At NC Museum of Art, insensitivity on display among Porsches

January 18, 2014 


The Porsche by Design exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh is expected to attract 100,000 visitors before it closes.


Every once in a while the N.C. Museum of Art hosts a blockbuster show – exhibits in recent years devoted to Monet and to Rodin come to mind – but the current smash show “Porsche by Design: Seducing Speed” featuring 22 automobiles built between 1938 and 2010 breaks new ground.

Unlike earlier blockbusters focused on high art, this one not only expands our sense of art to include car design –“hollow, rolling sculpture” as Arthur Drexler, an influential curator of architecture and design at MOMA, once put it – but also expands the museum’s audience to include car buffs, racing fans and automotive engineers, at least some of whom wouldn’t normally find themselves paying $18 to see exhibits at high-tone art museums.

That’s why the show, which opened in October and originally scheduled to close Monday, has been extended for two weeks. By the end, total attendance is expected to exceed 100,000. And this is all to the good. Congrats to the museum and its staff for thinking out of the Box(ster).

But after having visited the show and reading the handsome exhibition catalogue, I was shocked and saddened by the arid formalism motivating the show, the egregious absence of context and the rank insensitivity to individuals and groups who historically suffered because of actions taken by some of the engineers being celebrated at the museum.

To cut to the chase: For decades it has been well-known that Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951), the brilliant automotive engineer who founded the company and who is in many ways the star of the museum show, was a dedicated Nazi. Not just any Nazi, either. He joined the party of his own volition in 1937 and was friendly with Hitler, as well as with other high-ranking Nazis such as Heinrich Himmler and the Nuremberg criminals Robert Ley and Fritz Sauckel.

In the 1930s Porsche was famously involved in the “Volkswagen” project – the original “beetle” – and other cars, including the Porsche Type 64, Berlin-Rom Racer (1938) featured at the show. During the war, Porsche, not surprisingly, devoted a good deal of his attention to military production – he oversaw the design of a number of German tanks, for example – while continuing to produce motor vehicles at his plant in Wolfsburg a small number of Volkswagens, but mostly all-terrain vehicles with military applications.

While Porsche presided over the company during the war, the Wolfsburg plant was managed by his son-in-law, Anton Piëch, beginning in 1941. The plant’s labor force consisted of a combination of free German workers and forced foreign laborers – including slave labor – throughout the war, with the ratio between free and forced labor turning overwhelmingly toward the latter as the war went on.

Most of the forced laborers were from the east: Russian prisoners of war, deportees from Poland and then increasingly Jewish concentration camp inmates. Indeed, according to the distinguished German historian Hans Mommsen’s massive 1996 work, “Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich” – which was commissioned by Volkswagen itself – VW managers personally visited Auschwitz in 1944 to secure several hundred Jews for slave labor in the Wolfsburg plant.

If some scholars (including Mommsen) still see Porsche as an “apolitical technocrat,” who was willing to overlook anything in order to achieve productive efficiency and to build exceptional machines, most are not so willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. That he was imprisoned for 20 months by the Allies after the war for his involvement in and support of the Nazi regime is only the beginning. But for the onset of the Cold War and the need to quickly rebuild German industry, he likely would have been jailed longer.

Yet one would know none of this from visiting the exhibition (which received significant support from Porsche) or from reading the exhibition catalogue. There is nothing in the museum about the founder’s nefarious wartime labor practices (check out the timeline on the wall), and the contributors to the volume gloss over Porsche’s relationship with the Nazis, except to say, rather implausibly, that he was “unjustly detained in France” after the war.

As one enters the exhibition, it is pointed out that “[t]he exhibition focuses on Porsche engineering and design, past and present.” But at the expense of everything else? A display or two discussing Porsche’s controversial history, a lecture or two at the museum by one or another of the Triangle’s many eminent scholars of Germany or an essay in the catalogue about Porsche during World War II would have complicated the exhibition and added much-needed interpretive tension to the admittedly beautiful but ultimately sterile vehicles on display.

In a famous 1940 essay, the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin wrote: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” That pretty much sums up the way I feel about the cars designed by Ferdinand Porsche, who in 1999 was posthumously honored as the “Car Engineer of the Century.” Benjamin, by the way, died shortly after completing the essay, committing suicide in the town of Portbou in Catalonia while in flight from the Nazis.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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