November 4, 2016
This multinational industrial powerhouse hired a renowned historian to write a book about the most embarassing moment in their past and you’ll never guess what happened next!
by Simon Reichley
Imagine an extremely successful company, with an iconic brand and one of its industry’s most recognizable flagship products. Now, imagine that same company, at the height of its powers, essentially commissioning a thousand-page book about the horrifying crimes it committed during a period of great national upheaval.
Any guesses on what that company might be, and where it might be headquartered?
Good guess! Of course we’re talking about German automaker Volkswagen, who in 1996 funded Manfred Grieger und Hans Mommsen’s magisterial study of VW’s extensive use of forced labor in its Wolfsburg factory complex during World War II.
The study, titled Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im dritten Reich (“Volkswagen and its Workers During the Third Reich”), made extensive use of company archives, which Volkswagen executives generously made available to the researchers. After the book’s publication, Greiger stayed on with Volkswagen under contract as an in-house historian.
However, as reported by Alison Smale and Jack Ewing at the New York Times, Volkswagen has suddenly ended its relationship with the historian, inciting a mob of seventy-five German academics to pen an open letter claiming that the manufacturer terminated Greiger for “historical whistleblowing.”
Why would a company that hired someone, pretty much expressly for the purpose of blowing a historical whistle, then fire that person twenty years later for doing more or less exactly that? For the same reason that every other snooping academic gets into trouble: they dug too deep! They knew too much! There are some things that mankind is not meant to see or hear!
Specifically, last year Greiger wrote a critical review of a different historical study, which explored the war time history of Audi, a Volkswagen subsidiary. According to Smale and Ewing, this went mostly unnoticed (for obvious reasons) until a German business weekly picked up the story in August of this year. Apparently, this level of exposure led some VW executives to suggest putting Greiger on “a short leash,” which seems to have precipitated the break.
Predictably, this isn’t how VW is describing the situation. On Tuesday they released a statement, insisting that “Volkswagen continues to recognize the achievements of Dr. Grieger and to thank him for the work performed,” and that “Volkswagen has examined its history as an enterprise consistently, honestly and strongly, and will continue to do so.”
Greiger, for his part, has remained silent. Perhaps one day he will write a thousand-page book about his dismissal, and about German automotive malfeasance at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
In any event, it’s nice to see that people still care enough about books to fire someone for thinking the wrong thing about them.
Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.