Volkswagen CEO apologizes after appearing to reference Nazi slogan

The chief executive of Volkswagen has apologized after appearing to reference a notorious Nazi slogan while talking about the company’s profits.

Speaking at a Volkswagen management event in Germany on Tuesday, Herbert Diess used the expression “Ebit macht frei.” The phrase sounds similar to “Arbeit macht frei,” a slogan inscribed the gates of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps during World War II.

Arbeit macht frei means “work sets you free.” Ebit is a measure of a company’s profits, and is short for earnings before interest and taxes. Diess’ comments were first reported by German news organizations.

“At no time was it my intention for this statement to be placed in a false context,” Diess wrote in a post on social network LinkedIn on Wednesday. “At the time, I simply did not think of this possibility.”

He said his comments were intended to highlight Volkswagen’s strong profits, not cause offense. “This was definitely an unfortunate choice of words,” he wrote. “If I have unintentionally caused offense, I am extremely sorry. I would like to apologize unreservedly.”

References to the Nazis have particular significance for Volkswagen. It was founded in 1937 as a state-run automobile company when Germany was led by Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party. The word Volkswagen roughly translates as “People’s Car.”

During its early years, the auto manufacturer used slave labor from Nazi-run concentration camps to build its vehicles. It’s now one of the biggest carmakers in the world, producing more than 10 million vehicles a year.

In his post, Diess said that he and the firm’s employees “are aware of the special responsibility of Volkswagen in connection with the Third Reich,” referring to the period between 1933 and 1945 when Germany was under Hitler’s rule. The Nazis used a network of camps in Central and Eastern Europe to kill about 6 million Jews and millions of other people.

Volkswagen has held memorial events and provided support for those affected by the company’s early links to the Nazis.

Diess has been CEO of Volkswagen since April last year.