The Last Beetle

This week Volkswagen will make its last Beetle.  At a plant in Mexico, the last few newly manufactured vehicles will roll off the assembly line, and one of the most iconic car designs in the history of the automotive industry will end.

c7853e1d42303ca7b0e084c948a284e6The VW Beetle probably has the weirdest back story of any popular car brand, ever.  It was originally conceptualized by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as a people’s car, although mass production never began under the Nazi regime.  Its production began in earnest after World War II, when it helped to lead the post-war economic revitalization of what was then West Germany.  Volkswagen sold huge numbers of its “Type 1” — known to pretty much everyone as “the Beetle” because of its familiar rounded, humped design — and then made serious inroads in America, where the VW Beetle was a cheap, small, efficient, easy to repair and customize alternative to the gigantic gas-guzzlers Detroit was cranking out in those days.

The Beetle — and especially the chronically underpowered VW van — became associated with the hippie movement in the United States, and when I was a kid it wasn’t unusual to see VW cars and vans decorated with peace symbols, bright flowers, and other signs of the tie-dyed set.  It’s no coincidence that 1968, when the hippie culture was at its zenith, was the year the most Beetles were sold in America.  In that year, Americans bought more than 560,000 of the cars.  But Japan and Detroit started to be more competitive in the small car market and their efforts made inroads into Beetle sales, and then Volkswagen started to focus on other designs.  A more high-powered Beetle was introduced that was specifically intended to target retro buyers.  Now, Volkswagen is placing its corporate bets on a newly designed compact, battery-powered car.

With the car now being retired, eight decades after the Nazis first thought of it, are there any other cars currently being sold in America that have an iconic image and design even close to the Beetle?  I can’t think of any.  Peace, love, Beetle!

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Nazis Under Antarctica

Ten years ago, satellite observations by NASA detected a gravitational anomaly in the Wilkes Land section of Antarctica.  The gravitational changes caused scientists to discover a massive impact crater and, at its center, a huge object buried under the Antarctica ice.  The object is more than 151 miles long and a half mile thick.

So . . . it’s an asteroid, right?  We know that, from time to time, Earth has been struck by asteroids, leaving impact craters scattered across the globe.  Some scientists believe that large asteroid strikes, and the impact they have had on the planet’s climate, are responsible for some of the mass extinctions seen in the fossil record.  An enormous asteroid striking Antarctica could be responsible for the great Permian-Triassic extinction event, when something happened that wiped out almost all of the plant and animal life on Earth, on both land and in the sea, about 250 million years ago.

Not so fast!  Ancient meteor strikes aren’t really all that interesting, are they?  I mean, that just makes this intriguing anomaly a super big rock buried in ice.  And in fact, when the massive object under the icy wastes of Wilkes Land was first discovered, nobody paid much attention to it.  But when a UFO hunting outfit recently posted a YouTube video about the Antarctica anomaly, suddenly the conspiratorially minded among us started to get interested.

So now the internet with abuzz with the possibility that the massive object could be an ancient UFO, or maybe an alien landing base.  Or the lost city of Atlantis!  Or the entrance to the creepy underworld lair called “Hollow Earth.”  Or — my favorite — a massive base secretly built by the Nazis where they planned to develop and use “flying saucers.”  Lucky for us that those inventive Nazis spent the time, money, and effort to build an enormous snow-encased base for flying saucers, when they could have used those resources, and those flying saucers, to avoid losing the war instead!

I think the possibility that we’ve located a gigantic asteroid that almost killed off every life form on Earth seems pretty interesting, but for some people nothing is as fascinating as speculating about Nazis and UFOs.

Holocaust Survivors

Richard has a fine story in the Post-Gazette about a meeting of Pittsburgh-area survivors of the Holocaust. We can’t imagine what they’ve been through, but it’s heartwarming to know that they meet, remember, and worry about whether that especially unforgivable, murderous chapter in the sordid history of the human race can happen again.

Reading Richard’s story reminded me of the first time I focused on the fact that I met a Holocaust survivor. I was traveling through Europe and encountered a vivacious older woman, probably in her 50s, with flaming red hair and an outgoing personality. We were talking, she shifted in her seat and moved her arms, and a crude numerical tattoo that I hadn’t noticed before was exposed. I looked at it and realized what it was, and she saw that I had seen it and decided to tell her story.

Her name was Bella and she was from Poland, she said. When she was young, the Nazis came and took her family away. She never saw her father and brothers again. She was separated from her mother, and she and her sister lived in one of the Nazi death camps. Her sister died, but somehow she survived. When the war ended and she was miraculously freed, she found that her entire family had been killed — but she felt it was essential that she live on. She related her story in a flat voice, and you could tell that she lived with those horrible ghosts and memories, but there was a definite steeliness to this woman who had endured so much.

Talking to her, I felt embarrassed and ashamed to be a member of the race that could commit such a monstrous act. I also was uplifted, however, by her positive attitude and by her view that, by surviving and going on, she was spitting in the eye of Hitler and the Nazis and their idiotic notions of an Aryan “master race.” There is still much to be learned from victims of the Holocaust.

Mein Kampf, And Combating Speech With Speech

Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler’s feverish biography and racist Nazi manifesto, has not been published in German since 1945.  That will change soon, when an annotated edition will be published for students to read.

The book has not been banned in Germany.  However, the state of Bavaria controls the copyright, and it has not consented to any publication of the book in more than 65 years.  The copyright ends in 2015, and Bavaria has decided to publish a scholarly edition to preempt the field before Mein Kampf passes into the public domain — and also to “demystify” the book for Germans who haven’t been able to read it in their native language.

If you’ve never read Mein Kampf, don’t bother.  I had to read it for a college class, and it was dreadful — badly written, ranting, nutty, and boring.  Reading it was a long, hard slog.  Having read it, I wondered how in the world Hitler could have captured the imagination and loyalty of the German people in the years before World War II.  There certainly was nothing in the book that explained it.

Books can be extraordinarily powerful.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, for example, may have been the most effective means of changing the views of Americans about slavery in the 19th century.  Fearing books and trying to suppress them, however, only enhances their power.  Far better to let hateful speech like Mein Kampf remain available, and respond to it in ways that demonstrate its appalling lunacy.

I’m convinced that those Germans who read Hitler’s diatribe anew will recognize it for what it was:  the rantings of a misguided madman.  Let them read it, and draw their own conclusions.

Lessons Of The Lunar Nazis

The hottest ticket at this year’s Berlin Film Festival is a self-proclaimed “B Movie” called Iron Sky.  Its consciously over-the-top plot features Nazis trying to conquer Earth from a swastika-shaped base on the far side of the moon.

I doubt Iron Sky will ever make it to our local multiplex cinema, but the movie’s popularity shows, once again, that people are endlessly intrigued by Nazis.  Books, movies, and TV shows involving Nazis always seem to find an audience.

The original Star Trek had two episodes involving Nazis — one in which a drug-deranged Dr. McCoy goes back in time and changes history so Germany wins World War II, and another where a famous historian tries to help a culture by modeling it on Nazi Germany, with predictably disastrous results.  Nazis make great bad guys (and often comic relief), as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Inglourious Basterds, among many others, have demonstrated.  Some years ago the book Fatherland, about a detective who uncovers a dark secret in a triumphant Nazi Germany, was a best-seller.  Alternative histories in which Germany prevails in World War II also are a staple of that genre.

Nazi Germany was one of the most brutal, bloody, awful regimes in the history of the world.  Why is it such a popular subject for fiction — to the point where it can even be the subject of humor?  Why does Nazi Germany seem to be a far more popular setting for fiction than, say, Imperial Japan?

Perhaps it is just because Nazi Germany, with its goose-stepping soldiers, stiff-armed salutes, and elaborate uniforms and ceremonies, already seems so fantastic that it is especially well-suited to whatever embellishment a creative mind could supply.  I also wonder, however, whether fictionalizing Nazi Germany is just a kind of cultural defense mechanism.  If you routinely depict Nazi Germany as a setting for outlandish activities, maybe it is easier to forget that a racist, bloodthirsty, soulless government actually existed, slaughtering Jews by the millions and dominating Europe, only 70 years ago — within the lifetimes of millions of still-living people.

How It Began, 70 Years Ago

September 1, 1939 — 70 years ago today — is generally regarded as the date World War II began, with the German invasion of Poland.  (Some might argue, taking a broader view, that the world was at war for most of the 1930s, whether it was the Japanese in Manchuria and China, the Italians in Ethiopia, or the Spanish Civil War, among other armed conflicts.)

Spiegel online is running a two-part series on how World War II began.  Part I is here.  The overwhelming, and tragic, message is that the war could easily have been avoided had France, England, and other European nations called one of Hitler’s various bluffs — but they didn’t, and the war began.  It did not end until six years had passed, entire cities and cultures had been destroyed, 60 million people had died, and the Holocaust had wiped out millions of Jews.  No one could have foreseen that result when, for example, France and England made the decision to accept Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland.

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.