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Andrea Hiott

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Volkswagen Beetle History: 7 Things You Didn't Know About The Bug (PHOTOS)

Posted: 01/11/12 11:44 AM ET

We've all encountered the Volkswagen Beetle at some point in our lives: Like Zelig, or Forest Gump, the car has been present (and photographed) in many of the defining moments of the 20th century - the Second World War, Woodstock, the fall of the Berlin Wall. Decade after decade, it's also made an appearance in landmark films and TV shows, including Annie Hall, Footloose (both!), The Shining and Mad Men. Legend has it that even Apple-founder Steve Jobs wanted his products to have the same cachet and longevity as a Volkswagen Bug. But as much as we love it, and as familiar as it is for us, how well do we really know this little car? And how does its story begin by bearing witness to the horrific crimes of Nazi Germany and still climax with the Summer of Love? The answer, as outlined in my book, "Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle" [Ballatine Books, $26.00], is as strange and surprising, as nuanced and revelatory, as any human life. And that's fitting. Because in the words of famous VW mechanic John Muir, while the Beetle may be made of glass and metal, it's still "Life" nonetheless.

Hitler did not create the Beetle
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In 1938, "The New York Times" called the fledgling new Volkswagen "the baby Hitler." Until that point, many around the world (including many in Germany) had not understood, or admitted to, the extent of evil being unleashed by Hitler and his supporters. But by 1938, a year that would end with the horrendous Kristallnacht, Hitler's name -- and all projects associated with that name, including the VW -- were showing the darkest of stains. It would take a decade - and a handful of heroes - for the Beetle to pull itself out of that darkness; perhaps it would never fully live down its title as "the car that Hitler built".

In truth, however, the idea of the Volkswagen existed long before the Nazis, and Hitler had no hand in the actual design of the Bug. When Hitler came to power, with cars on his mind and his agenda, he co-opted the idea of the Volkswagen for his own purposes, much as he did with other longstanding gestures or symbols (the swastika, for example, or the Roman "heil" salute). Having such a patron seemed to spell the end for the Bug: After Hitler, who could have imagined the car would find its way back into the light?
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