Born in 1889, Adolf Hitler was a member of the first generation of boys to conceive a passion for the newfangled contraption called the automobile. His sketchbooks abounded with drawings of cars, buses and other motor-powered vehicles — machines that were steadily remaking the world at the turn of the 20th century.
As an adult, Hitler came to power with a packed agenda, as history learned to its sorrow. On his list was the fulfillment of a long-held dream: an automobile of his own design, mass-produced like those of his American idol, Henry Ford. The Führer also envisioned building the greatest superhighways the world had ever seen, designed to whisk citizens of the Third Reich to the remotest reaches of their newly seized Lebensraum in Volkswagens, or “People’s Cars.”
Born 14 years before Hitler, Ferdinand Porsche showed his brilliance as a thinker and mechanic early on. But Porsche’s father had decreed that Ferdinand would follow him into his tinsmithing business, so he forbade his son from tinkering with the machinery and electricity that so clearly riveted him. Porsche senior changed his mind only after Porsche junior arranged for the family homestead to be the first house in the Bohemian backwoods with electric lighting: It flowed from a generator that young Ferdinand had built in his own garret laboratory.
How the evil genius crossed paths with the engineering prodigy forms the chassis of Andrea Hiott’s vigorous Thinking Small: The Long, Strange Trip of the Volkswagen Beetle. The history of successful technological innovation, Hiott observes, is one of “thinking strange,” and Porsche’s thinking was laudably outside the box. By the time Hitler commissioned him to manufacture the Volkswagen, in 1934, Porsche possessed all the necessary ingredients, both technical and intellectual, to build the utilitarian contraption the Führer had in mind. (Porsche would become much better known for his high-performance racing machines.)
Hitler put an entire town at Porsche’s disposal. Though it is known as Wolfsburg today, back then it bore a much more ominous name: “The Town of the Strength Through Joy Car.” In time, Hitler would “staff” Porsche’s factories with slave labor.
Fast-forward to the late 1950s: Postwar Germany is still largely devastated, but in the western sector of the occupied and defeated nation the factories of Wolfsburg are slowly coming to life again. Many players were involved in that rebirth — among them a clear-sighted British administrator and some barely reconstructed Nazis — but the main impetus was the simple need of people to get back to work. As a result, the People’s Car began rolling off production lines once more. In retracing the politics and intrigue required to achieve that feat, Thinking Small sometimes resembles the improbable subplot of a John Le Carré novel.