The name Porsche has long made sports car enthusiasts swoon, but the Nazi past of the famous brand’s founder has left his Czech hometown sorely divided over his legacy. In 2010, Vratislavice opened an ultra-modern, million-dollar memorial to Ferdinand Porsche, who invented the Volkswagen Beetle – among the world’s top selling cars – and in 1898, the first gasoline-electric hybrid.
The German-headquartered Porsche AG loaned cars to the facility, right next to town hall, to help show off their founder’s engineering genius. Town officials, meanwhile, put up signs reading “welcome to Vratislavice, the birthplace of Ferdinand Porsche”. Not all in this modest locality of nearly 8,000 residents northeast of the capital Prague felt comfortable trumpeting their native son, however.
Last year, a new team voted into city hall could no longer ignore growing protests that Vratislavice – in an area annexed by Nazi Germany in the late 1930s – was “memorializing” a man who had worked for Adolf Hitler. Anti-Nazi war veterans and the Jewish community objected to the fact that the facility never mentioned Porsche’s Nazi connections, Mayor Ales Preisler said.
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They condemned Porsche for joining the Nazi SS paramilitary group before the war, and deplored that prisoners of war were used as slave labour at the Volkswagen car plant in Wolfsburg, Germany when Porsche was general manager. To calm matters, the town hall late last year renamed the memorial an “exhibition” and added a text saying Porsche had been a Nazi.
Porsche AG, meanwhile, took back its cars but would not talk about the controversy, saying it was a “local issue”. “All vehicles in our collection are rotated on a regular basis,” was the only explanation given by Porsche AG spokesman Dieter Landenberger who declined further comment.
The facility has been empty ever since. About the same time, the town hall removed the signs proclaiming Vratislavice was Porsche’s birthplace. “These things should not be financed using municipal cash,” Mayor Preisler told AFP, adding Porsche “was a Nazi all right.”
Porsche was born in 1875 into the predominantly ethnic German community in Vratislavice, when it was known as Maffersdorf and part of the Habsburg’s Austro-Hungarian empire. He left at age 18, moving first to Vienna then later to Germany.
His talent in designing cutting-edge engines and cars saw him climb company ranks at renowned auto-makers including Austro-Daimler and Mercedes. When Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, he was quick to ask Porsche to design a “people’s car”, the predecessor of the VW Beetle.
“Porsche was an active Nazi who was on very good terms with Hitler and used this relationship to push his projects,” said Jan Vajskebr, a historian at the Czech Terezin Memorial located in a World War II ghetto and prison.