The January killings of journalists at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris have brought home to Germany the difficult issue of Jihadi attacks, with the debate now reaching the economic pride of the country, its carmakers.
Up until now, Germans largely have felt they were safe from bloody reprisals because their country had refrained from joining the Iraq War -- as had France. The bombings in London’s Underground and on a Madrid commuter train were partly rationalized in Germany because the UK and Spanish governments were part of the “coalition of the willing.”
That sense of distance was damaged last week when one Daimler employee at its Rastatt plant in Germany, close to the French border, where Mercedes A class and GLA crossover models are built, made headlines after posting on his private Facebook account: "Everyone pays for his own deeds sooner or later. F*** Charlie Hebdo."
Beyond condoning the attack on the magazine, which had made fun of the prophet Mohammed, the real shock was that the individual had recently become an elected official on the plant's works council.
The Paris attacks also brought into greater focus a movement in Germany known by the clumsy acronym PEGIDA, short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamification of the Occident, which has sought to expand its demonstrations beyond its stronghold in the eastern city of Dresden.
The group, recently hit by a scandal after its founder was photographed with a Hitler mustache and haircut, touched a nerve with managers at Volkswagen and Opel, both of which maintain factories in the former Communist East Germany.
Automakers have a troubled past when it comes to Nazi Germany. BMW and Daimler heavily employed the use of slave labor in their factories, for example, while VW was born from Hitler's plans for mass mobility, building a people's car for the Volk. Under Alfred Sloan's leadership at General Motors, Opel "soared under the swastika," as historian Henry Ashby Turner wrote, by supplying the Nazi war machine.
During a PEGIDA demonstration Jan. 5 that went by VW’s factory in Dresden, the carmaker shut off the lights in protest. When asked, VW said it wanted to distance itself from all forms of discrimination. “Volkswagen stands for cosmopolitanism and tolerance, values for which we are committed to defend and which are a integral part of our corporate culture.”
When PEGIDA sought to expand its anti-Islamic demonstrations into Frankfurt in the former West Germany, Opel -- which is based outside of Germany's banking capital -- decided to make a symbolic statement of opposition.
The massive lighted corporate logo adorning the Adam Opel House, a lightning bolt horizontally cutting across a circle, remained dark for several hours on Monday evening during a PEGIDA march through Frankfurt.
Opel CEO Karl-Thomas Neumann told his 7,400 followers on Twitter that PEGIDA divides people up into those they like and those who are "not wanted," using the same German word unerwuenscht that referred to Jewish persecution during the Third Reich.
"The dignity of man is unassailable," Neumann tweeted, citing the first line of the postwar German constitution. "That is the basis for our society. The initiators of PEGIDA do not share this view."
The statement was befitting, as Germany remembered on Tuesday the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.