• Antoine Acker teaches and researches in the field of global history at the University of Zurich. He is the author of a book on Volkswagen in the Amazon and several contributions about Brazil's international connections during the period of the military regime.

Rio de Janeiro (October 5, 2018), seven months after the homicide of the femi­nist activist Mari­elle Franco, voice of the Black popu­la­tion, of the favelas, and of the LGBTQI in the local city council. According to the current status of police inves­ti­ga­tions, the main suspects for this crime are members of para­mi­li­tary circles with close connec­tions to the family of Jair Bolso­naro, Brazil’s new presi­dent. In honor of Mari­elle, her suppor­ters hung up street signs with the name ‘Rua Mari­elle Franco’ imme­dia­tely after her death.

Wilson Witzel (rechts) am 8.10.2018 in Rio de Janeiro; Quelle: extra.globo.com

On the picture to the right, one can see how two former candi­dates of Bolsonaro’s party (PSL) destroy such a sign with pride. The man on the right side of the photo, who is raising his fist in elation is Wilson Witzel, a close colla­bo­rator of Bolso­naro and now the governor of the federal state Rio de Janeiro.

Roberto Cortes und Wilson Witze am 7.3.2019; Quelle: autoestrada.uol.com.br

Witzel also appears in a second picture. Here, he recently staged a photo­graph next to the chairman of Volks­wagen Camin­hões e Ônibus (the local truck subsi­diary of the Volks­wagen Group) as economy-friendly head of government. Reac­tions in Germany leaned toward embarr­ass­ment, with the umbrella orga­ni­za­tion of Kriti­sche Aktio­nä­rinnen und Aktio­näre (“Critical Stock­hol­ders”) criti­ci­zing this meeting in a news report. After all, Witzel is – just like Bolso­naro – a poli­ti­cian who glori­fies crime and a culture of violence, which in the European elec­toral land­s­cape can only be compared with hard­core right­ists groups like the Greek Golden Dawn.

Yet, the CEO of VW in Latin America, Pablo Di Si, welcomed the radical-right elec­tion winners with surpri­singly impru­dent words already at the begin­ning of November. In the Argen­ti­nean press, he described Bolsonaro’s elec­tion as a chance for the economy and a motive for opti­mism. Does VW there­fore sympa­thize with the human rights scorning government of Brazil? In view of the previously held stance of the local company repre­sen­ta­tives, one can at least speak of a miscon­ceived poli­tical neutra­lity.

“Miscon­ceived Poli­tical Neutra­lity”

“Miscon­ceived Poli­tical Neutra­lity” is the term that the histo­rian Chris­to­pher Kopper from the Univer­sity of Biele­feld used to describe the posi­tion of the German VW manage­ment board in Wolfs­burg during the Brazi­lian dicta­tor­ship (1964-1984). In 2016, due to scathing accu­sa­tions, VW charged him with sett­ling poten­tial viola­tions by the Brazi­lian subsi­diary company during the autho­ri­ta­rian period.

It came out that the factory secu­rity offices at the VW faci­lity in São Bernardo do Campo near São Paulo had mistreated leftist workers, deli­vered them to the poli­tical police and there­fore aided cases of torture and incar­ce­ra­tion. In addi­tion, the car manu­fac­turer owned a 140,000 ha cattle farm in the Amazon from 1973 to 1986, where it used Brazi­lian workers under brutal coer­cion for massive defo­re­sta­tion. Despite the latter being employed by local subcon­trac­tors, VW had been regu­larly informed about these inci­dents but chose not to inter­vene.

Forced labor is a term that evokes painful memo­ries about a comple­tely diffe­rent histo­rical context. Between 1939 and 1944, thousands of war prisoners, civi­lians parti­cu­larly from Eastern Europe, as well as concen­tra­tion camps detai­nees were exploited in the Wolfs­burg Volks­wagen factory for defense produc­tion. It was a first among German big busi­ness when VW ordered an inde­pen­dent histo­rical study about its dark past in 1986.

Upon recom­men­da­tion of histo­rian Hans Mommsen, the company’s manage­ment board provided a 12 million Deutsch­mark fund in 1991 to support cultural and social projects in the coun­tries of origin of the former forced labo­rers. The publi­ca­tion of the resul­ting book Das Volks­wa­gen­werk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich (VW and its Workers in the Third Reich) in 1996 brought forth a series of initia­tives for comme­mo­ra­tion of the victims. Under the leadership of histo­rian Manfred Grieger, who had co-authored the above book with Mommsen, the VW depart­ment for “Histo­rical Commu­ni­ca­tion” was founded in the follo­wing year, and its work became a bench­mark for media and academia.

Obviously, ever­yone knew that there was also corpo­rate inte­rest behind the decision to accom­mo­date the public desire for histo­rical clari­fi­ca­tion. This confron­ta­tion with their own past gave VW the advan­tage in guar­ding itself against poten­ti­ally dama­ging findings by a third party and resul­ting scan­dals. Further­more, a culture of histo­rical marke­ting emerged with the expan­sion of “Histo­rical Commu­ni­ca­tion,” which became part of the car manufacturer’s product promo­tion. In addi­tion to publi­ca­tions such as the remar­kable collec­tion of reports from former Jewish forced labo­rers published in 2005, which unspa­ringly illus­trated the crime committed in Wolfs­burg, they also published books with glossy car images that recounted a clas­sical narra­tive of post-war success. In this context, VW’s rise as one of the largest multi­na­tional corpo­ra­tions was portrayed as a logical outcome of the German economic miracle of the post-war era. The poli­tical condi­tions, just like the social and ecolo­gical conse­quences of the period however, were hardly ever ques­tioned.

VW in Brazil: Slug­gish Review of the Past

VW only began to pay atten­tion to its own history in Brazil, which the company long labeled “third world,” when public pres­sure came from the country itself, having turned into an “emerged power.” Already in the National Truth Commis­sion (CNV), appointed by former Presi­dent Dilma Rousseff to inves­ti­gate the crimes committed under the mili­tary dicta­tor­ship, and completed in 2014, the suspi­cion emerged that VW had parti­ci­pated in the poli­tical perse­cu­tion of union members during the dicta­tor­ship. In the follo­wing year, twelve alleged victims came forward in the context of a class-action lawsuit carried jointly by unions and NGOs, which trig­gered an inves­ti­ga­tion of the car manu­fac­turer by the Brazi­lian State Attorney.

Produk­ti­ons­strasse bei VW do Brasil, o.J.; Quelle: handelsblatt.com

These events prompted the “Histo­rical Commu­ni­ca­tion” to begin inves­ti­ga­tions on VW’s role in the Brazi­lian mili­tary regime. With their preli­mi­nary archival visits, attempts to estab­lish a (not always easy) dialogue with the concerned workers and the orga­ni­za­tion of a confe­rence at the Univer­sity of Göttingen, Grieger and his team started to seriously deal with the ques­tion of how to evaluate the beha­vior of a multi­na­tional company in autho­ri­ta­rian states. However, in the midst of this process, the company parted from Grieger in October 2016. His review of a commis­sioned study concer­ning the subsi­diary company Audi appar­ently trig­gered this decision. He had insi­nuated that, due to a lack of distance to the client, the study had failed in its objec­tive to flaw­lessly analyze Audi’s entan­gle­ment with the Nazi regime. Pres­um­ably, Grieger’s philo­sophy of addres­sing even the most painful histo­rical ques­tions, which he prac­ticed relent­lessly over the years, had never fully settled in the company’s menta­lity. According to a report of the German public TV channel ARD from July 24, 2017, his rese­arch on Brazil also went too far for the board of management’s taste. The company’s internal panic around the emis­sions scandal since Fall 2015 was not parti­cu­larly helpful for an exami­na­tion of the dark side of the company history.

Domestic and Foreign Expert Assess­ment

Grieger’s dismissal upon request of the company manage­ment was followed by open protest from the commu­nity of histo­rians in Germany as well as disap­pointed media and union reports in Brazil. In the context of these critical reac­tions, VW imme­dia­tely there­after asked histo­rian Chris­to­pher Kopper to produce an inde­pen­dent assess­ment of the company’s rela­tion to Brazi­lian state repres­sion.

Yet, did VW really care for clari­fying its legal respon­si­bi­lity? Did the company want to know what exactly happened in its own factory? In that case, the company could have relied on the study of poli­tical scien­tist Guaracy Mingardi, who had been commis­sioned a few months earlier by the Brazi­lian State Attorney. Pedro Machado, the respon­sible state attorney, said that he unsuc­cess­fully invited VW to parti­ci­pate in the exami­na­tion and to deliver internal company archives.

VW could have just the like supported Brazi­lian rese­ar­chers, orga­nized in work groups such as Mais Verdade in Rio de Janeiro or the IIEP (Inter­câmbio, Infor­ma­ções, Estudos e Pesquisas) in São Paulo, who had been inte­rested for a while in the review of the company’s respon­si­bi­lity under the mili­tary regime. Overall, Brazil does not lack for highly compe­tent histo­rians on the history of the dicta­tor­ship. The condi­tions under which VW contracted the study there­fore leave the impres­sion that, in the eyes of the company manage­ment, only a German rese­ar­cher guaran­teed serious­ness and objec­tivity, no matter whether or not they already possessed serious know­ledge of Brazil’s contem­porary history, society and language.

For Kopper admitted to ARD jour­na­lists that he had to fami­lia­rize himself comple­tely in the matter at first. When reading his final report, it becomes clear that he succeeded. At the same time, all histo­rians are aware of how essen­tial know­ledge of language and context are for histo­rical work. Despite assi­duous rese­arch, Kopper did not include in his own report all of the docu­ments from the poli­tical police and the Brazi­lian secu­rity agency analyzed and repro­duced in Guaracy’s final report.

VW was “Loyal Without Restric­tions” vis-à-vis the Mili­tary Government

Despite these obsta­cles, Kopper handed a serious and objec­tively docu­mented 126-page text in Fall 2017, which (similar to the Mingardi report, handed in to the State Attorney shortly before) was able to confirm most of the suspi­cions against the company: The subsi­diary VW do Brasil assessed the mili­tary coup of 1964 in a posi­tive manner and “behaved loyal without restric­tions towards the mili­tary government.” Between 1969 and 1979, a “coope­ra­tion between factory secu­rity offices and the poli­tical police of the regime” took place, and such “with the consented know­ledge of the manage­ment.” The factory secu­rity offices faci­li­tated the detention of factory employees at a time when the use of torture was “already known to the German and Brazi­lian public.” In addi­tion, workers were moni­tored and poli­ti­cally moti­vated “black lists” created and exch­anged with other compa­nies in order to prevent the employ­ment of indi­vi­duals perceived as subver­sive throughout the entire auto industry. Concer­ning the exploi­ta­tion of rural workers on its Amazon farm, Kopper speaks of the company’s “indi­rect respon­si­bi­lity.”

On the occa­sion of the publi­ca­tion of the “Kopper study,” the plain­tiff victims were invited to a public event in São Bernardo do Campo on December 14, 2017. They did not receive any infor­ma­tion concer­ning the program of the event and there­fore the plain­tiff workers decided to demons­trate in front of the factory gates rather than posing for hand­shakes with company repre­sen­ta­tives: Their banners read “We don’t want a party, we want justice.“

Protes­tie­rende VW-Arbeiter; Quelle: dw.com

In the factory’s confe­rence room, VW used the publi­ca­tion of the Kopper report as a reason to cele­brate the multi­na­tional company as history-conscious. However on this occa­sion an ambi­va­lent message was conveyed, which sounded rather like a denial of their own histo­rical respon­si­bi­lity. Despite prior efforts by corpo­rate manage­ment to keep the histo­rical rese­arch in German hands, no German manager was present; as if the matter suddenly had turned into an exclu­si­vely local problem.

The company’s spokes­person Pablo Di Si attri­buted the abuses listed in the report to “indi­vi­dual offen­ders,” expressed “remorse” in the name of his company without enun­cia­ting the expected “apology,” and unveiled a comme­mo­ra­tive plaque in the honor of the “victims of the dicta­tor­ship,” which excluded any refe­rence to VW and the workers abused by its factory secu­rity offices.

Respon­si­bi­lity in the Present

The rema­inder of the report’s demands went by the board. Kopper was too unknown  in Brazil as to turn his recom­men­da­tion, uttered on German TV – that the company should apolo­gize to its victims and indem­nify them – into a public demand within Brazi­lian society. With the success of Bolsonaro’s right-wing elec­tion campaign in 2018 and the take­over by those nost­algic of the dicta­tor­ship, who despise the work of the National Truth Commis­sion as well as the memory of the victims of the mili­tary regime, his report prac­ti­cally fell into obli­vion.

Poli­ti­cally, the former army officer Bolso­naro stems from the extreme right fringe of the mili­tary regime he adores, though which he reproa­ches for not having killed enough oppo­si­tion members. Within the course of the last three decades, he openly defended fascist values and prac­tices inclu­ding torture, mass murder and poli­tical confi­ne­ment. Despite rapidly shrin­king popu­la­rity within his own country and cata­stro­phic diplo­matic appearance, his government hopes to gain the support of global players on an inter­na­tional scale thanks to its utterly neoli­beral economic policy. How VW will deal with the ques­tion of histo­rical respon­si­bi­lity in this context and as Brazil’s most important car manu­fac­turer must be seriously observed. At the moment, nego­tia­tions are taking place with the plain­tiff workers, in which the company only engaged under threat of a court case.

If VW admitted to a recon­ci­ling approach to the reas­sess­ment of its past and engage in poli­tics of mate­rial and symbolic repa­ra­tion on the victims’ side, a historic step would be taken. With it, the car company could stimu­late a past overdue reas­sess­ment of the mili­tary dicta­tor­ship, which Brazil sorely needs in today’s context: For March 31, Bolso­naro has ordered offi­cial festi­vi­ties for the 55th anni­ver­sary of the mili­tary dicta­tor­ship. If however, VW sweeps the matter under the carpet and conti­nues to treat Bolsonaro’s government like a normal inter­lo­cutor, this would be not only disastrous for demo­cracy in Brazil, it would also demons­trate that VW has learned very little from its three decades of Culture of Remem­brance in Germany.

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  • Antoine Acker teaches and researches in the field of global history at the University of Zurich. He is the author of a book on Volkswagen in the Amazon and several contributions about Brazil's international connections during the period of the military regime.