(Bloomberg) -- Volkswagen AG Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess apologized for his use of a phrase that appeared to play on a Nazi-era slogan, “Work sets you free.”

Diess said “Ebit macht frei” during an internal Volkswagen event, evoking memories of “Arbeit macht frei,” the words that appeared prominently at the entrance of Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz. “Ebit” refers to earnings before interest and taxes, while “arbeit” is work in German.

“It was in fact, a very unfortunate choice of words and I am deeply sorry for any unintentional pain I may have caused,” Diess wrote in a post on his LinkedIn page. “For that I would like to fully and completely apologize.”

The comments are all the more unfortunate considering Volkswagen’s history. The automaker was founded by the German government in 1937 to mass-produce a low-priced car, and was originally operated by the German Labour Front, a Nazi organization, according to Britannica.com. 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 expression ‘Ebit macht frei’ was made in an internal Volkswagen management presentation in connection with operating margins from various company brands, Diess said. Within the Volkswagen Group, “brands with a higher margins have more freedom within the Group to make their own decisions. My comment was made within this context,” he said.

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.

“Volkswagen has undertaken many activities over the last 30 years that have made the company, myself personally and our employees fully aware of the historical responsibility Volkswagen bears in connection with the Third Reich,” Diess wrote.

--With assistance from Bret Okeson.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lena Lee in Singapore at llee42@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Young-Sam Cho at ycho2@bloomberg.net, Lena Lee, Reed Stevenson

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