Volkswagen Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess apologised for his use of a phrase that appeared to play on the slogan on the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp, “Work sets you free.”
Diess said “Ebit macht frei” during an internal Volkswagen event, in a reference to the abbreviation for earnings before interest and taxes, evoking the Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei.”
The misstep coincided with a notice that the US Securities and Exchange Commission has sued VW over the diesel emissions cheating scandal.
“It was in fact, a very unfortunate choice of words and I am deeply sorry for any unintentional pain I may have caused,” Diess wrote in a post on his LinkedIn page. “For that I would like to fully and completely apologise.”
The comments are all the more unfortunate considering Volkswagen’s history. The automaker was founded by the German government in 1937 to mass-produce a low-priced car, and was originally operated by the German Labour Front, a Nazi organization. Volkswagen, whose factory was repurposed during World War II to build military equipment and vehicles, is today the world’s biggest automotive group with brands including Audi, Bugatti, and Porsche.
The expression ‘Ebit macht frei’ was made in an internal management presentation in connection with operating margins from various company brands, Diess said. Within Volkswagen, “brands with higher margins have more freedom within the Group to make their own decisions. My comment was made within this context,” he said.
The CEO said it wasn’t his intention to make this expression in a way that could be misinterpreted, and he didn’t consider the possibility that it could be.
“Volkswagen has undertaken many activities over the last 30 years that have made the company, myself personally and our employees fully aware of the historical responsibility Volkswagen bears in connection with the Third Reich,” Diess wrote.
VW’s powerful works council welcomed Diess’s “swift clarification and unequivocal apology” for the remark, adding that remembrance and responsibility are part of the company’s DNA.
Since Diess, 60, took over as CEO last April, he’s struggled to put the 3 1/2-year-old diesel cheating scandal in the past. In the latest twist, the SEC said Thursday it was suing the carmaker for failing to disclose to investors that its diesel vehicles violated emission standards.
“The investors did not know that VW was lying to consumers to fool them into buying its ‘clean diesel’ cars and lying to government authorities in order to sell cars in the US that did not comply with US emission standards,” the SEC alleged.
VW said the SEC complaint is “legally and factually flawed” and the company will “contest it vigorously”. It accused the SEC of “piling on to try to extract more from the company” more than two years after settlements with the Justice Department.