There is no shortage of companies extant today that trace their lineage into an Axis past. Most of Japan’s major zaibatsu made it through the MacArthur era, albeit modernized in ownership and management. Fiat made fighter planes for Mussolini yet remains Italy’s most blue-chip industrial enterprise. And Krupp, the most infamous of the “merchants of death,” exists today as part of European heavy industry giant Thyssen-Krupp.
Volkswagen is arguably the most visible of these Fascio-capitalist legacies.
I have spent my career working with companies and their reputations, and I have come to understand that history is not destiny: success is rarely permanent, failures need not be fatal, and a founder’s foibles can be expunged. But a company’s skeletons, however well closeted, are brutally difficult to bury because heritage becomes woven into culture in ways that are often variable and unpredictable.
VW is a fascinating case study, a legacy of National Socialism that has been over the past seventy years alternately beloved and reviled outside of Germany. It would be hard to argue that the company has risen above its past.
What will forever plague the firm – and others like it – is the degree to which the ideology that birthed lies dormant within the company’s cultural fabric. One would hope that, like Ford, VW can remain cleansed of the ugliness in its past even as the past echoes through modern Europe. But the burden of assuring as much remains an obligation of the firm’s leadership.