Diess said "Ebit macht frei" during an internal Volkswagen event, in a reference to the abbreviation for earnings before interest and taxes, evoking the Nazi slogan "Arbeit macht frei".
The phrase appears to be a play on "Arbeit macht frei" - work makes you free - a notorious Nazi slogan that was inscribed over the entrance to Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
In a statement, Mr Diess said he was sorry for what he described as "definitely an unfortunate choice of words". The US Securities and Exchange Commission sued the company and its former CEO Martin Winterkorn as part of an emissions scandal which allegedly defrauded US investors. "For that I would like to fully and completely apologize".
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Volkswagen's supervisory board on Friday said the group's history and the responsibility is therefore bears was a major part of its corporate identity. During World War Two, the Wolfsburg-based firm manufactured vehicles for the German army, using more than 15,000 slave labourers from nearby concentration camps.
The Volkswagen factory was also repurposed during the Nazi era to build military vehicles and equipment.
The expression "Ebit macht frei" was made in an internal Volkswagen management presentation in connection with operating margins from various company brands, Diess said.
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"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".
Diess took to social media this week to apologize for the gaffe.
"The investors did not know that VW was lying to consumers to fool them into buying its "clean diesel" cars and lying to government authorities in order to sell cars in the United States that did not comply with U.S. emission standards", the SEC alleged. In a separate email to Business Insider, Volkswagen called the case "legally and factually flawed, and Volkswagen will contest it vigorously".
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