Skip to main content

The Canadian War Museum has abandoned its plan to sell Hitler's black limousine, amid fears that it could fall into the wrong hands and become an icon for neo-Nazis.

But there's another possible reason for the Ottawa museum to keep the armoured Grosser Mercedes limousine: It is a unique artifact that demonstrates Hitler's insecurity and his cunning insight into the car's propaganda value as a status symbol.

Just as the beautifully manufactured Mercedes impresses us today, it was meant to impress the politically confused and naive Germans of the unstable Weimar Republic (1919-1933), Germany's first democracy.

It was no accident that Hitler purchased a 16-horsepower Mercedes Benz in December of 1924 after serving nine months of a five-year sentence for treason. The ex-con and leader of the temporarily banned Nazi political party, thrust into the national limelight by his melodramatic courtroom performance, hoped that his chauffeur-driven car would impress his previous followers and persuade others of his political importance.

Also relevant to our understanding of Hitler's relationship to this vehicle is his own inability to drive it. While he enjoyed vehicular acceleration as much as the next person, he was too insecure to take the steering wheel.

The supposedly fearless Hitler who, in the 1920s, confronted militant anti-Nazis in the streets, was a scaredy-cat when it came to cars. Street beatings and staged theatrics suited his purposes, while driving was too demanding for his personality.

Indeed, Hitler's early chauffeur and bodyguard, Julius Schreck, drove cars into groups of anti-Nazis or over opponents' bicycles laying on a roadside.

Perhaps his inability to drive fits into a larger pattern of insecurity over his own well-being.

Published recorded notes of Hitler's casual table-talk in editor H. R. Trevor-Roper's Hitler's Secret Conversations tell us about his mindset. Here the historian finds him revealing his narrow artistic and musical interests, talking about his "victimization" by his teachers, describing his life as a First World War soldier, and outlining his superficial biological worldview.

Born in 1889, Hitler grew up in provincial Austria where horse-drawn transport dominated. As a teenager, he was not interested in his studies, nor in vehicles. His fascination with the mechanics of weapons and vehicles apparently began during the First World War, when he served as a runner. He later admitted reading regularly "the publications devoted to the motor car."

Wounded at least twice -- once from mustard gas -- he developed a heightened sense of vulnerability arising from needless risks. For example, he became a vegetarian and repeatedly criticized the eating of meat. He also drank little alcohol, perhaps to maintain his health and to demonstrate his strong willpower.

In 1920, Hitler founded the National Socialist Party. Painting himself as a heroic crusader fighting against weak-willed and corrupt democrats who "fronted" for "parasitic" Jews, he became the darling of certain affluent reactionary families, such as the Bechsteins of Bayreuth, who lent him a car and possibly its driver, whose weak intellect supposedly made him a useful servant.

Apparently, Herr Bechstein, too, was involved in destabilizing the republic, since he carried explosives in his car. "For months," Hitler claimed, he was driven in this car "when it was full of dynamite." A more accurate time length was probably a few weeks, for Hitler often exaggerated an event or inflated a figure; for example, he claimed to have been driven "2½ million kilometres" when crisscrossing Germany.

The risks of using Bechstein's vehicle probably caused Hitler to purchase his first Mercedes Benz in 1923, the year of the failed attempted coup. The police confiscated the imprisoned convict's car, but he got another one when he was released.

Hitler's inability to drive presented the self-anointed "genius" and highly decorated veteran with a serious embarrassment. Hitler complained of "dagger thrusts to my pride" when his lack of motor-vehicle skills arose in conversation in the early 1920s.

Hitler of the 1930s felt outperformed by his competition: another self-appointed Caesar, Italy's Benito Mussolini, was a master not only of the car but also of the plane.

Indeed, Hitler's adventurous generals, such as Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, took to the air only to be chided for taking foolish chances, since Hitler, the self-educated promoter of the "school of life," disliked being outshone by the traditionally trained senior military officers.

Hitler's lame excuse was that he never learned to drive after he bought the chauffeured Mercedes Benz because he was on parole for five years after his 1924 release, and a car accident would have led to his reincarceration.

Typical of Hitler, he provided several reasons. A great leader did not make a fool of himself, for the anticipated public reaction to a mishap would have been damaging to his political efforts. He also rationalized that his steering of a car for "12 hours" to a distant German city would mean wasting precious energy needed for his passionate, lengthy orations.

Research here demonstrates that Hitler, above all, feared injuring himself during driver training. When lecturing to his cronies in the evening of Aug. 20, 1942, Hitler drew a parallel with learning to ski: The conductor Wilhelm Furtwaengler "suddenly had the wonderful idea of going in for skiing. . . . Off he starts and then, crash! There he lies in a sorry mess." Assuming an academic air, he looked to his filtered understanding of history: Bismarck, too, refused to swim, he observed.

His fears of driving were so real in 1923 that he thought twice before he drove with somebody with whom he had not yet driven. Such anxiety was understandable, since his early drivers enjoyed racing through Munich. His drivers showed little respect for pedestrians, drove quickly through built-up areas, and accelerated so quickly that wheels often crossed the roads' edges or went up onto curbs. Tires squealed and skidded. The drivers, presumably untrained volunteers, maintained the car so poorly that a wheel once flew off while the car was in motion.

The vehicular threat to Hitler's life pushed businessman Adolph Mueller into action. A printer of many small newspapers, including Hitler's anti-Semitic and anti-democratic Voelkischer Beobachter, Mueller took the rising political crusader under his wing to demonstrate "the art of driving a car."

Mueller drove him from Munich to Wuertzburg, illustrating road manners. He referred to Hitler's drivers as dummies and saucepan skidders, and warned that any poorly maintained car was heading for the scrap heap. The driver's life -- and, by implication, Hitler's -- were in jeopardy. And the aspiring leader probably realized that the previous road antics seemed more appropriate for a gangster than a party leader.

Hitler, thereafter, demanded that his drivers go easy on the gas. He "insisted . . . that the speed at which they drive should allow them to pull up in time under any circumstances." He put the onus on his drivers to drive defensively, for he did not want his driver to kill a child running onto the street. And a slow-moving car did not splash waving Germans or choke bicyclists with dust.

After the funeral of Viktor Lutze, the leader of the Sturm Abteilung brownshirts who died in a car accident in early May of 1943, Hitler reprimanded the top Nazi leaders for speeding. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels entered a special note in his diary on May 7: "The Fuhrer was extremely outspoken and was not sparing in reproaches." Hitler instructed that "all cars of party members must cut down the speed to 50 [kilometres an hour]" The overbearing paternalism was probably difficult for the mostly First World War veterans to swallow. But they did. In short, Hitler ordered them to drive just as his driver did.

We know that 50 km/h was his cruising speed, because Nazi architect Albert Speer recorded that Hitler -- who he called "my catalyst" -- had told him just that in 1933. "Schreck was the best driver . . . and our supercharger [Mercedes Benz]is good for over 100 [km/h] But in recent years, I've told Schreck not to drive over 50." The dictator's reasoning was: "How terrible if something had happened to me."

Similarly, Hitler opposed the high performance demanded of newer vehicles and argued that all military vehicles, from the field-kitchen truck to the ambulance and reconnaissance car, have a speed of between 10 and 20 km/h. Army vehicles, thought Hitler, needed power but not speed. After reading Henry Ford's book about the U.S. car industry, Hitler believed he had developed a unique insight into the motor engine and its effective usage. His court secretaries and top officials of 1937-45 knew better than to challenge him.

Hitler enjoyed telling car stories. In 1925, after his chauffeur Schreck was arrested at a brawl in Passau, Hermann Goering sat in the driver's seat and sped like a "madman" on the route to Berchtesgaden. "On a bend," recalled Hitler, "we suddenly found ourselves on a dung heap."

Goering, the decorated First World War flying ace and later Hitler's second-in-command, was replaced at the wheel by Maurice, the dictator's other driver. Hitler's account purposely belittled the national hero: No. 1 did not drive, while No. 2 could not.

In the 1920s, Hitler made day-trips with his affluent Bayreuth admirers to Luisenburg or Bamberg. He commented: "My super-charged Mercedes was a joy to all." He seemed to have genuine affection for the automobile, making "innumerable sketches" of it.

On March 23, 1944, Hitler reminisced: "One of my greatest delights has always been to picnic quietly somewhere on the roadside; it was not easy, for our column of cars would often be pursued by a crowd of motorists. . . . We managed occasionally to snatch a few hours of peace." Hitler's chauffeur laid out the blankets, brought out the picnic baskets, and played the accordion if time permitted. Sometimes, they sang songs.

But even here, the drive into the country was tarnished by Hitler's perverse obsessions, for the entourage -- according to Speer -- drove under banners declaring: "Jews are not welcome in this district."

Andrew Rettig is a Brampton, Ont., teacher at an alternative education centre in the Dufferin-Peel separate school board.