Volkswagen's crimes

Image_Marcio Costa


Nazism company, military dictatorship company. To escape the criminal past, Volkswagen refuses memory location

For 5 years, Volkswagen has been facing a Public Civil Inquiry that investigates it for serious human rights violations committed during the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship. It is the first case of its kind in Brazil, in which a company is formally accused of crimes in conjunction with the authoritarian regime. After years of difficult negotiation, the automaker continues to create new difficulties, preventing the reaching of an agreement and sabotaging the central pillar of reparation for its crimes: the constitution of a memory space d@s workers.

The Inquiry is a joint operation of the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office, the Public Prosecutor's Office of the State of São Paulo and the Public Prosecutor's Office for Labor. It was motivated by a complaint filed in September 2015, at the initiative of the Forum of Workers for Truth, Justice and Reparation. The survey, which continued the work of the National Truth Commission (2012-2014) and the Truth Commission of the State of São Paulo – Rubens Paiva (2012-2015), was carried out by IIEP and had the unified support of all Central Brazilian trade unions, jurists and personalities in the struggle for human rights.

a trail of crimes

The investigations proved that the violations committed by the company were part of a systematic method of intimidating workers in the factories, inhibiting their political organization and movements for demands. Its Industrial Security Department was headed for 30 years by Colonel Adhemar Rudge, a military man with close ties to political repression. Arrests of employees by the political police with the company's direct participation were recorded with two very scathing testimonies, by Lúcio Bellentani and Heinrich Plagge. In the case of Lúcio, the torture sessions began inside the Volkswagen factory in São Bernardo do Campo, with the participation of the Department of Industrial Safety. The two were kidnapped in 1972, in a wave of captures that reached more than 10 militants of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB) who worked at the factory.

The automaker also participated, as a more active member and sort of coordinator, in organizations that brought together large companies and bodies of political repression to exchange information. Among them, the best documented is the Vale do Paraíba Community Safety Center, a strategic industrial region in the interior of São Paulo. In the various meeting minutes found, the participation of large companies, such as Caterpillar, Ford, General Motors, Kodak, Rhodia, Villares, Embraer and Petrobras, from the Army, the Air Force and the Military, Civil and Federal Police, is proven.

Volkswagen also faces strong questions in relation to its famous enterprise in the Amazon, the Fazenda Vale do Rio Cristalino, started in 1974. Built with strong incentives from the Brazilian dictatorship, the Fazenda intended to establish a new model of livestock exploitation. 4.000 hectares were deforested, in an environmental crime of gigantic proportions. The company also made use of the exploitation of slave labor for its “model” farm, as evidenced in 1983 by a commission of the Legislative Assembly of the State of São Paulo, headed by Deputy Expedito Soares (PT-SP). The expedition was carried out based on a complaint by Father Ricardo Resende, from the Pastoral Land Commission, who accompanied and witnessed tied workers and armed jagunços on the farm.[I].

An even more nebulous case is that of Franz Paul Stangl. Responsible for heading the death camps of Sobibór and Treblinka in Poland occupied by the Third German Reich, Stangl managed to escape through one of the many escape routes created to protect the great war criminals of Nazism. After passing through Syria, he arrived in Brazil in 1951 with a refugee document issued by the Red Cross. In 1959, Stangl started working at Volkswagen do Brasil, always under his real name. Although he had a gigantic internal security and repression apparatus, in direct connection with the Brazilian State, the automaker denies that it knew of its employee's dark past. Stangl would be located thanks to the action of Simon Wiesenthal, the “Nazi hunter”. He was arrested in 1967 and had his extradition requested by Austria, Poland and the Federal Republic of Germany. In an interview with journalist Marcelo Godoy, José Paulo Bonchristiano, head of the Political Division of the Dops in São Paulo and responsible for the arrest of the Nazi at Interpol's request, mentioned the company's inconvenience during the capture[ii]. Volkswagen even recommended a lawyer for the defense of Stangl, who would end up convicted of the murder of 400 people.

From participating in the dictatorship to saluting Bolsonaro

Even today, important figures in the history of Volkswagen do not hide their appreciation for dictatorial regimes, as recorded in the documentary accomplices[iii], produced in 2017. This is the case, for example, of Jacy Mendonça, executive who headed the Human Resources area at the automaker, who described the dictatorship as “an extraordinarily positive period” for companies and for Brazil, “because there was order ”. Or Carl Hahn, president of the Volkswagen Group between 1982 and 1993, who stated that at the time he was not disturbed by the military coup of 1964 and that he did not remember that Volkswagen leaders had “cried for the disappearance of democracy”. His memory coincides with the opinion expressed at the time by Werner Shmidt, president of the company in Brazil from 1971 to 1973, who declared to the German press: “It is clear that the police and the military torture prisoners. Political dissidents (…) are murdered. But an objective analysis should always take into account that things simply do not move forward without firmness. And things are moving forward.”[iv].

Recently, the company made an investment of R$2,4 billion in Brazil, in excellent relationship with the current Brazilian government. After the election of Jair Bolsonaro – in a campaign marked by nostalgia for the military dictatorship, praise for torture and anti-communism – Volkswagen directors registered the company’s support for the “restart of Brazil”, posed for photos with the governor of Rio de Janeiro, the then Bolsonarist Wilson Witzel. Argentine Pablo de Si, president of Volkswagen in Latin America, enthusiastically welcomed the arrival of the extreme right to power[v].

The necessary repair

The Public Civil Inquiry investigating the company was launched in September 2015, coinciding with the Dieselgate scandal, which put Volkswagen in the crosshairs of world public opinion. After a phase of disdain for the procedure, public pressure forced the company to initiate negotiations with the Brazilian authorities. In order to attempt reparation for the crimes committed, points dear to the Transitional Justice were listed.

Among the various points raised, we highlight the constitution of a memory space, dedicated to the struggle of the working class against the dictatorship and to business participation in the 1964 coup and human rights violations during the regime. The attempt to build this place – which has been systematically sabotaged by the company – is part of a commitment signed between the Brazilian Union Centers and all those who participated in the GT Dictatorship and repression of workers and the union movement (GT-13) of the National Commission da Verdade, as recorded in the group's recommendations to CNV. It also seals the common understanding built: the 1964 coup was not a barracks, but a class action that had the active participation of the national and transnational business community and their organizations, lowering the living standards of the working class, destroying their organizations and maximizing profits. Hence the centrality of recording the working class as a subject of resistance and as a target of the civil-military dictatorship.

As stated by Adriano Diogo[vi], Rosa Cardoso[vii] and Sebastião Neto[viii] in a manifest distributed on March 13, 2020, during the seminar that marked the 5th anniversary of the Truth Commission of the State of São Paulo – Rubens Paiva,

The standard action of companies is to act to erase their crimes. All over the world, corporations are always mobilizing their financial power to erase their crimes and not be disturbed anymore. We will not accept this kind of blackmail. Ensuring a place of reference – that can be visited and known, and also act in the production and dissemination of knowledge – is to reaffirm that our memory is not for sale.

* Murilo Leal is a professor at the Department of History at Unifesp-Osasco and a member of the São Paulo Metallurgical Trade Union Opposition Memory Project.

Gabriel Dayoub is a researcher at IIEP and a member of the Memory project of the São Paulo Metallurgical Trade Union Opposition.





[iv] The statement was recalled by historian Antoine Acker in the article “'The Brand that Knows our Land': Volkswagen's “Brazilianization” in the “Economic Miracle”, 1968-1973”. Available in:

[v] See the important article by Acker “Volkswagen’s historical responsibility in Bolsonaro’s Brazil”, available at:

[vi] President of the Truth Commission of the State of São Paulo – Rubens Paiva (2012-2015)

[vii] Member of the National Truth Commission (2012-2014) and coordinator of the Working Group Dictatorship and repression of workers and the union movement (GT-13)

[viii] CNV GT-13 Executive Secretary (2013-2014) and IIEP coordinator

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