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Jewish World Review Jan. 15, 2001 / 20 Teves, 5761

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Consumer Reports

Does anyone care that Germany owns the Jeep? -- IN THE MIDDLE of the 20th Century, many predictions were made about what life would be like in the 21st Century.

Robots would serve us our meals; we would commute to work through high-speed pneumatic tubes; we would take vacations on the moon and on Mars; we would zip around town on personal hovercraft.

Nothing seemed too unimaginable; nothing felt unbelievable.

But there was one prediction no one made -- one prediction, had anyone voiced it in, say, 1950, not a single person would have believed: too incomprehensible.

No futurist had the temerity to predict:

"Germany will own the Jeep."

Germany does -- in every practical sense, the Jeep is owned and controlled by German financial interests today. And the very fact that there is not a bit of controversy concerning this speaks volumes about the national memory.

The Jeep exists for one reason and one reason only: In the late 1930s, the United States Army wanted -- needed -- a replacement for the motorcycles and sidecars of World War I. Another war was on the horizon, and the American military was not prepared for it.

The Army issued a list of specifications for the proposed new vehicle. U.S. carmakers hurriedly drew up blueprints; in a breathtakingly short period of time, the vehicle was designed, built in huge numbers, and thrown into the war effort. If a car could be a hero, then the Jeep was the hero of the defeat of the Nazis in World War II. It did not have the brawn and might of a tank -- but the Jeep got the job done. As one military historian put it, the Jeep would "go places where tankers quit and birds would go back exhausted."

Ernie Pyle, the greatest World War II correspondent, wrote: "Good Lord, I don't think we could continue the war without the Jeep. It does everything. It goes everywhere. It's as faithful as a dog, strong as a mule, and as agile as a goat. It constantly carries twice what it was designed for, and keeps on going. It doesn't even ride so badly after you get used to it."

At the height of the war, Jeeps were being manufactured for Allied troops at the rate of one Jeep every 1 1/2 minutes. If ever there were a wartime love story, it was between the American fighting man in Europe and the Jeep. So when the Axis was defeated, it was not surprising the soldiers returning home, fresh from victory over Germany, would not want the Jeep to die.

The Jeep trademark went through a number of transformations in the years after World War II; it had several U.S. corporate owners, and the Jeep went from being a unit of basic military transport to a car favored by everyone from America's weekend funseekers to suburban families. By the late 1980s, the Jeep was a product of the Chrysler motor company.

In 1998, Chrysler was taken over by Germany's Daimler-Benz, in what was described to the world as a merger. The Jeep was one of the products involved in the deal. In the time since the transaction, it has become increasingly evident that Chrysler is considered to be merely a division of the German parent; it has virtually no autonomy. Late last year, DaimlerChrysler's American president, James P. Holden, was removed from his position. It was announced his replacement would be the parent company's Dieter Zetsche, to be assisted by Wolfgang Bernhard. The New York Times reported: "Given the management turmoil at Chrysler, where almost all the top executives have been pushed out or quit in the two years since it was acquired by Daimler-Benz, the incoming executives dispatched from Stuttgart will face both structural problems and local hostility from dispirited American managers."

Soon after, American investor Kirk Kerkorian, a large shareholder in DaimlerChrysler, filed a $9 billion lawsuit against DaimlerChrysler in which he accused Chairman Jurgen Schrempp of lying to Chrysler shareholders when Schrempp called the 1998 deal a "merger of equals." The German parent "always intended to relegate Chrysler to the status of a division, always intended to fire Chrysler's management and always intended to replace them with executives from their headquarters in Stuttgart," the suit alleged. "Mr. Schrempp knew that Chrysler's directors and shareholders would never approve a transaction if he told the truth, namely, that a foreign corporation was seeking to acquire complete operating control of one of America's `Big Three.'"

Why should any of this matter? Are we not "one world" these days -- a "world without borders"? That's what we are constantly being told.

And is not Germany our ally now? So what possible difference should it make if Germany runs Chrysler?

We'll eventually find out the answers to those questions. "Forgive and forget" is a time-honored phrase -- but perhaps, in the context of an event on the scale of World War II, some Americans can be excused if they are willing to forgive -- maybe -- but never to forget.

A world without borders? We shall see. But you have to wonder what those exhausted American solders would have thought, as they returned home from Europe in 1944 and 1945, had they been told:

You won the war.

But Germany gets the Jeeps.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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