Herbert Diess this week said "EBIT macht Frei" before apologizing for the comments and explaining he in no way wanted to draw a comparison to the Nazi-era slogan "Arbeit Macht Frei", which appeared on the gates of Auschwitz during the Holocaust.
In a statement, Mr Diess said he was sorry for what he described as "definitely an unfortunate choice of words".
Diess said "ebit macht frei" at an internal company event Tuesday, echoing the maxim "arbeit macht frei" or "work sets you free", which was inscribed on the gates of concentration camps such as Auschwitz. "For that I would like to fully and completely apologise".
Reps from Volkswagen did not immediately respond to requests to comment. Founded in 1937 as part of Adolf Hitler's vision for every German family to own a auto, Volkswagen used more than 15,000 slave laborers during the war as it manufactured vehicles for the German army. Volkswagen, whose factory was repurposed during World War II to build military equipment and vehicles, is today the world's biggest automotive group with brands including Audi, Bugatti, and Porsche.
"The statement of the CEO Herbert Diess is in this context considered inappropriate and hard to comprehend", VW's supervisory board said Friday, adding that it "strongly distances itself from this, but at the same time takes note of the immediate apology from Mr. Diess".
The CEO said it wasn't his intention to make this expression in a way that could be misinterpreted, and he didn't consider the possibility that it could be.
He said he and Volkswagen employees are keenly aware of Volkswagen's history with the Third Reich.
Since Diess, 60, took over as CEO last April, he's struggled to put the 3 1/2-year-old diesel cheating scandal in the past.
Asked whether Bernstein analyst Max Warburton was right to suggest that Diess had lost support internally as a result of the remarks, Volkswagen's supervisory board said such an inference was inappropriate. In a separate email to Business Insider, Volkswagen called the case "legally and factually flawed, and Volkswagen will contest it vigorously".