Volkswagen board condemns CEO for evoking Nazi slogan

Herbert Diess CEO of German automaker Volkswagen AG speaks at the company's annual press conference at Volkswagen headquarters

Volkswagen CEO Herbert Diess made the comment "ebit macht frei", a play on a Nazi-era slogan during an internal company event.

Diess told business magazine Wirtschafts Woche he had not aimed to cause offence when he said "EBIT macht frei" during a VW management gathering on Tuesday.

The phrase echoes the maxim "Arbeit Macht Frei" - meaning "work sets you free" - which was famously emblazoned in wrought-iron on the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

EBIT refers to earnings before interest and taxes and Diess said he wanted to emphasise their importance to the company's bottom line.

No German audience would fail to spot the reference to Auschwitz, where more than a million people were murdered by the Nazis - the overwhelming majority.

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"It was in no way my intention to put my statement in the wrong context - I honestly didn't think it would at the time", he said. Within Volkswagen, "brands with a higher margins have more freedom within the Group to make their own decisions".

The Volkswagen executive said: "It was a very unfortunate choice of words and if if I accidentally hurt feelings with it, I am extremely sorry". Founded in 1937 as part of Adolf Hitler's vision for every German family to own a auto, Volkswagen used more than 15,000 slave laborers during the war as it manufactured vehicles for the German army.

Volkswagen was originally founded in 1937 by the National Socialist Party under Adolf Hitler to develop an affordable economy vehicle that would eventually become the Volkswagen Beetle. During World War Two, the Wolfsburg-based firm manufactured vehicles for the German army, using more than 15,000 slave labourers from nearby concentration camps.

VW's powerful works council welcomed Diess's "swift clarification and unequivocal apology" for the remark, adding that remembrance and responsibility are part of the company's DNA.

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