The Price of Genius: Louis Renault and the Nazis
It’s not easy being a genius, let me tell you. Men and women of superior ability are notorious for being difficult to get along with. Their minds are usually wrapped up in some great vision or idea, making come across as aloof or even abrasive. Galileo had this problem, which is one of the reasons he and the pope butted heads. Einstein was so withdrawn that his early teachers proclaimed him a moron. Another fellow who had trouble relating to others was Louis Renault, founder of the French motor company that bears his name. Louis Renault was born in 1877. While his two brothers were considered exceptionally bright, Louis was regarded as dim-witted. So, while his siblings went off to college, Louis was left to his own devices. He developed an interest in mechanics early on, which led him to tinker around with a new invention known as the automobile. He built his first car in his parent’s backyard in 1898.
The vehicles of the time had a serious drawback. They were chain-driven, a setup that exposed the engines to dirt and dust, both of which were copious on the primitive roads of the time. Louis built his machines with shaft-propelled engines, vastly improving their reliability and performance compared to his competitors. In 1899 he founded the company today known as Renault, and the doubts about his mental capacity were laid to rest permanently. Louis is perhaps best known for building the world’s first practical military tank, the FT-17. This, along with a revolutionary process he invented for making cannon shells, played a major role in France’s victory in the First World War. Despite such contributions, Louis was known for being tyrannical with workers and unpleasant in general, which earned him no friends. His enemies bided their time, then attacked him after France was liberated in 1944. They imprisoned the carmaker on trumped-up charges of Nazi collaboration (with no proof). Louis was beaten by guards during his captivity, leading directly to his premature death at the age of 67. The French government seized his company, holding it until 1996. To this day, France refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing in the way they treated their national benefactor. I think I’ll start calling sliced potatoes "Freedom Fries" again.