After the Nazi rise to power in 1933, the new regime immediately began trying to transform German society in a process known as Gleichschaltung (German for “coordination” or “synchronization”). All political parties and trade unions were outlawed except for the Nazi Party and the Nazi German Labor Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront). The German Labor Front created the “Strength through Joy” program ("Kraft durch Freude," or KdF) in November 1933.
“Strength through Joy” was designed to build support for the Nazi regime and increase worker productivity by improving the quality of life for so-called “Aryan” Germans.1 Providing organized alternatives to free leisure time, “Strength through Joy” programs filled workers’ evenings and weekends with classes, concerts, theatre performances, art exhibitions, and sporting events.2 The program also began providing cheap vacation packages to German workers in 1934. Ambitious plans to further expand German mass tourism were abandoned in 1939 with the beginning of World War II.3
The featured photograph shows another “Strength through Joy” project—the so-called “KdF Wagen,” or “Strength through Joy Car.” In 1934, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler expressed support for the mass production of a simple car that German workers could afford. In June 1934, well known automotive engineer Ferdinand Porsche was contracted to design the vehicle. In 1937, the project was placed under the authority of the German Labor Front, which established the Volkswagen4 company and constructed a massive automobile factory in northern Germany. This effort was part of a broader Nazi initiative to modernize Germany’s transportation infrastructure, including the construction of a national highway system known as the Autobahn.5
This promotional photograph shows how the regime presented the “KdF Wagen” as a way for German citizens to travel the German countryside and connect with the land and culture. The image combines several elements that were central to the Nazi worldview. Nazi propaganda pushed the idea that the German people had a mystical connection to the land, and it celebrated traditional German culture and rural living. But the Nazi regime was also interested in exploiting the possibilities created by the latest modern technology. The people in the photograph are shown leaning on a new, mud-spattered car while wearing traditional clothing. A mountain range is visible in the background, and the couple are posed as if they are taking a casual break during a ride through the countryside.
The “KdF Wagen”—as well as other mass-produced consumer goods6—were intended to show the public how the Nazi regime was improving life for German workers. In marketing the car, policymakers aimed to erase class differences among members of the Nazis' so-called "national community" ("Volksgemeinschaft").7 German workers could buy special savings cards through the “Strength through Joy” program to start paying in advance for a car that they would then receive someday in the future. Hitler had estimated the production of millions of cars, but only several hundred “KdF Wagens” were ever assembled. During World War II, the Volkswagen factory was converted to military production and exploited thousands of forced laborers. None of the so-called “People’s cars” assembled under Nazi rule were ever sold to private citizens as promised.8