Volkswagen CEO apologizes for Nazi slogan gaffe

A car with the Volkswagen VW logo badge is seen on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A car with the Volkswagen VW logo badge is seen on display at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The chief executive of German automaker Volkswagen Herbert Diess has issued an apology after referencing an infamous Nazi slogan during a company management event.
Emphasizing the importance of boosting company profits, Diess told employees “Ebit macht frei,” seemly referencing the German phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (work sets you free) which appeared at the entrance to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps.
“Ebit” is an abbreviation referring to a company’s earnings before interests and taxes.
In a statement issued on Diess’s LinkedIn account, he said he was “extremely sorry” for his “very unfortunate choice of words and if I had unintentionally hurt feelings.” Diess also added that Volkswagen has been running activities for three decades to ensure that the company, management and employees “are aware of Volkswagen’s special historical responsibility in connection with the Third Reich.”
In an emailed statement to Bloomberg, Volkswagen’s supervisory board said it strongly distanced itself from the remarks “but at the same time takes note of the immediate apology from Mr. Diess.”
Volkswagen was established in 1937 as part of an effort by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party to promote an affordable “people’s car” (Volkswagen) for the German public. During World War II, Volkswagen was among the first German companies to take advantage of forced labor, sourcing prisoners of war, concentration camp inmates – including from Auschwitz – and foreign forced laborers to contribute to the continued production of civilian vehicles.
In 1999, Volkswagen opened a permanent exhibition at its original Wolfsburg plant titled the “Place of Remembrance of Forced Labor in the Volkswagen Factory.” The exhibition aims to openly present the extent to which the company relied on forced labor and was involved in the Nazi war economy.
Diess’s gaffe capped a difficult week for Volkswagen, with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) suing the company and its former chief executive Martin Winterkorn over the German automaker’s diesel emissions scandal, alleging a “massive fraud” on US investors.
Volkswagen was caught using illegal software to cheat US pollution tests in 2015, triggering a global backlash against diesel that has so far cost it 29 billion euros. The company admitted to secretly installing software in 500,000 US vehicles to cheat government exhaust emissions tests and pleaded guilty in 2017 to felony charges. Thirteen people have been charged in the United States, including Winterkorn and four Audi managers.
The SEC suit also names Volkswagen’s VW Credit and Volkswagen Group of America Finance LLC, the entity used to sell the securities. VW also faces investor lawsuits in Braunschweig, Germany.
Reuters contributed to this story.