Middle Israel: Volkswagen as a parable

Dizengoff St. traffic (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Dizengoff St. traffic
Having learned that one in five Americans owns a car, as opposed to one in 50 Germans, Adolf Hitler ruled: “Every German should own a car.”
Pricing his everyman’s vehicle at the economically absurd figure of 990 marks – the contemporary equivalent of $396, and a mere eight average German monthly salaries – the system set out to fulfill the fuehrer’s command industrially, financially and commercially.
A model – what would be known much later as the Beetle – was designed, some say with Hitler himself joining Ferdinand Porsche at the drawing board; a new company – Volkswagen – was established; a site was chosen for “the world’s largest auto factory”; an advertising campaign boasted that the new plant would produce annually 1.5 million cars – “more than Ford”; and a financing model was devised whereby the Labor Front – the successor of the trade unions Hitler dismembered – financed much of this extravaganza’s costs, while the buyers were to pay the remainder through an installment plan whose aftermath brings to mind VW’s current travails.
“Set aside a weekly five marks,” buyers were urged, so as to pay a monthly 20 marks over more than four years. Once having paid the bulk, 750 marks, the customer would be assigned the serial number of a specific Beetle that would reach him the following year.
The scheme was launched in 1938, so when the war broke out the following year Volkswagen’s conveyor belts were swiftly reassigned to feed the military effort, their much-heralded original cause becoming one of the war’s early casualties. Still, as William Shirer recalled in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Germans paid with millions that were never returned for cars that were never delivered.
Now, beset by such a history, one might have expected revelations about another collision between Volkswagen and honesty to arouse no more interest than routine news of other carmakers recalling vehicles due to various production failures.
Instead, news that VW produced deceptive emissions testers has left Europeans shocked. “Lying?” they ask in astonishment, “in the middle of Europe?” they wonder amused, “at the heart of our industrial achievements and economic success?” Lying is what Russians do before annexing a neighbor, what Syrians do after bombing a neighborhood, what Chinese do when told they are enslaving laptop assemblers, what monks do when asked about their sex life, and what Americans do when filling flower pots with plastic tulips. Europeans don’t do these kinds of things. They don’t lie.
That, at least is what Europeans assumed until the Volkswagen scandal broke out.
And sure enough, a story that is ostensibly about VW’s lies to regulators and customers, and the legal charges, civil suits and publicity nightmare it will face while fixing as many as 11 million vehicles – is actually about things bigger than one company; bigger even than the German economy where VW is the largest company, with $221 billion in annual revenues and more than 580,000 employees worldwide; bigger even than the global auto industry, where VW’s Beetle, Golf and Passat are among the 10 bestselling cars ever made.
For like its traumatic birth, VW’s midlife crisis is less about its conduct within the Europe where it matured and thrived and more about the Europe that is now leading it to the pillory, as if VW were the cause rather than the result of Europe’s culture of deceit.
EUROPE’S complex relationship with truth was exposed recently, in the wake of its confrontation with Greece.
European leaders were obviously alarmed by the monetary cost of Greece’s financial collapse. Yet even more so they were offended by the Greek Treasury’s cooking of its books.
Lying, Brussels effectively told Athens, is not the European way. “Numbers are numbers,” they told the sibling they now treated like a foster child, much the way they today tell VW execs “laws are laws,” while all but spitting at them the way medieval Europeans did at felons en route to the gallows.
Middle Israelis have also been on the receiving end of this pontific energy, ever since Europe, while pioneering the Western demand for Palestinian statehood, cited in its 1980 Venice Declaration the need to provide “justice for all the peoples.”
That is how we detected Europe’s truth deficit ahead of others. Living where we do, we couldn’t help but quickly notice that the pretension to seek “justice for all” that was pompously declared when it came to the Arabs’ relations with the Jews, was sheepishly stored when it came to the Arabs’ relations with one another.
Palestinian self-rule, a value which Middle Israelis espoused no less than others, was inflated by its European prophets to a tenet of faith, one whose promotion exempted them from seeking, or even just championing, anyone else’s justice in the Middle East, from Saudi women and Iranian dissidents to Sudanese blacks and Syrian Kurds.
This skewing of truth, it turned out, was part of a culture of lies that welded political escapism and diplomatic opportunism with moral hypocrisy.
Escapism made Europe give up on reproducing its lower classes, and seek their substitutes abroad, even among potentially hostile populations, like the nearby Middle East’s. Opportunism meant currying these populations’ favor.
And hypocrisy meant ingratiating their tyrants, if even in ways that demanded inconsistency, dishonesty and absurdities.
That is how Europe, while claiming to be driven by a search for justice in seeking Palestinian self-determination, would not make that same demand in Kurdistan, whose stateless people are much more numerous than the Palestinians, speak their own language, and have been perceived as a nation for centuries.
Never mind distant Kurdistan, Europe’s culture of self-deception produced farce at home, where it consistently resisted other quests for independence, like the Basques’, the Catalonians’, the Corsicans’ and the Lombardians’, even though justice as these aspiring nationalities see it is the same justice the Palestinians demanded and Europe sustained.
Understandably, this systematic, multiplied and glaring twisting of justice by successive European leaderships, both national and continental, inspired, alongside the European culture of self-deceit, a culture of denial.
A culture of denial is, for instance, what made most European leaders ignore the predominantly Islamic identity of the rioters who last decade torched 8,900 cars throughout France while more than 2,800 were arrested, 128 cops and firemen were injured, three people were killed and the president declared a state of emergency.
The common insistence that what France faced had no religious element, but was merely about social wrath, would not have been part of a culture of denial had it not kept returning in other times and places. But it did; in September 2006, when rioters torched cars and shops in Brussels; in November 2007, when 70 cars and buildings including a library were torched not far from Charles de Gaulle Airport; in July 2009, when more than 300 cars were torched on Bastille Day in the Parisian slum of Montreuil; in June 2010, when a school was burned and police were attacked with stones in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby; in May 2013, when 150 cars were torched in Stockholm; and in July 2013, when hundreds of Muslim youths pelted with rocks a police station in the Parisian suburb of Trappes.
So absurd did the culture of denial become that then-Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt was attacked last year for merely noting that the immigrants’ pressure on his country’s social safety net was unaffordable.
MIDDLE ISRAELIS became familiar with Europe’s politics of denial last decade, when European leaders would not concede that their old assurance to us, that Palestinian leaders are merely seeking a secular, demilitarized democracy alongside the Jewish state – has been empirically tested and proved unfounded.
What this attitude does to Israelis’ confidence in Europe, and to their faith in peace, is not the subject of this column.
Our question is what European leaders’ disparagement of truth does to the Europeans themselves, and our answer is that, consciously or not, it makes them follow their leaders into the netherworld of moral laziness, social denial and historic demise.
Watching their leaders demand one justice here and another there while refusing to admit the failure of their policies and to generally call a spade a spade – ordinary Europeans conclude that they too might as well treat truth as relative, honesty as negotiable, and justice as a fad.
Fortunately, this kind of cynicism has yet to plague the average European school, village, company or shop. It is, however, what happened to Volkswagen.