Volkswagen & Germany's Lost Virtue

“Arrogance is the art to take pride in its own stupidity,” says an astute German aphorism allegedly coined by Goethe. Arrogance comes to mind as the most charitable attribute when considering Volkswagen’s breathtakingly stupid act of hoodwinking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and systematically deceiving eleven million customers who bought its diesel cars worldwide. But much more is at stake here.

The German words, “Ich dien’” (I search) have for centuries articulated a cherished German virtue and been part of the coat of arms of the Princes of Wales since the 14th century.

By greedily manipulating the emissions control software of its diesels, VW has not only cheated those eleven million but betrayed the very values that had been a recorded German characteristic seven centuries. Whatever their shortcomings, Germans have always been known for as decent, trustworthy, honest, highly accomplished perfectionists, as a people taking delight in serving their neighbors. They were admired for their engineering skills.

That they should have abused these very skills in committing a mass crime on an unfathomable scale seemed atypical for Germans when this happened under a tyranny more than seven decades ago. That it happened again in a democracy, albeit in a less murderous manner, renders me utterly dejected. To understand this despair, a brief excursion into our long history might be helpful to non-Germans.

But now VW as turned this virtue upside down.

Love of service to others (and not to oneself) was considered so quintessentially German that the German words, ich dien (I serve), have been a feature of the emblem of the Princes of Wales since the 14th century. Serving our neighbors in all of our vocations is man’s highest possible service to God, said Martin Luther. This internalized Lutheran doctrine has produced the high quality and reliability of German products, according to Max Weber, one the fathers of modern sociology.

As a Lutheran, I found this faith-based quality reflected in the cars I drove in my 55 years on the road around the world. I learned to drive in a grey VW Standard without synchronized transmission requiring me to double-clutch; a red, right-hand driven bug was my office car in Hong Kong, I owned one of the first Golf diesels, a brilliant white beauty, in France and a beige U.S.-built VW rabbit in Chicago. In California I have a Mexican-built VW Jetta, and of the three Audi diesels in my possession, two-old timers are still purring around the French countryside: a yellow one built in 1982 and a dark-green 1996 Quattro, both making me proud of German workmanship.

There are other examples of German precision I have been immensely proud of: the precision of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach who set to music the precision of Lutheran theology – so much so that I studied it in the autumn of my life at a seminary in Chicago and at Boston University. Yet just as VW has abused the precision of German engineering in order to milk its customers in a manner hitherto typical of lowlife scoundrels elsewhere in the world, the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) is frittering away the beautiful precision of Luther’s teaching, to wit its chairman, Bavarian bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm joining the board of an Islamic Center in Munich instead of following Christ’s Great Commandment, which should compel him to bring the Gospel to the millions of Muslims now pouring into Europe.

Max Liebermann (1847-1935)

As painter Max Liebermann (1847-1935) explained in his marvelous Berlin accent watching a torchlight procession of Nazi storm troopers, “Ick kann jar nich soville fressen, wie ick kotzen möchte” (I simply can’t eat as much as I want to throw up).

The truly terrifying aspect of these two examples of the postmodern betrayal of values by two great German institutions, one secular and one spiritual, is this: They prove the slow-motion, but accelerating, success of the doctrine by the late Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1881-1937) who taught that the revolution can only be brought about by subverting society’s traditional institutions. One of these institutions is the family. In this respect, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling affirming same-sex marriage was a feat of truly Gramscian dimensions.

Where contemporary Germany is concerned, though, Volkswagen and the Protestant Church have been busy fulfilling Gramsci’s vision. Considering this, Max Liebermann’s metaphor seems almost kindly. As a Lutheran Christian, I must refrain from detailing my highly un-Christian thoughts of what I would do with these traitors to their institutions with all the logs the Black Forest could produce – that is, if I took the medieval perspective, which is not mine.

Uwe Siemon-Netto, the former religious affairs editor of United Press International, has been an international journalist for 58 years, covering North America, Vietnam, the Middle East and Europe for German publications. Dr. Siemon-Netto is the founder and director emeritus of the

League of Faithful Masks and Center for Lutheran Theology and Public Life in Irvine, California.

His latest book Triumph of the Absurd, is a memoir of his five years as a war correspondent in Indochina.

[This essay was originally published 9/24, on free, and is used here by permission of the author.]