The Jew who created Hitler's people's car

A new book reveals the unexpected origins of the Volkswagen Beetle.

By Jessica Elgot, December 1, 2011
Josef Ganz (left) at the wheel of his “people car” prototype in 1933

Josef Ganz (left) at the wheel of his “people car” prototype in 1933

Everyone thinks they know the story of the Volkswagen Beetle. Created by Ferdinand Porsche, under the guidance of Adolf Hitler, the Beetle is not only the most popular car of all time, it was the most successful project of the Nazis. But practically no one, says Dutch journalist Paul Schilperood, knows that the car was actually the brainchild of a Jewish engineer.

Schilperood has spent six years researching Josef Ganz, an innovative engineer and renegade journalist from Frankfurt, who sat at the wheel of his prototype small car, which he described as a "Volkswagen" ("people's car"), as early as 1931. Schilperood believes Ganz was deliberately erased from history by the Nazis because he was Jewish. "It gripped me, the idea that a Jew could be behind the most long-lasting thing the Nazis ever did. But is no exaggeration to say that the VW Beetle would not have existed without Josef Ganz.

"The actually construction of the VW Beetle is the same as Ganz's design and specifications, but the technical details have been changed, very slightly."

It was in 1923 Ganz, then an engineering student, sketched his first "people's car" design, but he lacked the money to build a prototype. He turned instead to journalism, hoping to influence car-builders. As editor of the controversial motoring magazine, Motor-Kritik, in the late 1920s, he preached his vision of a car for the masses with a rear-mounted engine and a streamlined shape.

He contacted vehicle manufacturer Adler with a view to a colloboration and in 1931, a prototype, nicknamed the May Bug, was produced.

In February 1933, 12 days after the Nazis came to power, manufacturer Standard Fahrzeugfabrik showcased a car built to Ganz's exact design and specifications at the International Automobile and Motorcycle Exhibition in Berlin, opened by Hitler. The new Chancellor inspected the car, which Ganz advised should be sold for only 1000 Reichsmarks and could be driven by anyone with a motorcycle licence. The concept would be revolutionary, but not for Ganz. It was the beginning of his fall from grace.

"He was an exceptionally strong and fearless man, with a deep belief in freedom of the press. He was constantly exposing scandals in the car industry," Schilperood says, "And then along came Hitler, when Ganz was at the peak of his career, and he was not exactly a big fan of freedom of the press. But Ganz was not afraid; even in 1934, when he was already under a lot of pressure, he started a court case against Paul Ehrhardt, a former colleague, [for defamation in the Nazi newspaper Die National Front] who was a close friend of Hermann Goerring and who had links to the Gestapo.

Ganz was arrested in 1933 for attempting to "blackmail the automobile industry" but was later released. In April 1934, the Nazis made their first attempt on his life, which his dog Dolly foiled by attacking the hired assassin. A second attempt, when he was already abroad in Switzerland, convinced him to become an exile.

However, he had to make one last trip back to Frankfurt, in order to retrieve the documents that proved he had designed the car. "He knew he could be arrested if he went back, but he decided to take the chance," says Schilperood.

Ganz fled Germany for good in June 1934 - the month Adolf Hitler assigned Porsche to design a mass-produced car, which would cost 1000 RM.

He picked up his work in Switzerland, producing prototypes in 1937 and 1938, but after the war began, he found himself once again hunted by the Gestapo. In addition he become involved in disputes over patents with German and Swiss companies. After five years of legal battles, he fled to France.

In 1951, he left Europe for Australia. "From 1963 onwards his health declined horribly," says Schilperood. "Statements from doctors at the time state that his ill health was directly related to his experiences during the Nazi era.

"He had no wife and no children. No one was interested in him. In his later years, he sat in his home in Australia, surround by all his documents, just hoping someone would rediscover him."

He attempted to tell the world how Hitler had stolen his "Volkswagen", writing in Australian Motor Sports magazine in 1956: "Apart from the position of the engine behind the axle, the Volkswagen today principally is little different to the one I proposed in 1928. They haven't even changed the name!"

The May Bug prototype he built in 1931 was still sitting in a garage in Zurich.

Ganz died in 1967. "His family has not really taken up the cause," Schilperood says. "His great niece, Maja Van Tolnai, is still alive. She gave me a letter he wrote for her in 1963, when she was a few months old, to be given to her when she was 20. It was very touching. He wrote that he hoped she would live in a time 'in which it is truly worth living, and not ruled by violence but by the law'."

'The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer behind Hitler's Volkswagen 'by Paul Schilperood is published next week by RVPP at £26.95

Last updated: 12:50pm, December 1 2011