘s Wolfsburg plant.”

  • PDF Exhibition Catalogue

    Further information on the exhibition can be found in the catalogue: “Place of Remembrance of Forced Labor in the Volkswagen Factory" and here as a PDF file for free download.

The exhibition is simply overwhelming. You'll never really understand what happened.

Helene Jacksch future IT specialist for application development

No place for discrimination

Volkswagen trainees and employees of Volkswagen Heritage lay down white roses on the memorial stone in front of Sector 2 for the forced laborers

After the guided tour, the trainees, together with their predecessors and Volkswagen Heritage employees, lay white roses down, in memory of the fate of the forced laborers. The memorial stone on the site of the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg was the first visible element of the company’s culture of remembrance and, since October 9, 1991, has commemorated the victims of the National Socialist dictatorship. It says: “Thousands of forced laborers who were racially and politically persecuted, prisoners of war and deportees from the countries of Europe occupied by the Third Reich, suffered at the Volkswagen plant for the armament efforts and the war of a criminal system”.

A subsequent group discussion focuses a great deal on the social role of Volkswagen then and now, on history lessons and also on trends of our time: populism and a shift to the right in several European countries. In the end, everyone agrees that the pluralistic society must be protected. Volkswagen Group employs around 660,000 people in over 120 locations in many countries around the world – there is no room for discrimination!

If you are interested, you can register for a free guided tour – simply by e-mail: history@volkswagen.de.

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