According to Brazil's National Truth Commission, at least one suspected opponent of the country's 21-year military dictatorship was tortured at the Volkswagen plant in Sao Bernardo do Campo, near Sao Paulo.
In the commission's recently published final report, former VW employee Lucio Bellentani describes his ordeal. "I was at work when two people with machine guns came up to me," he said. "They held my arms behind my back and immediately put me in handcuffs. As soon as we arrived in Volkswagen's security center, the torture began. I was beaten, punched and slapped."
German companies cooperated
The torture is said to have taken place in 1972, when, according to the commission, more than 20 metal workers were arrested. Most of them worked at Volkswagen, while others were employed by Daimler Benz and other industrial companies.
According to the report, large companies like these played an active role in the repressive machine of the military regime. Even German corporations like Volkswagen, Daimler Benz and Siemens were involved, financially supporting Operacao Bandeirante, for example, a military unit that fought the opposition.
Various national and international companies were said to have monitored their employees, passed on information about them and even handed over certain individuals to the Department of Political and Social Order, or DOPS, a police intelligence agency that monitored and repressed leftists.
Mountains of documents prove the long-term cooperation between Volkswagen do Brasil and the military regime, according to the commission. In 1980, a certain Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, then a trade unionist and from 2003 to 2010 the Brazilian president, was warning VW employees that the head of VW's security department was spying on them.
For Nina Schneider, a Latin American historian at the University of Konstanz, one important question is: To what extent the German parent company knew of the events in Brazil.
"This needs to be clarified, and Volkswagen must state its position."
'VW must compensate victims'
That's exactly what will happen, came the word from VW's Wolfsburg headquarters. "Volkswagen is pursuing any indication of possible involvement of the employees at Volkswagen do Brasil in human rights violations during the period of military dictatorship," a spokesperson told DW.
Manfred Grieger, head of VW's corporate history department, emphasized that Volkswagen had done exemplary work in recognizing the company's history during the Third Reich and continues to "undertake the necessary research to clear up incidents, unconditionally and completely."
For historian Schneider, that's not good enough. She thinks Volkswagen must compensate the victims or their relatives, an idea also supported by the regional commissions in Brazil that are coming to terms with the military dictatorship.
But first, said Schneider, it must be made clear whether VW was involved in any human rights violations - and, if yes, to what extent.