The all-time most popular car, the Volkswagen Beetle, was not invented by Adolf Hitler but by a Jewish engineer, Josef Ganz. He designed and even built a first prototype that was ready to be taken into production. Hitler's Nazis thwarted him for so long that he had to give up, Dutch journalist Paul Schilperoord writes in a recent book, "The true story of the Beetle" (in Dutch):
“In 1929, Josef Ganz started contacting German motorcycle manufacturers for collaboration to build a Volkswagen prototype. This resulted in a first prototype built at Ardie in 1930 and a second one completed at Adler in May 1931, which was nicknamed the 'Maikäfer' ('May-Beetle').”
Paul Schilperoord, an engineer as well as a journalist, has been fascinated by the true story behind Volkswagen's Beetle since the 1980s. When he chanced upon an article in an old edition of the Automobile Quarterly magazine, he discovered Josef Ganz, who as a student had his own reasons for designing a cheaper car. "He often crashed with his motorbike, once even so badly that he crushed his left leg. What he really wanted was a car which was a lot safer, but just as affordable as a motorbike."
Mr Schilperoord closely follows the history of Ganz' first production model, the Standard Superior. It appeared in the spring of 1933, "in May when the May beetles fly" at the Berlin Motor Show. Hitler, appointed Chancellor in January 1933, opened the show and saw the Standard Superior.
The German dictator showed an interest in the prototype. Such a car fitted his plans to "motorise" Germany, except that it had been designed by a Jewish engineer. Instead of ordering the Standard car factory to develop and produce the Jewish-designed car, Hitler looked for another German developer to take over.
A surviving sketch from the 1930s, allegedly made by Hitler himself, shows the outlines of a Beetle-like car. The drawing is said to be given to car maker Daimler-Benz, who apparently turned down the job before it was given to Porsche in Nuremberg.
Attempt to kill Ganz
Ganz was arrested by Hitler's secret police, the Gestapo, only weeks after the motor show. He was charged with blackmailing the German car industry, but released soon after.
Paul Schilperoord describes a possible attempt on Ganz' life during the "Night of the Long Knives" in June 1934, when the Nazis executed a range of political opponents. Ganz's dog attacked the thug sent to kill the engineer and saved his life. As a Jew, Ganz's complaints to the police were not registered by the anti-Semitic regime's police.
A second assassination attempt, which failed because Ganz was in Switzerland, convinced him to take refuge abroad. He continued to work on a Volkswagen or "People's Car", design - even the name had been invented by him in the 1920s - but the competition from the mass-produced German Beetle was overwhelming.
By 1939, the Nazis began their occupation of Europe. One of their tools was a nifty commando vehicle - a spruced-up version of the Beetle, which took German Army commanders reliably into the battlefield zone, even into the African desert. After the end of World War II and the collapse of the Nazi regime, Germany's economy recovered with international help. The car industry, and Volkswagen with its Beetle in particular, became a huge success.
In Switzerland, Ganz tried in vain to reclaim intellectual ownership of the Beetle. His name carefully erased from the history books by Hitler's Nazi regime, Ganz moved to Australia in 1951, where he died in 1967.
• More about Paul Schilperoord's book on the Destination Israel blog (external link)
• View successive generations of VW beetles (external link)
• Collection of documents about Adolf Hitler: Hitler Historical Museum (external link)