COMMEMORATION: A plaque in honour of Ferdinand Porsche in his home town of Vratislavice in the Czech Republic. Image: AFP
VRATISLAVICE , Czech Republic - The name Porsche has long made sports car enthusiasts swoon but the Nazi past of the famous brand's founder has left his Czech home town sorely divided over his legacy.
In 2010, Vratislavice opened an ultra-modern, million-dollar memorial to Ferdinand Porsche, who invented the Volkswagen Beetle - among the world's top-selling cars - and, in 1898, the first petrol-electric hybrid.
The German-headquartered Porsche AG loaned cars to the facility, right next to town hall, to help show off their founder's engineering genius.
Town officials, meanwhile, put up signs reading "welcome to Vratislavice, the birthplace of Ferdinand Porsche".
Not all in this modest locality of nearly 8000 residents north-east of the capital, Prague, felt comfortable with trumpeting about their native son, however. In 2013 a new team voted into City Hall could no longer ignore growing protests that Vratislavice - in an area annexed by Nazi Germany in the late 1930's - was "memorialising" a man who had worked for Adolf Hitler.
Mayor Ales Preisler told AFP that anti-Nazi war veterans and the Jewish community objected to the fact that the facility never mentioned Porsche's Nazi connections. They condemned Porsche for joining the Nazi SS paramilitary group before the war and deplored the fact that prisoners of war were used as slave labour at the Volkswagen car plant in Wolfsburg, Germany, when Porsche was general manager.
To calm matters, the city late in 2013 renamed the memorial an "exhibition" and added a text saying Porsche had been a Nazi. Porsche, meanwhile, took back its cars but would not talk about the controversy, saying "it is a local issue".
Porsche AG spokesperson Dieter Landenberger said: "All vehicles in our collection are rotated on a regular basis. The facility has been empty ever since."
At about the same time, the town hall removed the signs proclaiming Vratislavice as Porsche's birthplace. Preisler told AFP: "These things should not be financed using municipal cash. Porsche was a Nazi."
Porsche was born in 1875 into the predominantly ethnic German community in Vratislavice when it was known as Maffersdorf and part of the Habsburg's Austro-Hungarian empire. He left at age 18, moving first to Vienna then to Germany.
His talent for designing cutting-edge engines and cars saw him climb company ranks at renowned automakers, among them Austro-Daimler and Mercedes. When Hitler took power in Germany in 1933 he was quick to ask Porsche to design a "people's car", the predecessor of the VW Beetle.
Jan Vajskebr, a historian at the Czech Terezin Memorial located in a Second World War ghetto and prison, said: "Porsche was an active Nazi who was on very good terms with Hitler and used this relationship to push his projects."
The Nazis set up the site, often known by its German name Theresienstadt, from where tens of thousands of Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Encouraged by Hitler, Porsche gave up his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1935, four years before his country was occupied by Nazi Germany.
"He didn't hesitate three seconds," said Preisler.
The engineer spent 22 months in prison after the war and died in 1951, leaving the business to his son Ferry who in turn gained fame with models such as the iconic Porsche 911. Four years after Porsche's death, the millionth Beetle rolled off the production line. In all, about 23-million 'Bugs' have been built, making the car an international best-seller.
Back "home", the automaker's achievements don't always outweigh his past. Petr Jirasko is among those demanding the exhibition disclose everything about Porsche's collaboration with Hitler. "He was a Nazi. History books don't lie," he fumed.
Pensioner Miloslav Spidlen, pulling a cart past the local cemetery where Porsche's parents are buried, said: "Porsche was a man who achieved something that every driver can appreciate. I value such people no matter what they're like."
Despite the controversy, car collector Milan Bumba is setting up his own private Porsche museum at a local brewery, where he already has three Porsches, a 1956 Beetle and a Porsche tractor.
Bumba, a 54-year-old bus driver, said: "Porsche had no choice. Hitler chose him and if Porsche had refused he would have ended up in a concentration camp and never achieved anything."
Bumba believed Porsche "was only interested in designing cars and I think he didn't see what was happening around him".
Using his own cash - and some of his wife's - for his museum, Bumba has already welcomed VW and Porsche fans from Europe, America and as far away as New Zealand and Australia who came to see the engineer's birthplace.
He is particularly fond of his reliable old 1956 Beetle, which he drove across Europe and up to the Arctic Circle. Bumba said: "You can fix it with a screwdriver and pliers."