CHRISTIAAN HETZNER

For German automakers, an ugly past that won't go away

Christiaan Hetzner is Automotive News Europe's Germany correspondent.
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Before Dieter Zetsche began his presentation on Daimler's record full-year financial results on Wednesday, the CEO took a moment to first express regret about the latest ugliness to emerge from Germany's auto industry -- animal cruelty.

The fate of 10 monkeys has gripped the nation ever since it emerged primates had been locked inside steel cages and forced to inhale diesel fumes for up to four hours. Conducted in 2014, the disgraceful experiment was designed to discredit opponents of diesel technology.

"Such methods are in contrast to our values at Daimler," Zetsche said at the outset of his remarks in Stuttgart on Wednesday. "We will completely clean up these processes."

What began as little more than a scene-setting anecdote to illustrate the moral depths to which Volkswagen was willing to sink in order to defraud public opinion about the risks from diesel exhaust has since snowballed into an animal rights issue.

Although initially reported by The New York Times, momentum first gathered after Germany's highest circulating daily, boulevard tabloid Bild, latched on to the story with splashy headlines of "German automakers torturing monkeys." Perhaps the one paper most feared by the elites, it boasts an uncanny ability to stir up public opinion using graphic imagery and demagogic language. Nobel prize-winning author Heinrich Boell's cautionary tale, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, from 1974, criticizes Bild's influence.

In an attempt to capitalize on the sensationalist scandal that bubbled up, politicians quickly condemned the test as "repugnant" and "disgusting." Germany, after all, likes to fancy itself as a defender of animal rights, having been the first European Union country to anchor in its constitution the protection of animals.

Even Chancellor Angela Merkel, a loyal supporter of the industry, eventually had to get on board with the censure lest she lose moral authority at a time when she still is struggling to form a government.

Claiming to have "learned from the mistakes of the past," Daimler, Volkswagen and BMW are currently examining how they helped finance the tests. Anyone found to have a direct link, including a direct report of VW CEO Matthias Mueller, has summarily been suspended.

"Now we're launching an internal investigation into what happened with 10 monkeys," one frustrated Daimler manager told me in disbelief.

Oddly, no such public outrage ensued when the government reported 665,000 animals had been killed outright for medical experiments last year. Nor did anyone get upset when MIT researchers soberly estimated Volkswagen's manipulated diesels may be responsible for 1,200 air pollution fatalities across Europe.

While German automakers rightfully deserve the thrashing in the media for callously subjecting animals to tests, the widespread opprobrium illustrates vividly how little moral credibility they have left in the eyes of their own population.

Despite all efforts to finally draw a line behind the diesel emission violations first uncovered by the EPA in September 2015, their ugly past keeps catching up with them.

You can reach Christiaan Hetzner at christiaan.hetzner@gmail.com.

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