Today, the "strength through joy" car. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
A while back, I was looking at some magazines from the 1940s, and I ran across what looked like an ad for the Volkswagen Beetle. Actually, it was an ad against it. It featured a drawing of four soldiers driving off in a family's car, with the caption: Designed for 4 Soldiers and a Machine Gun—and also for family use. This was really an advertisement for Good Housekeeping magazine, which ridiculed Hitler's plan to produce an affordable automobile. "Mrs. America," the ad began, "we do it a little differently around here. No dictator, no army, no government dares to tell you what style your car shall be."
Cosmopolitan Magazine, 1944
The same car I associate with hippies and free love was presented in this ad as the infernal machine of a joyless Nazi Germany. The truth is, the Volkswagen, or "people's car" was indeed a product of Hitler's dictatorship. But what this ad doesn't tell you is that the whole idea was inspired by American consumer culture.
Your Strength Through Joy Car
Let's compare this ad to a poster advertising the car in Nazi Germany. First, it's called the "strength through joy car." Strength Through Joy was a Nazi program to foster internal tourism for the working class. Its purpose was to coopt workers by giving them middle-class vacations and aspirations. The poster features an attractive couple speeding down the autobahn. The man drives contentedly, while his buxom Aryan wife stands up through the sunroof, extending her arm loosely in a wave—or maybe it's the Nazi vacation salute. All jokes aside, this image of freedom and spontaneity could sell a car even today.
Poster advertising "your vacation, 1939" through the Strength through Joy program.
Hitler was an admirer of Henry Ford, who is the only American mentioned in Mein Kampf. The Führer wanted Germany to develop a consumer culture that would stimulate its battered economy. The development of a car all people could afford was a top priority. Like the model T, the car would have one basic design and would be mass-produced in such a way that working people could pay for it bit by bit. Soon they too could enjoy roaming through a country newly opened up by highways and motorcars.
But Hitler was a lousy economist. He didn't understand one crucial aspect of Fordism. Mass production brings cheaper products to market: but only higher wages for the workers guarantee the products will sell. Hitler refused to raise wages, and the results were predictable: workers still could not afford the "people's car." Then, the war came and the dream of mass motorization gave way to mass mobilization.
But if you look at these pre-War posters, you see an oddly Aryan version of a very American idea: the family picnicking in the country, the boy excited as Dad drives up in his new car, common people freely enjoying the beauty of their nation's landscape. Hitler never delivered on this promise; but the Beetle itself was no failure. After the war, it became the most successful car design in history. And here's another irony: the other day I took my wife's Jetta to the dealership and saw the service department now advertises the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval!
I'm Richard Armstrong, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Baranowski, Shelley. Strength Through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Translated by Ralph Manheim. First German edition, 1925. Mariner Books Edition. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Koenig, Wolfgang. "Adolf Hitler vs. Henry Ford: The Volkswagen, the Role of America as a Model, and the Failure of a Nazi Consumer Society." German Studies Review 27.2 (May, 2004):249-268.
The Wikipedia article on the Volkswagen Beetle relates its long production history: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_Beetle
Over 21 million were produced—far beyond Hitler's wildest dreams.
Nazi ad featuring the People's Car along with the People's receiver,
a mass-produced radio.
This episode first aired on May 31, 2013.