Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess may not have meant to invoke the darkest period in German history at a Volkswagen Group management meeting.
But by using the phrase “Ebit macht frei” (Profit will set you free) to praise the financial performance of Porsche, he did.
The words are unerringly close to the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” (work will set you free), used by the Nazis at Auschwitz and other concentration camps during the Holocaust.
His intention was to say that by performing better, Porsche had more autonomy than other brands in the group.
He apologised Friday but the controversy has intensified since to the point that some analysts are questioning his ability to stay in the job.
“I think he is going to be fired,” a long-term US investor told the Financial Times. “He’s one of the few managers that could move the company in the right direction. But, it’s so offensive I don’t think it’s excusable.”
Major shareholders were also said to be shocked and would be demanding another apology at a shareholders meeting next week.
There is little doubt this will be forthcoming, given further reports that Diess used the phrase more than once at the meeting.
It is likely that Diess will survive this however as other investors and analysts see his performance at the helm of the Volkswagen Group as impressive so far. He has been in the post less than a year and will likely given more time.
Small shareholders make up around 10% of VW’s share distribution, the majority rest shared between the Porsche-Piech family, Qatar and the German state of Lower Saxony. Any push to remove Diess would have to come from these groups.
He is fully committed to transforming the group towards full electrification and AV, and moving on from the dieselgate scandal.
In February, Diess said that Volkswagen had to become a “software company” to survive.