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Photograph of a "Strength through Joy" Car

A man and a woman in traditional German dress lean against a dark colored Volkswagen car. A mountain range appears in the background.

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

To learn more about the "Strength through Joy" program, see Shelley Baranowski, Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). For more about the Nazi regime's attempts to build public support through the use of seemingly positive propaganda, see the Experiencing History collection, Nazi Propaganda and National Unity.

For another primary source on “Strength through Joy” programs, see the related Experiencing History item, Photograph of "Strength through Joy" Event at Strandbad Wannsee.

In the 1930s, "Strength through Joy" developed the world's largest fleet of cruise ships and began construction on a planned series of enormous tourist resorts on the Baltic Sea. For more on the popular mass tourism programs of "Strength through Joy," see Hasso Spode, "Mass Tourism and the Third Reich: The 'Strength through Joy' Seaside Resort as an Index Fossil," Journal of Social History 38, no. 1 (Fall 2004): 127–155.

German for "People’s car," the term Volkswagen had been used in Germany for years to describe any basic, affordable automobile. Until the term was trademarked in 1935 and the Volkswagen company was established in 1937, many different German automobile manufacturers advertised their different small vehicles as "People's cars."

Plans for the Autobahn had actually started during the years of the Weimar Republic, but Nazi propaganda falsely claimed that Hitler was personally responsible for the idea. To learn more about the development of the German Autobahn, see Thomas Zeller, Driving Germany: The Landscape of the German Autobahn, 1930–1970, translated by Thomas Dunlap (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007).

One of the most prominent of these products was the so-called "Volksempfa╠łnger" ("People’s radio receiver"). To learn more about the Nazi regime and its use of radio, see the related Experiencing History item, Propaganda Film: "Radio in War."

To learn more about the Nazi regime’s attempts to create a consumer culture in Nazi Germany based on the mass production of affordable goods, see Wolfgang König, "Adolf Hitler vs. Henry Ford: The Volkswagen, the Role of America as a Model, and the Failure of a Nazi Consumer Society," German Studies Review 27, no. 2 (May 2004): 249–268.

Some of the German workers who had invested money in a “KdF Wagen” took the Volkswagen company to court after the war, demanding either their money or their car. To learn more about the Volkswagen company in the years after the fall of Nazi Germany, see Markus Lupa, The British and their Works: The Volkswagenwerk and the Occupying Power, 1945-1949 (Wolfsburg: Volkswagen-AG, Corporate Archives, 1999). To learn more about Volkswagen’s transition from Nazi propaganda vehicle to one of the most iconic automobiles of the postwar decades, see Bernhard Rieger, "From People's Car to New Beetle: The Transatlantic Journeys of the Volkswagen Beetle," The Journal of American History 97, no. 1 (June 2010): 91–115.

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Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Accession Number Bild 146-1981-132-03A
Date Created
1938 to 1939
Still Image Type Photograph
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