In September 2015, Martin Winterkorn, very contrite, pronounced a text in front of a camera. The wall he’s standing in front of is pale, as is the otherwise self-confident man who will step down as VW boss shortly after the records are faint and a little choppy. Days earlier, Volkswagen’s U.S. environmental authorities discovered the big scandal of manipulated emission values in diesel cars, and now the longtime boss is here and apologizing. If you listened carefully you could get a very early idea of how the automotive director viewed himself and his role in the whole drama.
Not because Winterkorn said he was “very sorry” that they “disappointed the trust.” Something like this is probably part of the standard repertoire in such situations. Interesting was the stipulation with which Winterkorn cut off his line of defense from the start: it would be “wrong if the hard and honest work of 600,000 people were suspected because of the bad mistakes of a few,” he said. .
It was a clear message: a few bad guys from our own ranks made mistakes, screwed up the diesel engine, tampered with millions of cars, installed illegal deactivation devices and ensured that for years no more harmful emissions. are released into the environment than permitted by law. A few have defrauded millions of customers and hundreds of thousands of employees. And even the boss. So the representation of that.
That was six years ago, a long time ago, and from this Thursday the question of who is really responsible for the huge fraud will be heard in the Brunswick Regional Court. The charges against the first four suspects out of a hundred are severe: “Commercial fraud, gang fraud and other criminal offenses”. In total, nine million cars equipped with the EA-189 engine – such as VW’s Golf, Jetta or Passat models, Škoda’s Fabia, Octavia or Superb as well as a number of Audi – have been sold over the years in Germany, Europe and the USA despite themselves were not admissible. The defendants knew about it, wanted this procedure, and even approved deceptive advertisements for the cars. A motivation, according to the indictment: it would increase the profits of companies, on which their own bonuses also depended.
Operating room instead of court
However, there is no need to justify oneself in the mammoth process that has been moved to Brunswick Town Hall due to the corona pandemic and expected precipitation. The lawsuits against Martin Winterkorn, who headed Germany’s largest industrial company from 2007 to 2015, have been suspended for health reasons. The 74-year-old man, who has had hip problems for a long time, has just had an operation. And so, from this week, it only goes against the four co-accused VW executives, including a former close confidant of Winterkorn: the ex-brand manager Heinz-Jakob Neußer. Then – 2022, 2023, anytime – it should be the turn of the ex-boss, with the prosecution trying somehow to hold the proceedings together. She doesn’t want to work any more and, if possible, retrace the whole thing: From start to finish, from the engine developer to the top boss.
But even if Winterkorn isn’t there: it’s safe to assume he’ll still be in the room somehow. The other defendants, their lawyers and probably also the prosecution should take care of it. A process without Winterkorn, but with Winterkorn as the secret lead actor, so to speak. Winterkorn, who rejects all allegations, might like this solution, you might think. However: With the separation of processes, a long phase of limbo continues for the ex-manager – never ending.
Keep producing, keep selling, despite the cheating
It is somewhat reminiscent of the lawsuit against former Audi boss Rupert Stadler which is already underway in Munich. In fact, he is also not accused of initiating the fraud. The indictment accuses Stadler of at least considering that it was possible from September 2015 for diesel cars with improved emission levels to be sold in Europe as well. In other words: keep producing, keep selling, despite cheating – because business comes first. Very different levels of hierarchy come together in the lawsuit against the former boss of Audi and three other former executives of the company – the goal of the prosecution, or at least what it looks like: to describe the whole history of diesel fraud. Stadler’s lawyers had tried to separate the proceedings against their client because the allegations are different here.
Open detailed view
Wolfsburg, VW headquarters: this is where the main engineers gathered at the so-called “damage table”.
(Photo: Jan Huebner / imago)
In fact, the prosecution does not accuse Winterkorn of having been involved in the development of the defeat device, if that is to be seen as the core. Winterkorn “only discovered the possible manipulations relatively late”, according to the court so far. However: after receiving serious news about illegal handling in May 2014, he had not removed the technical equipment for handling exhaust gases, but kept it running. An internal note given to him in his so-called “weekend suitcase” and therefore recommended for reading, allegedly indicated excessively high nitrogen oxide values in exhaust gas and device measurements. illegal shutdowns. Didn’t your colleagues in quality assurance and product safety warn in a loud enough and impressive way? Hadn’t Winterkorn read the note? Or underestimated their explosiveness? Or was it at the end of a weekend family reunion that kept her from taking a closer look at the weekend suitcase with the office notes?
What exactly happened at the damage table?
And then there is the issue of the so-called damage table, this regular occurrence that was feared by senior engineers as the holy inquisition. At these events, technical issues and questions were discussed, and then the time for the detail-loving Winterkorn came. When this group met at the company’s headquarters in Wolfsburg at the end of July 2015, Winterkorn and his entourage were said to have been made aware of the problems with a defeat mechanism and the enormous legal risks of such manipulation. Winterkorn has already paid 11.2 million euros in damages to its former employer VW. But he stayed: he didn’t want to know about all this mess until September 2015.
How believable is it when someone like Winterkorn, who was known to take care of every screw in the business, hasn’t known any of this for so long? In any case, the reverse, that one, has not yet been found: this order from above, from Winterkorn, that you have to cheat to make money.
So does what Hiltrud Werner said about the start of the whole process apply? “There is no single cause,” said the woman who was brought to VW’s board after the explosion to clarify and ensure that at least in the future, public order is respected. Many circumstances contributed to the scandal gnawing at the company: people who remained in only one department. And a “hierarchical culture, a rigidity which allowed little personal responsibility”.
The diesel scandal as the result of a misguided culture in many ways? The accused ex-manager Neusser and his colleagues Jens H., Hanno J. and Thorsten D. will likely also provide information in the next few months – and may make several references to the man who has yet to been tried: Martin Winterkorn.