The Volkswagen Beetle is one of the enduring and iconic products of the past century, but it has meant different things to different people in different places and times. In telling its story, Rieger starts with Hitler’s ambition to create an inexpensive and functional “people’s car.” The job was turned over to Ferdinand Porsche, who produced the cute “bug” design the car has featured ever since. War production superseded civilian priorities, however, and the Beetle was delayed until after World War II, when British occupation authorities launched its production. In Germany, the car became a symbol of the country’s middle-class economic miracle. In the United States, it became a symbol of countercultural resistance to middle-class consumerism. As its popularity waned in developed countries, it found a foothold in Mexico, where it stood for middle-class solidity and values in the face of economic turmoil. When Volkswagen introduced a redesigned Beetle in 2011, it offered young and old alike a chance to return to imagined traditions many of them never knew.
Get the best of Foreign Affairs' book reviews delivered to you.