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Volkswagen Can Change Its Language — But Not Its History

The German foundation Deutsche Sprache (“German Language”) announced Thursday that it had sold all its shares in Volkswagen, after the carmaker announced plans to switch its official language from German to English.

“The words ‘Volkswagen’ and ‘German language’ will no longer fit together,” the foundation’s executive spokesman Walter Krämer said in a statement objecting to the proposed corporate language change.

Krämer said he was “shocked to see how easy it is for our elites to give up their own language and culture.”

For the Jewish community, Volkswagen has a fraught history. In 1998, the company set up a compensation fund for the 1000-2000 slave laborers from the Holocaust still believed to be alive at that time; the fund administrator was Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

The historian Hans Mommsen has estimated that two-thirds of Volkswagen’s wartime work force were forced laborers. The Deutsche Sprache’s use of the phrase “our elites” coupled with “their own language and culture” may have a disturbing resonance for those familiar with Volkswagen’s record during the war.

The carmaker’s rationale for the language change is that an English policy will help it attract leading job candidates who don’t speak German. But that doesn’t sit well with the German-promoting foundation, which was founded in 2001 “to help preserve the German language and defend it against attacks from the media and corporations,” according to Deutsche Welle, which describes itself as Germany’s international broadcaster.

“International executives are quite capable of learning German without any major problems,” the foundation said in its statement.

Volkswagen can easily survive the financial blow; despite all the rhetoric about defending German, the foundation only owned 200 shares, which it sold for 137 euros each, or $143 a share.

The company was founded in 1937 and had assets worth 381.935 billion euros in 2015.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of The Grammar of God (Spiegel & Grau.) Follow her on Twitter at @AviyaKushner

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