For all its shiny green future, Volkswagen has a dark and complicated past. Nowhere do those two disparate sides present themselves more starkly than in the company's headquarters of Wolfsburg, Germany. It's a one-horse town of 120,000. The factory employs some 48,000, and more than 2 million a year visit the 61-acre Autostadt, a celebration of all things VW, with pavilions, exhibits, even a mini track where kids can become kinder-licensed and drive wee electric Beetles.
But the original factory building, with its sturdy smokestacks, is an inescapable reminder of how the city was reconfigured in 1938 to house workers making the people's car. With the onset of World War II, the factory was modified to make military equipment. Forced laborers, many of them teenagers snatched from all over Europe and from concentration camps, worked alongside paid workers, often without shoes or protective gear. It is a deeply upsetting bit of corporate history that the company has decided to make explicit, by compensating survivors and memorializing their stories in "Place of Remembrance," an in situ museum in a series of former air-raid bunkers built for the original plant. Employees and guests touring the exhibits can meet the people — through archival photos, films, personal histories, and other records — who were unwilling participants in the VW experience. "We give them a face," says Ulrike Gutzmann, one of the company's two corporate historians. "It is so important that we never forget." On the floor sits the cornerstone of the original factory, emblazoned with a swastika. "We just didn't know where else to put it."
A version of this article appeared in the February 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.