The People’s Car

The People’s Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle, Bernhard Rieger

         As someone quite illiterate insofar as the history of technology is concerned, I thought this book did an excellent job of elucidating through example just how ingrained in a society’s beliefs, prejudices, and self-perceptions technologies are, and equally important, how easily the same technologies can adapt to new socio-cultural environments. Technologies can be overtly used — like the VW Beetle was by the Nazi regime — to further political, social, or economic goals or ideologies, but the purposeful instillation of technological ethos is not the only way that a technology can acquire social meaning. The beetle’s adaptation to cultural environments outside of Germany (and even inside of West Germany, a quite different landscape from the one of its conception) proves that technologies can acquire meanings far beyond those instilled in them by their developers. Author Bernhard Rieger cleverly displays the nuances and complicated patterns of societies’ relationships with technologies, demonstrating that neither technological determinism nor the social construction of technology paint a full picture of the way that a technology interacts with a population. Instead, as evidenced by the effects the bug had on society and the way that society in turn shaped the bug, a reciprocal relationship emerges in which society and technology converse and enact changes in one another.

The book showed how technologies can be an avenue through which political entities proliferate (radio) and reinforce their ideologies; the VW Beetle in its promotion by the Nazi party was meant to “demonstrate how the emerging ‘people’s community’ would raise the average German’s living standard.” (58-59) Things can be said, ideas made manifest, through the use of commodities. In Rieger’s words; “Material objects often acquire profound personal and collective significance because they make the ‘abstract… concrete, closer to lived experience.'” (6) Hitler was able to make his ideologies concrete by enacting technological policies that put his beliefs about the ideal society into action. In a way, the technologies spoke back — and said something about the realities of human nature — when his laissez-faire Highway Code backfired. Perhaps, if he had listened when the human-technology conglomerate (men driving cars) spoke, he would have found that is worldview (and what he wanted for Germany) was untenable.

After WWII, the bug was in a precarious situation in occupied West Germany. Rieger’s account of how it bounced back, in no small part due to its revamped and heavily revised cultural aura, offers the first example of how a technology can adapt to different socio-cultural environments. In order to remain culturally attractive, the bug had to shed its Nazi origin story; like the society that surrounded it, it was viewed as a victim of the Third Reich. Its paramount success in the otherwise dire post-war economy served as a beacon of hope for Germans. Where the Nazis had failed, the Federal Republic had finally provided a long forgotten promise of providing the average German a vehicle. This drastic reworking of VW’s actual history goes to show that technologies evolve and adapt with the populations they were created to serve and are not static historical factors. They can also play a role, as they had in the 1930s and 1940s, in establishing and reinforcing cultural identities. Battered Germans looked at the success of the beetle and saw an economically viable, competitive Germany in their future, if they would only work hard like those in Wolfsburg had.

The latter half of the book is what makes Rieger’s history “global”; in it, he outlines the bugs’ donning of a few other cultural robes. The Nazi origins of the car tended to be too much of an obstacle to the British constituency, displaying limits to the beetle’s techno-cultural adaptability. In America, by contrast, after initial hurdles the Volkswagen became very popular. As part of a new society, however, it took on a very different identity. Instead of the hearty “people’s car,” the standard-setter it had been in Germany, the bug adopted a distinctly unorthodox and counter-culture ethos in the American market, which was dominated by much larger, domineering vehicles. In Mexico, the beetle — or vochito — adopted yet another cultural ethos. Again, its simple yet reliable engineering proved advantageous; Mexicans identified the car as “tough” and “thick-skinned,” “capable of handing both actual and metaphorical bumps in the road,” like its hardy clientele. (283)

Rieger employs a somewhat elementary version of gender analysis, commenting occasionally on how the culture surrounding the car differed for men and women. A lot more could have been done here, but at 335 pages, the book was already quite hefty. Another mild complaint I had was that it seems a bit much to call a book that covers Germany, the United Kingdom, America, and Mexico, “global,” but again, including more would have made Rieger’s book a monolithic project and read. This begs the question, however, of what exactly “global” means to historians — because if it means only four countries, three of which are western European, that seems problematic.

I came away from the book with a far deeper understanding of the way that, to borrow from Dr. Heyck, technology and society reinvent one another over and over again. While the appearance of the bug — because it was such a large part of its draw — remained more or less the same, its cultural meaning was constantly being reworked, just as the societies in which it found itself developed unique and varied ideas of what it meant to them. The car’s reentrance into the automobile market in the 1990s speaks to how powerful and long lasting these associations can be. Additionally, Rieger’s explanations of why the VW caught on (or didn’t) displayed just how important international politics and economics are to technological adoption and adaptation. Far from being static entities only reflective of their designers’ technological goals, technologies can tell historians a lot about the worlds they were produced from and used within.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s