Volkswagen’s chief executive has apologised after closely echoing a Nazi slogan in an attempt to emphasise the importance of growing profit.
Speaking at a company event on Tuesday, Herbert Diess used to phrase “Ebit macht frei”, referring to the acronym Ebit, which stands for “earnings before interest and taxes”.
But Diess’ line also evokes the Nazi idiom “Arbeit Macht Frei”, German for “work sets you free”, which was written above the entrance to Auschwitz concentration camp.
The German chief executive hurried out an apology for what he called “an unfortunate choice of words”.
“At no time was it my intention for this statement to be placed in a false context. At the time, I simply did not think of this possibility,” he said.
Volkswagen was founded as part of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s grand plan to make it possible for German families to own a car in 1937, when this was still unaffordable for many.
Literally translating as “people’s car”, the company went on to become a tool for Hitler’s military campaign across Europe in the second world war, manufacturing vehicles for the Third Reich. The company infamously used more than 15,000 slave labourers from concentration camps.
Diess acknowledged Volkswagen’s “special responsibility in connection with the Third Reich”.
The phrase was also used at the Dachau concentration camp, and became associated with the Nazis’ cover-up of what the facilities were really used for.
Volkswagen announced annual profits of £10bn earlier this week, despite being hit hard in late 2018 by new EU emissions regulations.
Christian Stadler, professor of strategic management at Warwick Business School, said: “This is more negative publicity that Volkswagen can do without, especially in a climate that is so challenging and competitive for car manufacturers."
A number of scandals including one around diesel emissions and widespread product recalls in recent years could have hurt the manufacturer's credentials, he added. "VW has built its reputation on quality. The negative publicity could start to harm that."