Book Report: A less-than-professional opinion of Paul Schilperoord’s The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen

It was all fun and games until the death threats started.

The local newspaper is so thin that in a downpour it wouldn’t keep you dry very long. You could swat a yellowjacket with it, but the result would just be one pissed off yellowjacket. You could have it read by the time you walk back from the end of your driveway. For this last reason I’ve resorted to the online version while I wait for my coffee to reach sippin’ temperature. By the time I’m actually sipping, I’m usually caught up on local events and have moved on to the broadsheets.

But one Friday morning couple of weeks ago I had downed two and a half cups, hot, and was in high dudgeon by the time I clicked “submit” in the “readers’ comments” section of the local site. I had been reading about a group of local cyclists who were harassed by a driver. There’s much more to the story; but this sort of thing happens from time to time, and those of you who know me as an avid cyclist will not be surprised to learn that it is always of great personal concern to me.

The thing that got me so fired up was not so much the article itself, nor the general tenor of the others’ comments. It was simply the fact that the comments were so damned predictable. “Bikers” should ride on the sidewalks. (Unsafe anywhere, and actually illegal in town.) They look like a bunch of morons in their brightly-colored spandex. (As if camouflage or golf attire were haute couture.) They need to register, pay taxes, and pass a test. (I figure, for every car trip I’m not taking, I should get a refund on the taxes I’ve already paid because — surprise, surprise! — I’m a driver too!) They’re arrogant. (So?)

In my response, I addressed these points and more. I was a staunch defender of my rights. I waxed eloquent (in my own mind, at least) upon my conviction that the freedoms we claim to value so highly in this country should include the simple act of being able to ride a bicycle without cowering in fear. As long as I’m law abiding and courteous, I asserted, I expect the same from drivers. If this is too much to expect from the citizens of this town, this state, this country — and if I’m someday struck and killed by an angry or careless driver — then you can bury me with what’s left of my bike. I clicked “submit,” closed my laptop, and drove up to Asheville with my wife for the weekend.

I’m fully aware that my first mistake was reading the asinine comments in the first place. Anyone in need of even further evidence of our collective inability to conduct a considerate, civilized, and intelligent sharing of differing opinions need only visit any online “community” whose individual members are permitted to hide behind the anonymity of a “username.” Joining the fray, of course, made me no better than the rest of them — even if my opinions on the matter happen to be the correct ones to have.

Checking the browser on my smartphone for responses once we got to Asheville was probably not a good idea either. The overall gist was that numerous readers seemed all too eager not only to oblige me in my burial wishes, but to expedite the necessity thereof. One even cut to the chase and promised not to bother himself with washing my blood from the pavement. Another ventured to guess that I must be “one of them Subaru-driving liberals,” proving himself to be perceptive, if nothing else. I’ll never know if there were any who came to my defense because I’d had enough. I surrendered. I shut my phone off for the remainder of the weekend and tried not to think about it.

Of course I have this luxury. And I don’t know that you could really call these anonymous taunts “death threats.” Something tells me that none of us would be so self-righteously bold sitting around a table, sharing a meal and a beer.

But Josef Ganz knew about death threats in a very real, very threatening way. He did not have the luxury of shrugging it off as silliness and getting on with his life. Newly released in January was the English translation of Paul Schilperoord’s 2009 book, The Extraordinary Life of Josef Ganz: The Jewish Engineer Behind Hitler’s Volkswagen. Of course you can guess where the author is going from the title alone. But that doesn’t take anything away from the telling.

Tradition tells us that Ferdinand Porsche’s design team, at Hitler’s direction, came up with what would become the Volkswagen Beetle. This book does nothing to dispute that, per se. But Schilperoord’s years of research into how, exactly, that design came about led him to a man who died in 1967 in Australia — broke, broken, and mostly forgotten. The narrative of Ganz’s life is, as stated, quite extraordinary.

Ganz’s heyday — short-lived as it was — was in Germany in the early 1930’s. As early as 1922, the newly-minted engineer was calling for a small car with an air-cooled, rear-mounted, horizontally-opposed engine and swing-axle suspension. Much of his impetus came from a sense of national pride. A decorated German naval veteran of World War One, Ganz feared that his country’s automotive industry was getting left behind by American pioneers such as Henry Ford. He saw a lack of innovation, as the same stodgy automakers continued to manufacture the same underwhelming designs, which were only affordable to the elite few. Clearly, what was needed to get Germany back on its feet was a massive program to produce a reliable, economical, and affordable “people’s car.”

I’ll save you the math: 1922 was ninety years ago, almost three decades before the first Volkswagens came ashore in the United States, and over eighty years before the last of the original Volkswagens rolled of the line in Mexico.

Josef Ganz’s challenges to convention were easily ignored until he became editor-in-chief at Motor-Kritik, one of the most influential automotive publications at the time. Not only was he in a strong position to advocate tirelessly for his ideal “people’s car” (the term Volkswagen, in the generic sense, was bandied about with ever-greater frequency), but he and his staff pulled no punches in their often brutally honest critiques of the latest designs coming from the established German automakers.

There were a few — like BMW, Daimler-Benz, and Adler — who recognized the inspired genius for what he was, and each employed Ganz as a technical consultant while his work at Motor-Kritik continued. At Adler, he was given free reign the create a prototype for a Volkswagen, which Ganz called the “Maikäfer” (or “May Bug”). True to his ethos, it was an air-cooled, rear-engined, swing-axle design. It never went into production, but he drove it as his personal car for years.

The Maikäfer, 1931

Later, Ganz utilized several of his many patents in design work for Standard Fahrzeugfabrik to create the Standard Superior, which actually did have a successful production run — for two years, at any rate. Like the Maikäfer, the Superior adhered (for the most part, as it was not a one-man effort) to Ganz’s requirements. It is also interesting to note the striking similarities between this car and a certain, slightly later design — from a very well-known engineer — that would become an international icon and be manufactured in record-setting numbers.

Standard Superior, 1933

Hitler himself admired the Jew-designed Standard Superior at a major international motor show in Berlin in 1933. And herein lies one of the biggest ironies of the story: Hitler and Ganz — at least from a technological standpoint — wanted the exact same thing. Both men advocated for a mass-produced, reliable, and easy-to-maintain means of personal transportation affordable to the average German worker. To meet this last criterion, the car would have to cost less than 1,000 Reichsmarks. The Superior, at 1,590 RM, wasn’t quite there. But it was the closest thing yet.

With technical know-how and Motor-Kritik as his mouthpiece, Ganz had a way of drawing attention to himself. Which, of course, was exactly what he was trying to do. But as sound and logical as the message was, some were threatened by the messenger. The problem was that Josef Ganz was influential and persistent, controversial yet respected, aggressive yet well-liked. And Jewish. In other words, short of being a gay gypsy, he couldn’t have been more of a threat to the Nazi’s twisted ideals for an industrial savior.

Ganz apparently chose to ignore the more sinister implications of Hitler’s rise to power until this was all but impossible. It started with the lawsuits and countersuits that would dog Ganz until the very end of his days. Really, I can’t help but think that at a time of quickening technical innovation, trying to pinpoint exactly who thought up any given idea first, and what, exactly, constituted a patent infringement played out like a dizzying, cross-border version of “who’s your daddy?” Then there was the behind-the-scenes collusion among the more established players that led to the quashing of the stillborn Maikäfer, as well as the premature demise of the Standard Superior.

Then, as anti-Semitism became official government policy, were the arrests on trumped-up charges, antipathy in the courts, visits from the Gestapo, and one occasion where a would-be assassin was driven away by Ganz’s loyal German Shepherd. The police couldn’t have cared less. Gradually, starting with BMW, his consulting contracts were unceremoniously terminated. And due to new restrictions on press access, Ganz was first stripped of his editor-in-chief role at Motor-Kritik, and then forbidden to publish anything, anywhere, at all. Finally, by 1935, Ganz had fled Germany, never to return.

Borders offered little protection from his persecutors. The lawsuits were par for the course; but there were also the Gestapo, as well as visa troubles, that forced Ganz to stay on the move — Switzerland, France, the Soviet Union, Denmark, Liechtenstein. At one point he even held a diplomatic passport from Honduras — though he’d never even been there. But if any place could be called home in the years that followed, it was Switzerland. At least there he was able to find consulting or engineering gigs from time to time. There was also some promise, with the support of the Swiss government, of putting a version of Ganz’s Maikäfer into serial production in Switzerland, and possibly under contract in France and Poland as well.

But like shit, war happens. Perhaps it’s not so strange that the book offers few details about what occupied Ganz during the actual fighting. After all, I can’t imagine that those dark years in a nominally neutral country with little direct interest in weapons development were exactly ripe for technological advancement. Perhaps the author faced a dearth of documentation pertaining to his subject during this period because there simply wasn’t any.

The end of the war offered little relief to our hero. The complex web of lawsuits continued unabated, many of which seemed the product of little more than spiteful nastiness on the part of Ganz’s detractors. His health began to suffer from the stress. And though the twenty-year relationship with his girlfriend survived exile and a world war, the strain would eventually prove too much.

So in 1951, Ganz decided he’d had enough. He boarded a ship — alone — bound for Australia, determined to create a new life for himself. For the next several years he would do some engineering work for various companies, mainly GM’s Holden subsidiary. But the overall picture that Schilperoord paints is that of a broken, deflated man. Ganz’s health continued to decline, and he suffered a series of heart attacks that left him disabled. Towards the very end there was a degree of renewed interest in his contributions on the part of Heinz Nordhoff, the iconic director of Volkswagen, as well as the Australian press. But when Ganz finally died in 1967 he had little money and even less recognition.

The scope of this book seems to transcend any one genre. Primarily it’s a biography, but it would also be at home on the history shelf. One could even call it a real life thriller, with its page-turning plot twists, international intrigue, and nail-biting brushes with peril. There is even the role of the evil arch-nemesis, played by one Paul Ehrhardt — an erstwhile colleague of Ganz’s who became an agent for the Nazi Sicherheitsdienst (SD), led the smear campaign against him, and pursued him far beyond Germany’s borders. Pathetic weasel that he was, Ehrhardt reminded me of the bad guy in that cheesy action movie you’re loath to admit you paid good money to see, the guy that keeps coming back — the guy that just won’t die, already! So it’s really no surprise that we find him consulting with the Tatra company in lawsuits that followed Ganz all the way to Australia, years after the war. Only Ehrhardt’s own death in 1961 put a stop the nonsense. If this were Hollywood, though, we’d fully expect a sequel in which he rises from the grave in a tattered Nazi uniform, with dirt caked under his fingernails and a worm-eaten briefcase full of legal papers.

If I’m going to play the role of critic, then I suppose I’ve got to come up with some criticism. Right off the bat, I thought an index would have been nice. I’m a slow reader, and I read for details. Schilperoord’s research and footnotes are obviously extensive. He throws a lot of details at you. This doesn’t make the translation any less readable, but many times I had the urge to refer back to a (nonexistent) index when I couldn’t remember where I’d seen a certain character come up before.

A broader issue I had was with the assertion the author makes, on page four of the introduction, that “it is no exaggeration to say that the immensely popular VW Beetle would never have existed without Josef Ganz.” Don’t get me wrong. I always admire the chutzpah of anyone who dares to challenge conventional wisdom (which could apply to both Ganz and Schilperoord, but here I mean the author) and therefore I tend to lend a sympathetic ear to such arguments. Schilperoord no doubt is far more the scholar on the subject than I am. But judging the book solely on the merits of this assertion, I feel that it falls short of the mark. There were to simply too many fingers in the Volkswagen pie to attribute the result to one single man.

To call this Ganz’s baby would be to ignore not only Porsche’s efforts, but that of other eminent designers such as Hans Ledwinka, Béla Barényi, or Edmund Rumpler. Without question, Ganz was one of a select few with both the influence and the ingenuity to do this thing; without question, the Nazis and the established German automakers did their very best, for years, to ensure that Ganz got as little credit as possible. After reading this book, and understanding the undoubtedly huge impact Ganz made on the automotive industry at the time, it is only natural to ask if the Volkswagen would have happened without him. But would it not be valid to ask the same question with regards to Porsche — or Hitler himself for that matter?

I think it is instructive to compare what Porsche was working on in 1938, versus what Ganz was doing over the border in Switzerland. Both designs were with air-cooled, rear-mounted engines and swing-axles. But I believe photos tell a bit more of the story:

Ganz driving prototype for Swiss version of Volkswagen, 1937
KdF-Wagen, 1938

We can speculate all day long about what might have been if Ganz’s environment were more accommodating, if history were on his side, and if he could have seen his ideas come to fruition with the full government support that Porsche enjoyed. Sensationalist claims aside, this book is informative, interesting, and highly readable. All of the previous histories of the marque seem incomplete without this story told.

On a personal level, reading this book — and, specifically, examining the dozens of photographs contained therein — led to the sudden realization that I’m missing something. Something that each of my esteemed heroes of the Volkswagen pantheon had. Something that I do not currently have but could easily cultivate. Ganz had one. Porsche had one. Even that legendary rocket scientist-cum-hippie Volkswagen mechanic and author John Muir had one.

Josef Ganz
Ferdinand Porsche
John Muir

Few people would henceforth wear one in the style of Ganz. Just as there have been very, very few children born since 1945 named Adolf, the style was summarily retired after the man who made it infamous slaughtered millions and died by his own cowardly hand. But beyond that, I figure, as long as I am in compliance with the grooming standards outlined in the employee manual (as well as in Chapter 1, Section 25.0, “Personal Appearance and Uniform Requirements” of the Flight Operations Manual) I’m free to do as I please in that regard. It would be a hell of a lot easier than getting an engineering degree; which, in turn, would be a hell of a lot easier than selling the whole idea to my wife. So this might be one mojo I’ll have to manage without.

Ganz demonstrating very early prototype for Ardie motorcycle company, 1930.