German Imperialism and Volkswagen: The Dirty Games Continue

Written by Cesar Neto
German imperialism and its companies have a long history of land grabbing, theft of mineral and agricultural wealth, as well as overexploitation of workers. And their opponents have been treated with violence, imprisonment, torture, murder and genocide. In this text we make a parallel of this process of colonial violence that occurred in Africa and in Brazil.
In Brazil, German imperialism supported and sustained the Military Business Dictatorship (1964-1985), and the Volkswagen company, which is one of the largest German companies, has a long tradition of human rights violations and presents itself as the clearest expression of the methods of German imperialist capital. It is noted that in a given period it hid Nazi criminals, and still together with the political police it arrested and tortured workers inside its premises and as if it were still little, they used slave labor on the Rio Cristalino farm in the state of Pará, which was part of its properties.
Shameful tradition of the German bourgeoisie
The repressive tradition of the German bourgeoisie has always been associated with Nazism in the figures of Hitler, Goebbels and other genocides. However, Nazism needed a gestation period before it could be applied directly in Europe. This macabre period of training and experimentation with methods and lexicons of genocidal acts began in the southern part of Africa, specifically in Namibia.
Between 1904-1908, the Germans invaded the region occupied by the Oveherero (or Herero) and Namas peoples and killed over 80,000 people. Thus, arrests, torture, violence against women, rapes, hangings and summary shootings were part of the daily massacres of these peoples. Forced labour camps, concentration camps and extermination camps were built. In Germany, the extermination camps used gas chambers to kill and the gas used, Zyklon B, was produced by Bayer. In Namibia, as they had not yet developed this extermination technique, prisoners were sent to Shark Island. Shark Island is a granite island, without much vegetation and whipped by the extremely cold South Atlantic fog.
The chief Herero who managed to get off the island alive, Daniel Karik, said[1]: “We had no proper clothes or blankets, and the night air from the sea was very cold. The sea fog filled us and our teeth twisted. (…) People died like flies that had been poisoned. The vast majority of the prisoners of war and their families died there. The little children and the elderly died first, and then the weaker women and men. No day passed without countless deaths”.  Of the more than 3,500 people who arrived there, only 193 returned alive.
Gal Lothar von Trotha, commander of the Schtztruppe “pacification” troops, was categorical against the original peoples: “The nation of Hereros must now leave the country. If they refuse, I will force them to do so with the “long pipe” (Maxxin cannon). Any Hereros found within the German border, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I will spare neither women nor children. I will give the order to drive them away and shoot them. Such are my words to the Herero people.”
In the region where it is now part of Tanzania, in 1898, the Germans through the German Colonization Society, run by Karl Peters, occupied the region to produce cotton for the English textile industry. To ensure the export project, it was necessary to build roads, bridges, ports, among other infrastructure works.
Peters, imposed a hateful division of labour different from that which existed before the arrival of the German invaders. It was up to the men to do slave labor in construction and to the women and children to plant and harvest cotton. There was resistance from the population that was subjected to such conditions. However, they were occasional resistances that ended in physical suffering, mutilations and even deaths practiced by the colonizers.
To face the punctual resistances Karl Peters reacted with extreme violence. For this reason he was nicknamed “Milokono Wa Damu” (Man with Blood Full Hand). For his genocidal work and the profits of the German Colonization Society, Karl Peters became an idol in Germany at the time of Nazism. His life was even the subject of a film directed by Herbert Selpin, and Adolfo Hitler was the film’s greatest propagandist[2].
By imposing the social division of labour in which men were destined to work in the construction of the infrastructure and women to look after the family, the house and still had a second day in the cotton groves, the production of subsistence food as it was the previous practice was destroyed and, consequently, the scarcity of food products began. This situation was aggravated in 1905 with a huge drought that affected the region. Food shortages reached their limit and the population rebelled, as they were no longer individual and punctual revolts, but became collective.
In retaliation the Germans reacted violently. In addition to the public hanging of the leaders, Germany adopted the tactic of scorched earth, i.e. setting villages on fire, plantations, destruction of water and food sources. Captain Wangenheim wrote: “Only hunger can bring a final solution. Military actions will be more or less a drop in the ocean”.
The scorched earth policy and food shortages have been exacerbated by the shootings. It is believed that approximately 250,000 to 300,000 people, including men, women, old people and children, died of thirst, hunger or were murdered.
Namibia and Tanzania are two countries that bear the marks of genocide practised by German imperialism. And in the Republic of Cameroon and Togoland (now Togo and Ghana) the Germans have also extended their tentacles with the same fury against the population in search of profits for their companies. These companies and banks that became rich with slave labor, land usurpation and genocide, have a name: a) Deutsche Bank that together with the Disconto-Gesellschaft controlled 90% of the financial and banking services in the German colonies; b) Terex Corporation, successor Orenstein & Koppel, responsible for earthworks and railroads using slave labor; c) Woermann-Linnie (Deutsche Afrika Linien GmbH & Co) that used slave labor and had its own concentration camp in Namibia. Other companies also profited from the occupation of African territories. Among them were Mannesman, Krupp, Bayer, Hoechst and Siemens..
German imperialism and its companies in Brazil
Brazil’s first important relations with German imperialism date back to 1871, during the Reign of Peter II. “Alfred Krupp, who invited Pedro II to visit the Krupp factories, received him in his sumptuous Villa Hügel mansion and gave as a gift one of those Prussian artillery cannons that had revealed their terrible effect in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871)”[3] . This artillery cannon and others that would be acquired by the Brazilian Empire would make the difference to defeat Antônio Conselheiro and his rebels. The central government had made three frustrated attempts to arrest him, but 1896 sent half of all the country’s soldiers armed with Krupp cannons to end the rebellion. The defeat of Antonio Conselheiro in Canudos caused the death of at least 30,000 people.  On one side death and destruction. And on the other side the Emperor breathed a sigh of relief by physically eliminating his opponents and Krupp saw its profits increase with the sale of war material.
The relations of the Brazilian state, its rulers with German imperialism and its companies have experienced periods of complicity and exorbitant profit. In the 1964 coup d’état, the German president, Heinrich Lubke, made the first official visit of a head of state to Brazil in times of the Military Business Dictatorship. Thus, 40 days after the coup the German president came to the country to give his tacit support to the coup perpetrators. This support for the military government continued and expanded in later years. Another authority who visited Brazil was the vice-president of the Economic Commission of the German Parliament in 1971, after the visit he said euphoric that: “The government does not need to face any kind of labor struggle,” he concluded, “while [Brazil’s] economic expansion is in its initial phase, wage policy should protect companies from cost pressure from wages[4].  He wanted to say, changing in kids that: the dictatorship should continue controlling and repressing workers in order to prevent wage increases and ensure the profit of companies.
With full agreement to this position presented by the German government to Volkswagen, it followed in the same line of support to the military business dictatorship and helped to refute the accusations circulating in Europe of the prisons, torture and murder of opponents in Brazil. And Rudolf Leidig, the company’s executive said: “I am convinced that Brazil, from a political point of view, is surely the most stable country in all of Latin America. The fact that here in Europe occasional criticism of the system arises is certainly based on the fact that here people do not have the necessary knowledge and understanding about the country. I am of the opinion that this stability helps to create a necessary and inalienable economic basis for the country. This is certainly the most urgent and priority objective.”[5]
The association of the business and military dictatorship with Volkswagen in favor of “stability”
The visit of the German president, the statement of the vice-president of the Economic Commission of the German Parliament, Gustav Stein, in 1971, and the statement of the VW director-president, Rudolf Leidig, had one right address: to help control and repress the working class so that the country would have stability and a factory floor without any rebellion.
Obviously, Volks has sought to deny its direct participation in the military business dictatorship, but an analysis of the facts demonstrates its responsibility in implementing and sustaining the regime imposed on workers. Let’s see:
* Financing the Articulation and Preparation of the Coup d’état: The IPES (Institute for Research and Social Studies) was the articulator and irradiator center of the Coup d’Etat. Among its leaders was João Baptista Leopoldo Figueiredo, who was one of the highest management structure of Volkswagen in Brazil between 1963 and 1970. The National Truth Commission considers him one of the organizers of the collection of money from entrepreneurs to be used in repression. Can anyone believe that Volkswagen did not put money to repress?
* Supply of Vehicles for Repression: The German communication network, Deutsche Welle (DW) reports: “the German multinational has donated to the military regime about 200 vehicles, then used by the law enforcement agencies”.[6]
* Support for the Nazis: The first president of the Brazilian Volks was Schultz-Wenk, who had been a Hitler Youth, fought in the German Army on the western front and was arrested by the British. After his release he got a job in the company and was transferred to Brazil. Another Nazi in the Volks was Franz Paul Stangl, commander of the extermination camps in Treblinka and Sobibor, which killed around 800 thousand people. He worked for Volks, in São Bernardo do Campo, from 1960 to 1967 when he was arrested.
* Prison and Torture inside the factory: In July 1972, the toolmaker Lucio Bellintani, on his bench, accustomed to the jokes of his colleagues, felt a pipe in his back, but when he turned around, he came across the political police with a thick calibre gun on his back. From there he was taken to the company’s Asset Security in Wing 13, where the torture session that would continue for the next few months began, even without his own family knowing his whereabouts. Thus, Volkswagen was supporting the repressive system, acting together with the police action inside its facilities, and also the company’s space served as a place of torture.
* Parallel Political Police Coordination: In the industrial region of the Vale do Paraíba, where Volkswagen has a factory in the city of Taubaté, it coordinated CECOSE (Community Security Center), which brought together several companies and military bodies, especially the Aeronautics. Transnational companies such as Caterpillar, Ericson, Ford, General Motors, Johnson-Johnson, Philips, National, Rhodia, Brazilian state companies such as Petrobras and Embraer were part of the Community Security Center. The primary function of CECOSE was to discuss labor and strike problems, in addition to drawing up “reminders” that were actually lists of employees considered subversive that circulated among the companies and thus prevented workers taxed as “subversives” from getting new jobs in a clear expression of accusation and punishment without the accused having the right to a defense.
* Slave labor: Since German imperialism and its companies were not punished for slave labor in Africa, they felt free to return to this practice in Brazil at the end of the 20th Century, while in Europe they repented for the crimes committed during Nazism. Thus, they practiced slavery in Brazil, as they did on the farm owned by Volks. The Fazenda do Rio Cristalino, in the south of the State of Pará, still carried out a monstrous deforestation, which used slave labor, in those places where people lived as confined as in the forced labor camps in Namibia, Tanzania and in Germany itself under Nazism.
The long struggle for memory, truth, reparation and justice
In Namibia the Hereros and Namas, especially the Hereros, have been trying for over a decade to remember, that is, to tell what happened so that it does not fall into oblivion. But to tell the story from the point of view of the people who were defeated in order to tell the truth. They are fighting for the German Government to acknowledge their mistakes and repair the damage done. And so, and only so can justice be spoken of.
The Hereros have carried out numerous activities both inside and outside the country. Esther Muinjague[7], the main leader of the Hereros, gives a moving account of the violations committed by the Germans and the long journey of struggle for redress and justice.
 In Brazil, as an unfolding of the National Truth Commission (CNV), all the trade union centers in the country signed and presented a representation and denunciation to the Federal Public Ministry to investigate and take appropriate measures against the crimes committed by Volkswagen in Brazil from 1964 to 1985. After the investigation, the Federal, State of São Paulo and Labor MPs concluded that the company was responsible for serious human rights violations. They are now negotiating with Volks for forms of redress.
Imperialist Germany and Volks try to throw their crimes under the carpet
The crimes committed in Namibia and Tanzania left many marks, many traces and much evidence. In the case of Namibia, the work of Esther Muinjangue and the organization in which she participates resulted in a large number of evidence of military, civilian and corporate involvement. The military reports describe in great detail how they, the German Army, committed the crimes against humanity. The documents and photos prove that several boxes with Hereros’ skulls were cleaned by the women and shipped to Germany, where they were studied in medical academies in order to prove the supposed “superiority of the Aryan race”. Not to mention the pictures of naked black women treated as mere exotic sex objects and used as such for exposure to the soldiers of the occupying army.
Even so, German imperialism denies itself two basic acts: recognizing its crimes and compensating the families that were expelled from their lands and had their animals, such as cattle, confiscated, causing a serious food impact on the population for a long time, since milk and its derivatives were the basis of food for the peoples of the region, after which they never recovered their quality of life. The Hereros, despite the massacre suffered, do not demand much. They want something simple, they want an apology and compensation for the community that lives in conditions of social marginalization without access to basic conditions for survival as a consequence of genocide.
Volkswagen has to repair the damage caused
While the head office, based in Germany, says it was not aware of these practices, even though the documents found in Germany prove exactly the opposite. In Brazil, Volkswagen has been trying to apply the same policy, that is, it wants to evade its responsibilities, because it seems that the company’s strategy is to delay the resolution of the case as much as possible in order to make the terms of the negotiation worse, lowering the forms of repair, particularly with regard to collective repairs.
That is why, recently, the company has been trying to destroy the main point of the negotiations so far: a space for the consciousness of the workers, a place that preserves the memory of the struggles of the working class in the dictatorship and can be visited and known by the new generations. This claim represents an accumulation built in a unitary way in the union movement since the CNV. It is important to remember that on November 1st, 2015, the company itself declared to the journalist Marcelo Godoy, through the head of its Corporate History Department, Manfred Grieger, that it would build a memorial as a way to repair its participation in the dictatorship[8].
Volkswagen’s biggest problem is not financial – the amounts that would be earmarked for repairs are derisory for the company compared to its wealth – but historical and political. The company does not want to bear the burden of having its name linked to another dictatorial regime, because it aims to maintain an appearance of regret for what it did during Nazism.
Building a great arc of alliances against German imperialism and its companies and for redress and justice
German imperialism and Volkswagen disregard the evidence presented, as they have enough economic power to stop any legal initiative. In the Brazilian case, they have the support of the Federal Supreme Court, which recognizes the amnesty self-promised by the military and ignore the guidelines of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
We need to build a great bridge of solidarity between the colonial peoples so that together we fight for memory, truth, reparation and justice. At the level of company workers, in the Volkswagen case we need a policy of denouncing VW’s methods of control, repression and exploitation. To this end, the trade union leaderships must clearly choose one side.
[1] SANTOS, Adriana Gomes (org). África: colonialismo, genocídio e reparação. Editorial Sundermann, 2019
[3] Russau, Christian. Empresas alemãs no Brasil. Elefante Editora, 2019
[4] idem
[5] idem
[7] Genocídio na Namíbia –

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