Volkswagen's Scandal Hits Its German Hometown Hard

Sep 25, 2015
Originally published on September 25, 2015 1:06 pm
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Volkswagen is set to name a new CEO today. The world's largest carmaker has been plunged into turmoil since revelations that it deliberately cheated on emissions standards tests involving over 11 million diesel vehicles. For decades, the small town of Wolfsburg, Germany, has been VW headquarters. And as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, people there may be anxious about the future, but they're trying not to show it.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In Wolfsburg, every family has somebody who works for Volkswagen. And if Volkswagen's fortunes flag, so will the economy of this wealthy, little town. But you'd hardly know there's a crisis. The pedestrian streets are bustling, and the shops are full. In the town's center, people relax at picnic tables, drinking beer and listening to an oompah band. But across town, beneath the brick chimneys of the Volkswagen plant, it's another story.

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As stony-faced workers leave the factory, no one wants to talk to a journalist and her interpreter. With all the media buzz about the made in Germany label being tarnished, who can blame them? One worker finally stops to give his viewpoint.

OLAF: The head of Volkswagen, they are working for themselves, and we are working for car drivers.

BEARDSLEY: Bad things happen, says Olaf, who doesn't want to give his last name and rushes off to catch his train. The scandal spread this week when Volkswagen admitted it had tried to cheat emissions tests not only in the U.S. but in Europe. France, Germany, even India and Australia say they'll begin random checks on diesel cars. Speaking on the nightly news, German Green party member Anton Hofreiter says that's long overdue.

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ANTON HOFREITER: (Through interpreter) We need an inspection of all diesel models that are currently on the roads in Germany, in test mode as well as in reality on the street.

BEARDSLEY: Volkswagen was founded during the Third Reich and rolled out its first VW Bug for Hitler in 1938. During the war, the company used slave labor to produce military vehicles, and its factory was bombed by the Allies. Volkswagen resumed civilian car production after World War II and has grown into a world conglomerate, which now owns Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini and other brands.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking German).

BEARDSLEY: German media are reporting the new CEO will be Matthias Muller, who is the current head of Porsche and has been with the company for decades. The scandal has also called into question the entire concept of clean diesel, which the German auto industry was pushing U.S. consumers to embrace. And it's cast suspicion on other manufacturers of diesel cars such as Volvo, Renault and Hyundai. One Brussels-based environmental group reported the average diesel car was producing emissions five times as high as what was permitted. Outside Volkswagen's factory gates, a few workers gather around a kiosk where Marguerite Paschek sells beer, cigarettes and lottery tickets.

MARGUERITE PASCHEK: (Speaking German).

BEARDSLEY: Paschek says Wolfsburg survived the Allied bombing in 1945, and it'll survive this, too. Volkswagen still means quality, she says. Back in the center of town, Ingrid Munch says she's surprised by the Volkswagen scandal but not shocked.

INGRID MUNCH: Because there are so many shocking news in the world today (laughter). There's so many corruption everywhere (laughter). So how can you be shocked about this?

BEARDSLEY: With wars in the Middle East and refugees pouring into Germany, says Munch, it's hardly the worst problem. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Wolfsburg, Germany. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.