“One day during the shift, two men with machine guns approached me, pressed the muzzle of one of the weapons against my back, and handcuffed me. I was taken to the VW plant protection office and tortured there. I was beaten up-beaten incessantly.”
Author of this self-testimony is Lúcio Bellentani, a retired former employee of Volkswagen do Brasil, based in São Bernardo do Campo near São Paulo. However, at least a dozen VW workers, who were active in trade unions and politics, were similarly spied on, shadowed and denounced by the military dictatorship. Bellentani’s case occurred in July 1972 during the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, but did not come to public attention until more than forty years later with the final report of the National Commission for the truth of human rights violations (CNV) convened by President Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016).
It took six years after the publication of the report and more than forty years after the brutal actions of VW do Brasil’s plant protection and its proven cooperation with the Brazilian military dictatorship until the Wolfsburg car company – in which, among other things, the state of Lower Saxony, ergo the German taxpayer, has a 20 percent share – was prepared to offer Reparation to the victims of the Repression, its own former employees. To prevent a noisy process, the group is prepared to pay compensation in the amount of around 5.5 million euros. “We are sorry for what happened at that time,” were the words of VW board member Hiltrud Werner in a press release from VW do Brasil following the signing. Of the total, the personally persecuted VW do Brasil employees or their survivors-whose association includes 62 victims, some of whom have already died-receive around 2.5 million euros; 3 million euros will be invested in projects for the protection of human rights as well as for the financing of historical documentation and for the treatment of history.
Persecution and confrontation
The VW-do-Brasil board was not only informed, but acted “proactively” and delivered its employees to the political police. For example, the German Heinrich Plagge. He was arrested on August 8, 1972 and summoned to the Office of plant manager Ruy Luiz Giometti, where two strangers were already waiting for his arrest. They took him to the headquarters of the “political and social order” authority (meaning the political police DOPS), where he was tortured for thirty days and taken from there to the Tiradentes prison. The wife of PLAGGES had VW informed by a middleman that Heinrich was “several weeks on the road for VW on an unforeseen business trip”. On 6 December 1972, Plagge was released and two weeks later he received his letter of dismissal from VW do Brasil. Plagge never found a permanent job again, struggling with casual work until he was arrested again in September 1974 and languished behind bars for three quarters of a year until June 1975. Sick and impoverished because of the political persecution and the ban on working for years passed away Plagge in March 2018.
At the time of their arrest, Bellentani and Plagge were members of the Brazilian Communist Party (PCB), banned by the military regime and driven into illegality, but they did not act as party representatives on the VW plant grounds, but as trade union activists distributing banned leaflets in the struggle for internal progress. Both were brutally tortured by the DOPS with punches, kicks, clubs and electric shocks to their ears, tongue and genitals.
However, the case of the toolmaker Claudecir Mulinari shows in a blatant way that VW continued the spying, persecution and extradition of its politically active employees to the police and secret services of the dictatorship until the early 1980s, when the Regime with massive electoral successes of the Democratic Opposition and extra-parliamentary rallies (“Diretas Já!") for the end of military rule and the return of the rule of law, which culminated in the collapse of the regime and the proclamation of a constituent assembly in 1985.
Mulinari was initially interrogated by VW Werkschutz because he had found and confiscated books by Karl Marx, including the “Communist Manifesto”, in his locker. And as before Bellentani and Plagge, the toolmaker was also denounced by the factory security at the political police. He was interrogated for ten days in a special factory security room, was not allowed to re-enter his workplace, and was released. Mulinari was unemployed for two years. After he finally got a job at a Bank in 1982, he was fired again under pressure from the branch manager because the DOPS allegedly had evidence against him. Mulinari understood that VW do Brasil had secretly given the ignorant Store Manager “information” in order to ruin his professional career.
VW participated in a secret network of corporations and local companies that exchanged intelligence about their employees and passed it on to the dictatorship. The VW spying and denunciation of trade union and political activities did not remain limited to the company’s own premises, but extended to the entire industrial belt of São Paulo – known as ABC. After viewing hundreds of documents, especially works safety protocols and notifications from the police, the VW Group acted flawlessly as a voluntary Agent of the police state.
This was also the case against the then metalworker union leader and future Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, as reported by the news agency Reuters back in 2014. Volkswagen collected publications, calls for salary increase campaigns, strikes, dozens of union meetings in the Greater São Paulo area and passed the “findings” on to the military. The National Commission for the discovery of truth (CNV) only had an insight into the secret documents almost thirty years later. Among them was a so-called VW"Dossier” about a rally from 19. Lula encouraged the trade union movement with a speech on June 30, 1983. VW recognized this as a political danger and forwarded the information to the DOPS. Another" confidential " document from the DOPS files quotes Lula’s warning to VW employees about Plant Protection: “be careful, they have a video surveillance TV on which they can watch you in every department.”
War criminal Franz Stangl as Werkschutz commander
Franz Paul Stangl, former commander of the Nazi extermination camps Treblinka and Sobibér in Poland, was employed by Volkswagen do Brasil between 1959 and 1967. Stangl’s mission was to set up the plant protection and its monitoring system at vw’s S. Bernardo do Campo plant; The largest and most profitable car manufacturer in Latin America for decades. On behalf of the VW board, Stangl spied on VW employees for three years during the military dictatorship. During World War II, Stangl was a member of Action T4, a Nazi euthanasia program to eradicate the physically disabled, and was promoted to commander of the two death camps in Poland. The camp commander arrived in Brazil with his family in 1951 after esawing from a prison and living in Syria for a while. Although there was an international arrest warrant against him, he provoked Interpol and kept his name. He was under THE protection of VW for eight years, but was arrested on 28 February 1967 in Sao Paulo thanks to Simon Wiesenthal, known as the “Nazi hunter”.
Arrogance and resistance in the refurbishment
Shaken by this report, Manfred Grieger, historian and then head of VW’s corporate history division, said back in 2014 that Volkswagen had done “exemplary work to recognize the company’s history in the Third Reich” and continued to “carry out the necessary investigations to resolve incidents unconditionally and completely.” Nina Schneider, a former fellow of the VW Foundation and a historian at the University of Konstanz, disagreed with Grieger. She said that was far from enough in the case of Brazil. On the contrary, the group must compensate the victims or their relatives; a claim originally made by the CNV section of Sao Paulo.
Irony of naivety, Grieger fell victim to his own praise for the VW Group. As an expert on forced labour in Nazi Germany, he had criticized a study on the Nazi entanglements of the Group subsidiary Audi as flawed and trivializing, overthrew himself with the group management and abruptly left VW. Under pressure from several Brazilian and German scientists, human rights activists and politicians, the Wolfsburg Executive Committee finally commissioned the historian Christopher Kopper from Bielefeld University to investigate the allegations against the group subsidiary Volkswagen do Brasil. Without speaking a word of Portuguese, Kopper traveled to Sao Paulo for the first time in March 2017, met with the group of surviving victims led by Bellentani, began the document search and in December 2017 presented his investigation entitled “VW do Brasil in the Brazilian military dictatorship 1964-1985”, which the group has since proudly presented on its own website.
An NDR team led by Stefanie Dodt accompanied Kopper’s mission in Brazil, spent several days recording Bellentani, but also joined the VW board in Wolfsburg and broadcast the documentary “Komplizen? VW and the Brazilian military dictatorship”. The well-documented attitude of Carl Hahn Junior, the award-winning former VW CEO and current supervisory board member as well as senior advisor to the investment company General Capital Group, is likely to strike a heavy burden on any sensitive spectator.
Driven by outrageous arrogance and cynicism, Hahn tries to deny reporter Dodt her investigative claim, denies any knowledge of the brutal human rights violations by the vw do Brasil factory protection as well as the corporate collaboration with the Brazilian military dictatorship, subsequently protects it, knocks anti-democratic slogans of dubious taste and recommends that instead of the past – especially the “far,” It is significant that Carl Hahn – who at the time headed the supervisory board of VW do Brasil – also did not want to know anything about Stangl’s past. “We didn’t know the names of the concentration camp commanders by heart,” Hahn said in the NDR TV documentary. The fact that people from Germany were hired by VW do Brasil “was quite normal”. Hans-Gerd Bode, spokesman for the Wolfsburg Group Days, also calls for “facts” to harden perception. Stuttering, however, as if the facts, which had been hidden for decades, hindered his neck strands and his breathing rhythm.
At the Volkswagen Annual General Meeting on 3 May 2018 in Berlin, the editor of Lateinamerika Nachrichten, author of books and member of the umbrella association of critical shareholders, Christian Russau, took this tactic to the court. “We at the umbrella association of critical shareholders accuse the VW Group, the executive board and the Supervisory Board of serious failures in dealing with the collaboration between VW do Brasil and the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985).”
According to Russau, after the publication of Kopper’s study, “the group should have approached the workers concerned and publicly apologized. VW should have offered reasonable compensation. But this did not happen. Therefore, we refuse to discharge the executive board and the supervisory board and ask everyone in this room who respects, respects and respects human rights for Profit to also refuse discharge to the executive board and the supervisory board.” But the reprimand of the critical VW shareholders was directed against another crucial point. Namely, the attempt of the"lone perpetrator “narrative, whereby the head of the group tried to shift the responsibility of the atrocities onto the VW do Brasil plant protection and to portray himself as” ignorant”; a narrative that the victims, the CNV, the public prosecutor’s office and the Kopper report directly contradict. Human rights lawyer Wolfgang Kaleck, representing Brazilian victims, described the VW collaboration with the dictatorship as “deliberate aid to torture.”
Despite these interjections, confirmed by countless press releases, and as if Hahn’s escape from the past meant a paradigm of corporate coherence, almost three years after Kopper’s “exemplary work” (Grieger) nothing happened again. Until the public prosecutor’s Office of São Paulos threatened with a patiently repeatedly postponed lawsuit. Only then, at the end of September 2020, did Wolfsburg pull in.
“Slap in the face” and praise on Bolsonaro
Cláudio Couto, Professor at the state Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV), also wants to recognize a message to President Jair Bolsonaro in the VW Reparation. He classifies the decision of the Wolfsburg-based group as a “slap in the face” of the Bolsonaro-government. “In reality, this positioning has already taken place in other areas, for example in the environmental sector. We are dealing with the positioning of a large corporation that does not speak directly about the Bolsonaro government, because it is not about him, but about the military dictatorship, but because of the affinity between the two, the repeated praise that Bolsonaro paid to the dictatorship, the Volkswagen self-criticism is really a slap in the face of the government”.
Andreas Renschler – VW Manager and CEO of the former VW Truck&Bus subsidiary, now called TRATON-saw this in a slightly different way back in November 2018, after Bolosonaro’s election victory. “Brazil has voted! There is no more room for experiments!”, the German wrote in Brazilian media of the automotive market.
“This “election of elections” was more than just the election of a new president. It was the culmination of a kind of political self-discovery for the fifth largest Nation in the world. Political ideas for the country were strongly questioned. The analysis of corruption cases included key public figures. Consolidated parties were challenged - clear answers, but often insufficient… for us in Germany, the question now remains: How can we support the restart in Brazil? With more than 1,300 German companies, the country is the third largest recipient of German investments outside Europe. Politically, the strategic partnership with Brazil is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year – Germany has such a relationship with only eight countries. The great importance of our bilateral cooperation is therefore out of the question… although the elections initially fragmented society, the 210 million Brazilians have already shown on several occasions that they can quickly find their way back to unity. Compliance with laws is given, the institutions are solid. Therefore, we should not Worry about the stress scenario. And the government knows that it is judged for its actions, not for its speeches. There are many reasons to believe her. The country is stronger than its challenges – and the German economy can and will contribute to its success!”.
Twenty months after Bolsonaro came to power, the Brazilian economy is on the ground, 40 million Brazilians are unemployed, underemployed and malnourished, the country is isolated worldwide because of its US servitude and its catastrophic approach with nearly 150,000 deaths in the Covid-19 pandemic. The fascist Bolsonaro Regime has stamped Brazil as a pariah of world politics, but VW did not want to have guessed it again.