By Thomas Wheatley
Creative Loafing, October 1, 2012
The German car manufacturer asked the city to rechristen the thoroughfare. And legislation was introduced (PDF) to change the street's name, which will be noted with interstate signage, to Ferdinand Porsche Avenue. No other names were considered, Porsche says. The proposal was scheduled for what we're sure would've been a very heated public hearing on Oct. 9, but which now might have fewer fireworks.
Why? Well, there's no delicate way to put this, but Porsche, like many German business leaders during World War II, was involved with the Nazis — a fact that the auto company, to its credit, fully acknowledges. And because of a strict city code or an unfamiliarity with German industrialists, the city that helped birth the civil rights movement was put in the position of almost accidentally honoring one of Adolf Hitler's former allies with a street — one next to the world's busiest airport. Yeah, whoops.
When we first noticed the Ferdinand Porsche Avenue legislation on last week's City Utilities Committee agenda, we immediately wondered if maybe the city had confused the founder of the eponymous company and Volkswagen with an heir who shares the same name. Maybe one that didn't have any ties to the Third Reich. We were wrong.
When asked by CL about the founder's past, Porsche spokesmen referred us to the work of Hans Mommsen, a German historian who, along with Manfred Grieger, researched the company's links with the Nazi Party. Books have been written about these links — Mommsen's runs 1,055 pages — and the Internet overfloweth with information. Porsche, who also founded Volkswagen and created the hugely popular Beetle model, joined the Nazi Party in 1937, served as chairman of Hitler's tank commission and helped design military vehicles, including tanks, and weapons.
In addition, he was accused of using forced labor in his factories during World War II. According to an Associated Press review of Mommsen's book, which is only available in German, Porsche was reportedly "'morally indifferent' to the slave laborers' misery." After the war, he was arrested and charged with war crimes, for which, it should be noted, he was later exonerated. According to Der Spiegel, Mommsen believed that "the question as to the extent to which Porsche understood the criminal character of the regime he served must remain open." In the decades since, the company has tried to make amends.
"It has been equally well documented that the Volkswagen concern did far more to care for its workers, and has done more to make reparations to its former workers and their heirs, than any other enterprise. The Volkswagen group of companies (of which Porsche now is proudly a member) led the formation of, and provided an overwhelming proportion of the funding for, the groups which made these reparations. Today's Porsche AG, like most major German companies, contributed significantly to those funds. The Volkswagen group of companies has been widely acknowledged by numerous organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, as the world's leader in atoning for those darkest of times."
So how did the car company founder's name end up on a piece of city legislation? According to the part of the city code, Atlanta streets can only be named after people, not corporations. So somewhere along the way, Ferdinand Porsche's name was slapped on the application.
Porsche has agreed with the city to rename "Henry Ford II Avenue" to simply "Porsche Avenue," after the corporation, the mayor's spokeswoman tells CL.
Next week, new legislation will be introduced (or the old legislation will be amended) to make the change. To do so, the city will most likely have to waive a portion of the city's code that prohibits naming streets after corporations. That's a smart provision, which has surely prevented our fair city from being littered with "Aaron's Rents Lane" and "Home Depot Terrace." But in this case, it also led to someone putting the name of a Nazi on a piece of city legislation. Something that, had someone not noticed, might have slipped through the cracks.