Jäger Bombs: Big Brands And The History They Want You To Forget

It’s inspirational stuff! A group of young, highly photogenic, friends drive to an idyllic spot, deep in the virgin forest and set to work. Using a combination of items they’ve brought with them and materials gathered from the woodlands around them they create a magnificent statue of a huge stag. It is beautifully proportioned and superbly detailed. Then, as night falls, the friends gather round, and toasting their handiwork with glasses of Jägermeister they set it aflame.

It’s an evocative image, harking back to a pagan past in which the forest loomed large in the German psyche. Afterwards the revellers presumably get back into their vehicles and head back to the city, hopefully not having first selected one of their number to be burnt inside the effigy in the style of the wicker man.

In a previous post I talked about how advertising often uses imagery from history to sell. However, sometimes advertisers want to obscure the history behind their products. The imagery in the Jägermeister ad is meant to convey both the modernity of the product and its roots in the distant past, but in reality it isn’t actually that old a drink. It might hark back to medieval times with the archaic lettering on the label and the imagery of a stag and cross referencing the cult of St Hubertus, but that is a bit of a red herring. So too is the date on the label which refers to when Wilhelm Mast started his distillery in the 19th century rather than when his son Curt came up with the recipe for Jägermeister itself.

Curt Mast actually invented  Jägermeister in 1935, two years into Nazi rule, and seeing which way the wind was blowing in Germany came up with the name to curry favour with  Hermann Göring, who had just been appointed Imperial Game Keeper for the new Third Reich. So closely was the drink associated with the regime that it was also known as Göring-Schnaps. Obviously this isn’t an era in the company’s history that they are proud of today and the product in itself is not offensive, unless you don’t like bitters, but it is perhaps surprising that it wasn’t re-branded after the war.

Back in 2014 Jägermeister ran another controversial ad featuring a van load of young men. The ad shows the group driving through barren wastes, overcoming extreme cold and fatigue to reach the shores of the Arctic Ocean. Once there, they warm themselves with a fortifying glass or two of the huntsman’s brew before plunging into the icy waters to surf among the icebergs. The advert drew criticism as it was felt to encourage risky behaviour although it wasn’t entirely clear whether the risk was driving a dodgy looking old van in very icy conditions or surfing in the Arctic. Presumably both are even more dangerous, although possibly more enjoyable, if you’ve just necked a sizeable quantity of strong liquor.

As we watch the young men risk life and limb catching a wave and hoping to avoid any lurking killer whales and polar bears the strap line comes up “It runs deep”. It’s all very jolly until you consider that Jägermeister was a favourite tipple for U-Boat crews.

Then there’s the campaign run by Boss to promote their aftershave featuring Gerard Butler as “The Man of Today” a slogan which would not have been out of place in the iconography of 1930s National Socialism and perhaps this isn’t all that surprising as Hugo Boss was another ardent Nazi who made his fortune making the uniforms for the SA, SS and Hitler Youth, often using forced labour.

The Man of Today as he looked back in Hugo Boss’s day

The company today is very different. Hugo Boss himself was banned from business after the war and it was his son in law Eugen Holy who turned it into a modern fashion house. Nowadays it is a large multi-national corporation with an international ownership having been bought and then sold on by the Italian Marzotto Group. In truth the company today has little or nothing to do with its founder other than it has turned his name into an instantly recognised and well respected brand; somewhat unfortunate considering what kind of man Hugo Boss was. Having said that, the company has taken some steps to address the issues in its past by commissioning a study by German academics which led to an apology for any suffering caused to forced labourers.

Of course many large organisations have a questionable past, and many of the largest German and Japanese corporations today were major suppliers of arms and equipment to the Axis powers. A distinction should perhaps be made however between companies which supplied equipment for purely military use and those which supplied goods for more sinister purposes. War makes villains of us all to some extent and the Second World War involved unprecedented civilian casualties on both sides. The prevailing attitude in air strategy prior to the Battle of Britain was the doctrine that “The Bomber Will Always Get Through” as Stanley Baldwin told the House of Commons in 1932, and both sides recognised that large scale bombing of civilian targets would damage morale and increase internal pressure to sue for peace. Consequently the Allies responded to Axis aggression with devastating bombing campaigns against German, and later Japanese, cities culminating in the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Major corporations on both sides built the aircraft and bombs that made this possible, but in the context of a fight for their nation’s survival, and the consequences of refusing to do so, can they be really be blamed for this?

More reprehensible are the activities of companies involved in activities which were clearly beyond the boundaries of human decency. Siemens for example was heavily implicated in the construction and running of the concentration camps as well as having an appalling death rate among its enforced labourers with many dying of disease and malnutrition while working for the company.

One of Germany’s biggest post-war success stories was Volkswagen, a company which contributed hugely to the recovery of Germany’s economy from the 1950s onwards and which has built a worldwide reputation for quality and reliability. Much of the early success of the company was built on sales of more than twenty million Volkswagen Beetles and by 1972 the Beetle had become the best-selling car in history.

Dr. Ferdinand Porsche (courtesy of the Bundesarchiv)

The idea behind the Beetle had actually come from Hitler himself, who wanted a cheap car for the masses that would allow them to take advantage of his new autobahn network. Hitler gave the task of designing such a car to Ferdinand Porsche at a meeting in Berlin’s Kaiserhof Hotel in May 1934 and the latter came up with his design in early 1938. When Hitler officially opened the car’s production line in May of that year, he named the car the Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagen or Strength-Through-Joy-Car, a reference to the Nazi party’s state sanctioned leisure organisation. However, before the car, or the name, could particularly catch on the outbreak of war curtailed production as the factory switched to building a military version, the Kübelwagen for use by the army.

A 1938 publicity photograph for the KdF Wagen (courtesy of the Bundesarchiv)

In 1945 the Allies took control of Volkswagen’s factories and considered what to do next. The Americans suggested that the British might want to dismantle the production lines and relocate them to Britain but no British manufacturer showed an interest in taking them on. Instead the factories remained in Germany where they came under the control of the British army with a brief to pastoralise the company’s production. Ivan Hirst, the British army officer put in charge, realised the potential of the Beetle as a cheap mass-produced car ideal for use by the occupying forces and persuade the War Office to order 20,000 and thus the popular revival of Volkswagen began.

Rebadging the car as the Beetle rather than the Kraft-durch-Freude-Wagon not only gave it a snappier and more commercially friendly name, it also effectively de-Nazified it. There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of a car for the masses, in fact it is a laudable idea but it is important to disassociate the idea from fascism. Equally, there is nothing wrong with a herbal aperitif or a gentlemen’s fragrance but it would be preferable if they were not hoodwinking the public into unwittingly celebrating the legacy of the Nazis.


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