Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Brief Review of Bernhard Rieger's "The People's Car: A Global History of the Volkswagen Beetle"

Another book on the history of the Volkswagen! That was my first thought when I picked up Rieger's book at the local library. But this time around I was pleasantly surprised that something new was said about what many would consider a well-worn topic. The strength of this book is in the historical context it provides, particularly of things German during the Weimar, Nazi and Economic Renaissance eras. It says very little new about the car itself -- its technological development, for example -- but that was not what the author was trying to do. Rather it is the place of the car in broader stands of German History that makes this a fascinating read. Additionally, I thought the chapter on Mexico shed new light on the history of the vehicle beyond Europe and the United States.
However, is it really a global history of the Volkswagen Beetle? Well, not really. What about other South American Countries and then Africa and Asia? Scarcely a word. Sales figures, marketing, cultural reflections from these areas? So the story is still far from complete.
What I really found significant is stated on the second to last page. Here Reiger writes:

"Nevertheless, the first Volkswagen's global properties display clear limits. Commercial success undoubtedly lent the original Beetle global prominence. Yet despite its ability to cross borders, the original Beetle remained firmly rooted in national frames Rather than adopting a hybrid or fully fledged transnational identity, which would have rendered the ascription of a distinct national identity impossible, the first VW developed into an icon with multiple nationalities. Globalization did not divest the car of national resonance. While the Beetle highlights how processes of reception have incoprorated objects from elsewhere into new national landscapes, it simultaneously draws attention to the resilience of national categories in the era of globalization since World War II."

So here we have the global theme of identity and difference standing out in this monograph. I plan on using this material in my HST 103 course this fall, "The West and the World."

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