Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess is apologizing for an incredibly stupid gaffe in which he evoked Holocaust imagery to described the importance of corporate profits.

At a company event on Tuesday, Diess used the expression "Ebit macht frei".  "Ebit" refers to the common acronym for "earnings before interest and taxes".  But it echoes the maxim "Arbeit Macht Frei", German for "Work sets you free".  That was the slogan on the wrought-iron on the gates of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

"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 social media page.  "For that I would like to fully and completely apologize."

Within Volkswagen's corporate culture, "brands with a higher margins have more freedom within the Group to make their own decisions," Diess added.  "My comment was made within this context."

The verbal gaffe was ugly, but it was made even worse given Volkswagen's history.  The company was originally owned by the German Labour Front - a nazi organization - and formed to produce a car commissioned by Hitler.  During World War Two, the Wolfsburg-based firm used more than 15,000 slave labourers from nearby concentration camps.