Driving Notoriety: The Vilified Legacy of Mercedes' 540K

Michael Daly

A thought provoking intersection of automotive history and Holocaust restitution issues quietly appeared last summer under the camouflage of a Hollywood blockbuster, not that anyone noticed. Based on the World War II-era comic book originally penned by Jewish-American artists, the cinematic Captain America depicts an average American’s quest to personally take the fight to Adolf Hitler. As in the vintage Marvel Comics, Captain America squares off against the savage Johann Schmidt, aka the Red Skull, a particularly diabolical Nazi who runs his own Party-funded R&D outfit, the purely fictitious HYDRA. Unlike the original pulp comics, though, the new cinematic Red Skull gets around town in a stately 1930’s-style roadster of epic proportions. Though the retro-futuristic car wears no discernable badges that identify its maker, an upright V-shaped grille, prominent symmetrical fog lamps, and elegant sweeping fenders, as well as the politics of its driver, suggest the car could only be a Mercedes-Benz. Implicit as it may have been, Germany’s foremost automaker was once again tied to the Nazi regime, and the timing couldn’t have been more ominous.

Last year, Daimler-Benz celebrated its 125th anniversary, and in doing so essentially commemorated the birth of the automobile. Yet, as during its 100th anniversary celebration in 1986, which included the publication of several company-sponsored histories, Daimler-Benz once again deftly sidestepped its darkest chapter, a murky association with the Nazi regime that is largely misunderstood by the general public. “I was just at their 125th anniversary party,” recounts Motor Trend senior editor Jonny Lieberman, “and they just leave World War II blank.” Lieberman refers to the company’s celebration at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the annual California car show that is widely recognized as the world’s most discerning judged exhibition of collectible automobiles. Over the years, Pebble Beach has increasingly served as a launch pad for upscale manufacturers like Mercedes to celebrate historic dates or unveil new models. While Daimler-Benz’ official presentation at Pebble contained no mention of Nazi connections, despite the fact that many state-sponsored Mercedes racecars of the 1930s bore swastikas, a seemingly unrelated but telling development unfolded in nearby Monterey at one of the many classic car auctions linked to the Pebble Concours.

Four of the ten highest prices realized at RM Auctions’ Monterey sale were claimed by one of Mercedes-Benz’ most prized prewar models, the 540K. Considered by many automobile enthusiasts and historians to be the pinnacle of Mercedes-Benz’ prewar premium cars, the 540K featured the most advanced version of Daimler-Benz’s supercharged 8-cylinder engine, and the car’s various coach built body designs aesthetically rivaled anything concurrently being produced by Rolls-Royce, Bugatti, or Alfa-Romeo. So visually striking and mechanically powerful was the 540K that more than a few were supposedly owned by upper-echelon members of the Nazi hierarchy. Most famously, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering ordered one in light blue that became known after the war as the Blue Goose. 

With physical characteristics that include a stout upright grille, symmetrical foglamps, and elegant sweeping fenders, the 540K obviously resembles the elongated roadster driven by Captain America’s nemesis. If ever a model influenced the design of the cinematic Red Skull’s car, than it is surely the 540K, though concept car designer Daniel Simon insists that the prewar Mercedes was only a partial inspiration for his “Schmidt Coupe.” explains Simon, “what really makes you think of the 540K [when looking at the Schmidt Coupe] are the front fenders with their beefy sections over the front wheels, the chrome applications, the V-shaped radiator, and the overall stance with a long narrow engine cover.” 

As Mercedes North American public relations boss Geoff Day maintains, these physical qualities are much more integral to the 540K’s role as a car driven by cinematic bad guys than any lasting cultural connection that may exist between the model and its onetime Nazi drivers. “The imagery of the car is so strong,” reasons Day, “that it’s a very easy thing to do, to use the car as a poster child for the Nazis.” Simon, who hails from Germany, similarly plays down any inherent connection between the 540K and the Nazis, hesitating to scratch the surface of an issue that remains far more sensitive in his homeland than it does in America. “What inspired us as artists to look at the 540K was the combination of elegant body lines and the visually evil uprightness of the front,” he explains. Simon believes that only when painted black would the 540K strike the average person as a Nazi car. In any other color, he states, “one would think of glamorous film stars driving it to a fancy cocktail party.”

While Motor Trend’s Lieberman also hesitates to definitively label the 540K as a Nazi car, he clarifies there is a lot of gray area in the car’s public perception. “How does Hollywood make movies?” he asks rhetorically about Captain America. “They don’t try to do anything esoteric. They don’t want to lose the audience. So if they’re trying to imply evil Nazism, and they flash this car [the Schmidt Coupe], then I guess there is a cultural connection between that era and that car [the 540K]. That said, [the Schmidt Coupe] didn’t have the Mercedes badge. So you can just do the shape…the big upright convertible with separate fenders – that’s the Nazi era, not necessarily Mercedes.”

A reasonable claim, no doubt, except that the 540K examples sold at Monterey last August suggest otherwise. Of the four such cars that were auctioned by RM, a 1937 540K Spezial Roadster was the event’s top seller, setting a record price for a 540K at auction at $10.34 million. That record price included an unpublicized big-fish story, one that RM’s catalog writers struggled to discredit while preparing the lot’s documented history. According to an aged and slightly illegible copy of a letter from an Argentine automobile club, Adolf Eichmann had owned the car during his South American exile. Even a basic knowledge of Eichmann, however, throws doubt on such a claim, as the hunted Nazi lived the inconspicuous life of a fugitive on the lam—poor, paranoid, and socially isolated. The mere possibility that such a man could have owned a car like the flamboyant 540K without drawing unwanted attention is simply implausible.

“Many pre-war Mercedes-Benz motor cars, particularly the one-off, specially built examples, have less than attractive Nazi stories attached to them and, in my opinion, the vast majority are total nonsense,” contends Alain Squindo, RM’s catalog manager. Squindo’s consultation with Eichmann biographer Neil Bascomb and archivists from Daimler-Benz’ headquarters led him to conclude that the top-selling 1937 540K’s supposed Nazi involvement was highly unlikely. “I’ve personally seen the letter from the Argentine automobile club that claims Eichmann owned the car,” he explains. “There were several minor historic mistakes in the letter which I think cast doubt on the rest of the letter. As the former owner rightfully brought to my attention, the name ‘Eichmann’ is obscured by a fold in the paper, and there seems to be more than just one letter missing, so the name may in fact not even be Eichmann.”

The story of the 1937 540K that sold for top dollar is hardly an anomaly, though, even by the standards of the Monterey auction. According to a 1982 book by the late automotive author Henry Rasmussen, a 1939 pontoon-fender example of the 540K that went on to sell for $4.62 million at RM’s sale was originally given from Hitler to Stalin in an effort to smooth the negotiations of the Soviet-Nazi Non-Aggression Pact. As the story went, Stalin then gave the 540K to a Soviet general due to his personal distaste for such an ostentatious symbol of Western capitalism. The Mercedes sat largely unused on the general’s farm until being discovered in the 1960s by a Swedish car enthusiast, who purchased the 540K and drove it back from behind the Iron Curtain. 

Unfortunately for historical fantasists, only the last part of the story is actually true. In print for almost 30 years, Rasmussen’s account of the car was impossible to dismiss outright, and took considerable vetting by Squindo to eventually invalidate. “The gentleman I spoke with at the [Mercedes] factory personally visited this car with me in Connecticut,” recalls Squindo, “and when I asked him, point blank, whether this car was owned by Stalin or Hitler he said it was ‘pure nonsense.’ He did not have any research to support this, but then again, neither did Mr. Rasmussen. One of many things to consider is that it seems extremely improbable to me, as well as to this archivist, that Hitler would give any gift that was not a new car. [According to factory records] The car was not delivered new to the German government or to Russia, even. It is much more likely that the car was claimed [by the Red Army] at the end of the war and taken back to Russia, as so often happened with German luxury and racing cars. We do know for a fact it was in the ownership of a Soviet general, whose son inherited it. Anything beyond that would be pure speculation.”

Given Mercedes’ role as one of the Nazis’ principal corporate partners, there’s little mystery why many surviving prewar Mercedes-Benz cars might somehow have gained a reputation they didn’t necessarily earn. Part of the reason for this may be the nebulous degree of actual connection between the two entities. Daimler-Benz’ association with the Nazis is rarely explored in high school or college history curricula, leaving people to draw their own conclusions, often on the basis of archival footage that for many years dominated cable television outlets such as the History Channel. As the collective pop psychology understands it, television depicts Nazis driving Mercedes around in period news footage and subsequent feature films, ergo Daimler-Benz must be the official automotive brand of the Nazis. This may account for why the 540K has been loosely tied to so many high ranking Nazis when, in fact, dedicated researchers of the subject have only been able to definitively prove ownership by just three specific high ranking party members: Goering, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Nazi motor corps chief Adolf Huhnlein. The list does not include Eichmann or Rudolf Hess, despite the fact that a Russian museum claims to own a 540K once driven by Hitler’s secretary. The fact that it is increasingly difficult to prove that a particular 540K may have been owned by a Nazi, however, doesn’t necessarily exonerate the car from Nazi ownership. Or as Lieberman puts it, “Even if it’s not Eichmann’s car, there’s still a possibility that hated Nazis owned these cars.” 

If the Red Skull car is indeed the cultural descendant of the 540K, perhaps we can thank Leni Riefenstahl, the innovative but vilified filmmaker who was personally recruited by Hitler to direct Triumph of the Will. The propaganda documentary covered the 1934 Nuremburg Rally, the first major Nazi call of glory following Hitler’s consolidation of power a year earlier. After landing at an airfield during the film’s opening sequence, Hitler leads a motorcade of open-top Mercedes-Benz cars to Nuremburg’s center, standing in another of Daimler-Benz’s lauded cars, the 770 Grosser. Fifteen minutes later, as the motorcade departs for a second location, Baldur von Shirach, the Reich Youth Leader, is seen driving a much sportier car than the Grosser, a 2-door convertible with swept fenders and the unmistakable “blower” hoses that emanate from the side hood of such prewar supercharged cars. Given the date, von Shirach was likely traveling in a 500K, the mechanical predecessor to the 540K that, to the naked eye, appears almost identical to its successor.

Despite any lasting cultural connection to the Nazis that the 540K, itself, may or may not actually deserve, there’s little doubt that Daimler-Benz as a company was a willing conspirator with the National Socialist government, a past the company now shrewdly tiptoes around, as Lieberman points out. Case in point, when asked directly about links between Hitler’s government and the 540K, Geoff Day insists that the model was in development long before the Nazis took power and that any unequivocal connection between the two “would be unfair.” Claiming that the 540K has “outlived its original owners,” Day goes on to assert that the company’s wartime activities were “not an endorsement of the regime.” Similarly telling is the public relations chief’s insistence that Daimler-Benz is not sensitive to questions about Nazis, despite the fact that his subordinates simultaneously ignored repeated requests to provide company-sponsored histories regarding World War II, and frantically contacted at least one interview subject with concern about participation in this feature.  

While the level of cooperation that Daimler-Benz afforded the Nazis varies depends on the historian, there is a consensus that the company was regarded by the Nazis as a “model enterprise,” a distinction the totalitarian regime made to reward businesses that accommodated their goals. And despite the documented efforts of several company board chairmen to maintain a degree of autonomy from the Nazis’ efforts to indoctrinate Mercedes into their campaign of terror, history is very clear that Jakob Werlin, an early Nazi Party member and friend of Hitler, was a centrifugal force in Daimler-Benz’s machinations before and during the war.

As Lieberman points out, though, it’s Day’s job to toe the line and stay on message. Furthermore, the writer concedes there is a certain wisdom to the company’s don’t-ask/don’t-tell strategy of neither indulging nor denying their Nazi past, while quietly collecting as many of their divisive prewar cars as possible and locking them away in a nondescript warehouse outside of Stuttgart. “What do you do?” asks Lieberman, articulating Mercedes’ quandary. “How do you even approach that? It’s such a hot-button issue that Mercedes can’t even talk about it.”

In case there’s any doubt, Daimler-Benz was no victim of the Nazi war machine, despite the fact that the company was clearly at the mercy of the Party. In addition to accepting lucrative government contracts that handsomely paid them to produce engines that powered the Luftwaffe’s most destructive warplanes, Daimler-Benz was one of the first and foremost German companies to utilize slave labor in their factories, in some cases sourced from concentration camps. While a majority of the conscripted laborers were enslaved at Daimler-Benz’ primary factory in Unterturkheim, some were assigned to the company’s more distinguished Sindelfangen plant, whose craftsmen had molded the exquisite bodies that adorn the 540K. Despite the fact that the beautiful 540K was long out of production by the time slave labor practices became widespread (automobile manufacturing essentially ceased altogether after 1941), there was literally a geographical commonality between Mercedes’ most-prized model and its ugliest human rights deprivations.

Defenders of Daimler-Benz argue that the company has done its utmost to make amends for wartime misdeeds, including participation in a number of restitution funds for Holocaust survivors. Most notably, in 1998, Daimler-Benz CFO Manfred Gentz initiated negotiations with American litigators to provide an umbrella compensation fund on behalf of all German corporations who profited from, or contributed to, Nazi slave labor practices. Unfortunately, as detailed by American diplomat and settlement negotiator Stuart Eizenstat in his book Imperfect Justice, the German corporations’ overwhelming motivation in seeking the settlement was to indemnify themselves from any further lawsuits. The disingenuousness of the process was further reflected by the paltry $8,946 award that the fund eventually provided each surviving slave laborer, as well as a remark by Gentz during negotiations that questioned the amount of compensation that might be deemed acceptable by “a rich Jew in New York.” Though Daimler-Benz did not deny accountability in the horrors of the war, the company’s focus clearly remained on its bottom line.

Representatives of Jewish interests in Holocaust-related issues stress that Daimler-Benz’s admission of accountability or lack thereof is less an issue than the notion that any level of financial award can possibly atone for the grave injustices of the Nazi genocide. “Money cannot truly compensate for what was done,” laments Aaron Breitbart, the Senior Researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. “Restitution is welcome, but it should have been done right away,” he adds, pointing out the hollow nature of an apology made 50 years late. Despite the fact that he personally holds Daimler-Benz accountable for their complicities, Breitbart stresses that the Wiesenthal Center has no official position on whether Jewish people should support or condemn Daimler-Benz. “We get that call a lot,” he explains, “where [Jewish] people call us wanting to know if they should or shouldn’t buy Mercedes. There is no yes or no, or right or wrong answer. It’s a personal issue that someone must decide for themselves.” Breitbart further explains that while some Jewish consumers with almost no personal connection to the Holocaust continue to boycott Mercedes-Benz and other German companies, others who lost loved ones to the Nazi horrors insist on buying the premium German cars because, “they’ve earned it.” And though one might suspect that slavery in a Daimler-Benz factory would be infinitely more tolerable than a concentration camp, Breitbart cites a 1986 Der Spiegel article in which a Holocaust survivor claimed the brutality he experienced on the Mercedes factory floor made him long for Buchenwald.

Given all of the larger issues that play into Mercedes’ wartime activities, it’s no surprise that so little attention has been given to the cultural legacy of the Nazi-era cars, themselves. But where does all this leave the fetching 540K? Should the car be forever labeled as a Nazi car? Even Lieberman, an American Jew whose uncle was shot down during the Battle of Britain, thinks such a snap judgment is unfair. “It’s not fair to the car, it’s not fair to World War II, it’s not fair to Mercedes,” he says. 

If the 540K is forever sullied by Nazi connections, then the first step in exonerating the model would be for Daimler-Benz to take a more proactive stance in sharing its darkest chapter with the world. “I feel if you’re going to give even just a brief history of that car, you need to mention the times,” Lieberman astutely concludes. “You need to mention that the guy the entire world rose up to defeat liked to ride around in one. If you choose to leave out this part of the history, you’re doing disservice to everyone. But history is history, you know? Truth is a defense. I guess that’s the takeaway here…just be truthful with the stuff.” Daimler-Benz’ alternative, of course, is allowing fiction to substitute for fact, as in the case of Captain America. And as the company continues to neither fully dodge nor confront its past, one wonders if that isn’t how they prefer it.