Slave Labor From Auschwitz to Mali

Why it is time for Volkswagen to do the right thing and change the name of its luxury SUV.

There is yet another Islamist-backed war going on, this time in Mali.  While it has a faction seeking to impose Sharia law, and whose leader is a cousin of the head of Al Qaeda in the region, it also is dominated by a long secessionist dispute by the nomadic lighter skinned Tuareg (also spelled Touareg), who have used political instability to push for independence in an area of northern Mali and parts of Niger and other neighbouring countries, they call Azawad.

The Tuaregs have long been the facilitators of trade, including the historical salt trade, through the Sahara desert on their vast herds of camels.  They have a rich culture and while many were nomadic, others settled for the purpose of agriculture and trade.

Ten years ago, Volkswagen, the German auto manufacturer, started production of a high end Sport Utility Vehicle (SUV), which for some bizarre reason it named the “Touareg” after the nomadic Tuaregs centred in Northern Mali and Niger.

The reason for this choice of name, according to the Volkswagen enthusiasts’ website, writing at the time, is that Touareg translates as “Free Folks” and:   “A proud people of the desert, the Touareg embody the ideal of man’s ability to triumph over the obstacles of a harsh terrain.  To this day, they have maintained their strong character and self reliance.”

There are two major problems arising from this description:

The first is that, like the Germans, this proud people have a society that has made extensive use of slave labour.  And the second, is that this supposedly self-reliant people have, in the recent past, made a serious of potentially disastrous alliances, first with Libya, and now with Islamist-Jihadists.

The Tuareg society has a caste system and a long tradition of using slaves.   Until the mid-eighteenth century, perhaps half the value of Saharan trade, dominated by the Tuaregs, was in slavery, and the attrition rate for the slaves marched across the desert was horrible.

The Tuaregs’ use of slaves is well documented.  Although it gradually had reduced by the time of the government’s abolition of slavery in 1968, a cynic in Timbuktu said in 1998, “Yes, they freed the slaves in 1968, but not all of them have been told yet.”

Canadian writers Marq De Villiers and Sheila Hirtle, in their 2002 book, Sahara: A Natural History, state:   “That there are still slaves in the Sahara is not even a secret. The Sudanese government has been using slave labor in its campaign against the pagan south. In Niger and Mali and Mauritania, the Moors and the northern Tuareg have never given up their ways, and while they seldom use the word slave openly, the practice remains.”

They continue:

“Tuareg in the desert towns of Agadez or Timbuktu (Mali) will point out the round huts of the slaves as casually as though they were pointing out the mayor’s house, or the post office. These round huts, usually made of reed mats hung on bent poles, can be found in every vacant space, tucked up against the town walls, lining the road to town rubbish dumps.”

From the vantage point of an increasingly isolationist America, the war in Mali seems to hold little interest, but there is a reason why France deployed ground troops and planes in what has increasingly looked like an Islamist war to take over control of the northern part of the country under the cover of Tuareg nationalist concerns.  Islamist gunmen cited the French intervention in Mali as a reason for its attack and hostage taking at the Algerian gas plant last week.

The Tuareg have had a series of rebellions stretching back to 1916, with ones in 1990 and 2007 before the biggest rebellion that started in early 2012.  The problem for the West, and the rest of Africa, is that the main Tuareg-backed organization, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, is composed of many Libyan trained Tuareg fighters using arms taken from Libya after their ally Gaddafi was deposed with Western help.   With their military and territorial goals, it was not long before an Islamist group, Ansar Dine, joined with them, to implement their Islamist goal of an imposition of Sharia law.

The leader of the Ansar Dine is believed to be a cousin of the leader of Al-Qaeda in the region. It is too soon to tell how the alliances between the main Tuareg-backed organization MNLA and their more Islamist and Jihadist friends, who aim for much more than a secular northern independent country, will turn out.  In any event, Volkswagen’s supposed Tuareg attributes of being self-reliant and overcoming the obstacles of a harsh terrain are no longer even the romanticized myth they once were.

Europeans, especially the French and the English, but also Germans, have often manifested a romantic notion of the Arab desert dweller, with his camels racing across the desert terrain.   From Lawrence of Arabia to the Volkswagen Tuareg, and to the notion of “oppressed” Palestinians, whose sole attribute is its genocidal hatred of a Jewish presence in the Middle East, we see a tendency in European to romanticize the noble savage in the guise of Arab marauder.

Does this explain Volkswagen’s decision to so name its new luxury SUV? At any rate, the company is faced with the awful coincidence that an auto company which in its infancy used some 15,000 slaves has named one of its premier products after a slave-owning and slave-trading people of the Sahara.

Volkswagen was far from alone in its immoral use of slaves. By the end of the war, some 35 German companies, including such giants as IG Farben, Siemens, and AEG, had established an industrial zone adjacent to the Auschwitz concentration camp.   Jews and other inmates would work until they were no longer able to, and then would be disposed of in the gas chambers.

For 50 years, the German companies and their banks who helped launder the money resisted the claims for lump sum and pension compensation by their former slave-workers.  For years, Volkswagen vigorously maintain that it had only used slave laborers on government orders;  however, by 1998 Volkswagen joined a number of other companies who decided to settle class action lawsuits by setting up compensation funds.   It is thought that a big push for VW to make the settlement was that the company was 20% owned by the government of the region of Lower Saxony, where German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder had previously served as Governor.  In addition, the company’s reluctance to pay its slave workers looked increasingly immoral when it was seen to pay large sums of money to buy Rolls Royce and Lamborghini.

By February, 1999, the German Government persuaded major German companies to contribute along with the Government to a fund to pay reparations and pensions to former slave laborers.  This was induced by the growing number of class action law suits that were beginning to pose a problem for international commerce, particularly for the merger of German companies with foreign companies.

A five year study by German historians disclosed that 80% of VW’s wartime workforce of 15,000 were slaves.  Professor Hans Mommsen who headed the study, also was the one to disclose that Ferdinand Porsche was in touch with the notorious SS leader Heinrich Himmler to request slaves from Auschwitz.   Altogether, German companies used more than 2 million slave laborers during the Nazi era.

I am appalled that nothwithstanding the passage of 10 years from the manufacture of the first VW Touareg, and notwithstanding the increasing knowledge of the Toureg people as a result of the war in Mali, there is still no serious concern about a company that used slave labour naming a vehicle after a people that still use slave labour.

Why am I so concerned?   There are several reasons:

  1. In my book, Tolerism:  The Ideology Revealed (Mantua Books), I have argued that the West is infected with a naive and dangerous tolerance of the intolerants who seek to overthrow our tolerant liberal democracy with its separation of church and state and its constitutional protections.  Tolerating culture symbols that give respect to illiberal and slave-owning peoples is a cultural blunder that helps legitimize those who, at the very least, should be shunned.
  2. The West must understand that there is a world war being waged by radical Islamists, and nothing should be done that helps the morale of the enemy, including naming cars after allies of that enemy.
  3. Most of the Nazis are deceased and so are most of the slave laborers (my father, 92, a former slave laborer at Auschwitz, who lost his parents and sister to the gas chambers there, is thankfully still alive) but I am embarrassed that there are Germans around who see nothing wrong with this choice of vehicle name.   I do not blame current Germans for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers, but the moral issue is clear:   We all have a responsibility to make sure the Holocaust doesn’t happen again, but the Germans have a special responsibility to make sure it doesn’t happen again – because it happened there once.    Accordingly the Germans must lead the way when it comes to cultural symbols that are morally questionable.  And they must lead the way when it comes to actions and words against those, like the Iranians and most Arabs and Palestinians who advocate the destruction of the Jewish homeland and the genocide of the Jews living there.

I fully realize that not that many people even know what the name means.  (Car and Driver magazine in January, 2003, thought the name was “something apparently from the legume family”.)   VW produces some 8 million cars per year.  In November, Volkswagen Middle East celebrated in Abu Dhabi its most successful year ever in the Muslim Middle East announcing that its January to October sales were up 22% from the same period in 2011, making VW the fastest growing volume manufacturer in the region.  But that should have nothing to do with the matter.  Volkswagen should do the right thing and change the name.

Howard Rotberg is a Canadian author and publisher.  He is the author of The Second Catastrophe:  A Novel about a Book and its Author and Tolerism:  The Ideology Revealed.  He has written for Pajamas Media, Frontpage Magazine,, the Vancouver Sun, the Kitchener Record, and Canada Free Press and is the founding publisher of Mantua Books, publishing works by such authors as Jamie Glazov, David Solway, Salim Mansur, Paul Merkley, Stephen Schecter and Pamela Peled.   From 1995 to 1998 he anonymously wrote and maintained the web site entitled Boycott, documenting Daimler’s wartime use of slave labour and Chrysler’s failure to divulge same in its prospectus documents at the time of its merger.

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