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The Volkswagen Scandal And Germany's Reputation


We now know a bit more about the impact on sales of Volkswagen because of the emissions testing scandal. In July, August and September, VW sales in the U.S. were flat. It was only toward the end of this latest quarter that that scandal engulfed the company. And we're getting a sense of just how big this fix will be for Volkswagen. The company says it will spend up to 6.5 billion to repair or retrofit 11 million vehicles.


VW, which is Europe's biggest carmaker, admitted to cheating on diesel emissions tests in the United States and in Europe. Germany's economy minister says the scandal is putting the country's reputation at risk. So let's talk about Germany's image and the reality. Constanze Stelzenmueller analyzes Germany for the Brookings Institution and is German herself.

CONSTANZE STELZENMUELLER: VW deserves to do public penance for being corrupt and stupid about this and faking its emissions data. That's truly awful. But surely, if, you know, Chrysler did something nasty to its cars, you wouldn't say that America's no longer a superpower because Chrysler did something awful...

INSKEEP: Oh, but Americans actually do do that. General Motors files for bankruptcy, people feel that in a very symbolic way, to be honest with you.

STELZENMUELLER: OK, well, I get the point. Let me backtrack a little here. I think one thing that Germany and Americans certainly share is a deep need to be morally righteous and a tendency to worry that everything that we do ought to be morally righteous. And the other thing, of course, is that's, you know, why we get up each other's noses so much as Americans and Germans - because we're similar in that regard. I still think we should, you know, keep our hair on. I still think we should say, OK, egregious corporate corruption is one thing. Generalizing from that to a whole nation is another thing.

INSKEEP: OK, let's stipulate we're not generalizing to a whole nation, but we're trying to figure out a particular behavior within a German company, a company that happens to be German. And it's interesting because Germany has a brand. And there are certain characteristics that people associate with Germany, rightly or wrongly, which are touched upon by this scandal, one of them being that Germans know how to make things and make things work efficiently.

STELZENMUELLER: Well, it seems to me that this VW scandal shows that Germans also know how to diddle with things effectively.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

STELZENMUELLER: (Laughter) In other words, I mean, I think effectiveness here is not in question, except that they got caught.

INSKEEP: What is the VW brand as it's understood in Germany? What's that company all about?

STELZENMUELLER: Well, the VW brand, famously, started out with a certain Adolf Hitler saying Germans needed a small, middle-class car and literally, I think, giving an order that such a car should be produced. And that was when the VW Beetle was invented in the 1930s. That's the origin of the brand and the car. After the war and after the end of National Socialism, the car company became a very large corporation, one of the main job creators in its region in Volksbank and Lower Saxony, Germany. And, of course, it became an international brand long ago. It became the core of the culture. I think many of our parents, when they were young, had a VW Beetle and then graduated to something, you know, more serious.

INSKEEP: What's it been like to be a German in America as this news has exploded around the world?

STELZENMUELLER: Let me put it this way. When I moved to America last fall and my friends back in Germany would ask me (unintelligible) what's it like, I said, well, I'm, you know, now supposed to explain Germany at Brookings. And basically, I find that on a daily basis, I have two Germanys to explain. It's good Germany. Good Germany is the one that takes in the refugees, that holds together European sanctions, consensus against Russia and generally tries to be more responsible and to live up to its historical responsibility and guilt. And then there is evil Germany, the evil Germany that is nasty to Greece, that imposes tough rules on it in order for it to get a third bailout. And, of course, I guess this falls into the category of bad Germany again.

INSKEEP: Whether the news is good or bad, Constanze Stelzenmueller will analyze it. She's a German expatriate who works at the Brookings Institution. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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