Volkswagen Military Vehicles of the Third Reich : An Illustrated History – Book Review
Imagine the scene; you walk into the auto dealership and see what looks like what we all know as the VW "Beetle" of the 60’s and 70’s. Yet when the salesperson approaches, she asks if you would like to take the KdF-Wagen [Kraft durch Freude Wagen, or “Strength-through-joy car”] out for a spin. The Strength-through-joy car? Sounds like something a Nazi propagandist would think up for a car name – which of course is exactly what this book is about.
I admit I’ve never owned a VW product, but I do own two Jeeps, a vehicle which has a lineage almost as long as the Beetle, and which also has roots in the Second World War era. Because of this, I had a keen interest in learning about the origins of the Strength-through-joy car and especially its off-road brothers the Kübelwagen and the Schwimmwagen. I found this book to be an excellent primer in the origins and evolution of these vehicles as well as the entire Volkswagen Company. Interestingly enough, Volkswagen and the Beetle were two of Hitler’s most influential positive contributions to the 20th century.
Author Blaine Taylor appears very thorough in his research, and his grasp of military history surrounding VW during the war years is solid. He does a great job keeping the topic interesting, and isn’t ashamed to admit his reason for writing this book was his surprise at initially learning of the odd connection between the Beetle and Hitler (a surprise I shared as well). Several photographs in this book show Hitler and his cronies taking rides in the KdF-Wagen, or checking out design changes at auto shows. This presents the reader with an eerie side of the Nazi party – showing them in what we think of as “modern day” vehicles. I have always tended to think of Nazis as being driven around in big black Mercedes, or other similarly sinister looking vehicles. The photos of Hitler in a convertible “bug” are at once comical and haunting.
However, the book states upfront the wish to avoid politics, and in contrast to the Nazi era it does a good job of showing the post-war rebirth of Volkswagen and its emergence from being a symbol of Nazi prosperity to being a symbol of German survival and patriotism. Immediately after the war the VW factory (sans roof!) was back in action helping the now-decimated country (and its starving workforce) pull themselves out of poverty and back into the European community. It is a tribute to the success of Volkswagen that is has so successfully separated itself from it’s beginnings as part of the Nazi war machine.
The backbone of this book is its photographs (thus the title "Illustrated History"). There are hundreds of interesting and detailed images, and all have very descriptive captions, making this book as enjoyable to page through the pictures as it is to read the respective chapters (one for the Beetle, one for the military-oriented Kübelwagen, and one for the amphibious Schwimmwagen). While there are several pictures and drawings detailing the designs and mechanics of these vehicles, they are done in the just the right amount to give the VW-fanatic enough to pore through, without chasing off the more casual readers who want to learn about a true piece of automotive and military history.
My only minor complaint is the lack of color images (except for the cover art) which would have added even more realism to the Nazi origins of these vehicles. That aside, this book would make a must-have addition to any Volkswagen enthusiast’s collection. The chapters on the Kübelwagen and Schwimmwagen would also make a strong addition for anyone interested in World War II military vehicles. For everyone else, this book is just a great coffee table book to have laying about for those special occasions when you have friends over – especially if any of them are driving descendents of the Strength-through-joy cars!