Saturday, December 26, 2009

Arbeit Macht Frei - Origin of the Phrase

The phrase "Arbeit macht frei" ("work makes free" or "will make you free") appeared over the main entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps, and still appears over some.  According to Wikipedia, the phrase originated in the title of Lorenz Diefenbach's (1873) book, Arbeit Macht Frei.  The title concept was apparently borne out in the plot of the book - in which, Wikipedia says, work turns bad guys good.

Primo Levi (2005, p. 8), a Holocaust survivor, says this:  "It is more likely that the meaning [of "arbeit macht frei," as it appeared over the entrances to concentration camps] is ironic, springing from the heavy, arrogant, funereal wit to which only Germans are privy."  Perhaps the greater irony is that Levi, a victim of racism, would express himself in such racist terms.  His personal anger - obviously, a very understandable anger - seems to have distorted his judgment.  Not that he is alone in that.  Others similarly throw around such adjectives as "maniacal" (Chatman, 2009, p. 52) and "grotesque" (Schoenbaum, 1997, p. 75; Welch, 2004, p. 221) when speaking of "arbeit macht frei" and related values.

Contrary to Levi, there is a more plausible explanation for the use of the phrase.  A number of sources reiterate, without citation, that the Weimar government adopted "Arbeit Macht Frei" in 1928, as a slogan in support of a job program.  Be that as it may, the phrase plainly had deep roots in German culture.  Certainly Germans have been known to consider themselves hardworking (Reigrotski, 1959).  Before Diefenbach's Arbeit Macht Frei, Spielhagen's Hammer and Anvil expressed the concept in several forms, including "Only work can make us free!" (1870, p. 668).  Indeed, starting as early as 1763, according to Kloberdanz (1975, p. 212), Volga Germans commonly said, "Arbeit macht das Leben süss" (work makes life sweet).

Consistent with that cultural self-image, Rees (2006, p. 9) states that Rudolf Höss, who was responsible for putting the "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign over the gate at Auschwitz, was thoroughly convinced of the positive benefits of work.  Nazi concentration camps plainly were places in which people were worked very hard (Roth, 1980).  Friedrich (1994, p. 3) likewise does not question Höss's sincerity, but suggests rather that he intended it as "a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labor does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom"; he quotes Höss as saying, "All my life, I have thoroughly enjoyed working."  Schoenbaum (1997, p. 76), too, quotes Höss as referring to "the blessed effectiveness of work" by which criminals "can still be rescued from criminality."

The concept of hard work being good for a person is familiar enough; the idea that it would be good for a person who is being worked to death is less so.  Possibly a sort of explanation, if not precursor, appears in Kafka's (1914) In the Penal Colony, where a machine inscribes the "sentence" conveying a criminal conviction into the convict's skin until he dies.

In the case of at least some Jewish prisoners, it is not hard to surmise the nature of the criminality from which Höss seems to have offered work as a purifier. According to Wegner (2002, p. 142), Nazi stereotypes of Jews circa 1938 "suggested in no uncertain terms that Germans 'worked' while the Jews 'rested.'"  Wegner finds that contrast in, for example, depictions of a Jewish banker as compared to a German farmer.  This financially oriented stereotype was not new.  Ahamed (2009, p. 180) notes that, during a food panic in Berlin in 1923, a mob had chanted, "Kill the stock exchange Jews."  Indeed, Chazan (1997, p. 106) cites stereotypes regarding exploitation by Jewish financiers from as long ago as the 12th century.

The phrase itself - "arbeit macht frei" - can be, and has been, translated into English as "work shall set you free," in a clear echo of John 8:32 ("You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free").  It is quite likely that, as one source suggests (without citations), "arbeit macht frei" originated in the Protestant work ethic.  While that ethic has its drawbacks as well as its strengths (see Beatty, 2003), it is not intrinsically malevolent, much less murderous.  To the contrary, according to Lewis's (1994, p. 19) article on German literature of the time, when Spielhagen (1870) invoked the liberatory powers of work, he was expressing an ideal of "democratic innocence."

Despite events like those cited above, it appears that, until 1933, Germany may actually have been less hostile to Jews than were other countries in its vicinity (Koonz, 2003, p. 9).  Even on into the 1940s, the mass extermination of Jews was not a publicly promoted and popularly supported national policy in Germany.  Instead, the Nazis seem to have appealed to a popular impression that "arbeit macht frei" indeed.  In other words, it appears that an ordinary German of the time might have looked at that slogan with approval, and might even have felt that Jews in particular were in need of some exposure to an honest day's work.  (I say they "might" have felt this.  In quickly researching this brief essay, I have not been able to uncover readily available sources on some points.)

Contrary to Levi's (2005) view, then, it does not appear that signs reading "Arbeit Macht Frei" were posted primarily as a cynical joke at the expense of Jews and other concentration camp inmates.  Once posted, of course, there was ample reason for knowledgeable persons to contrue those signs as cynical in the extreme; but for purposes of public relations, the signs seem to have conveyed a familiar and acceptable message.

In that sense, the real joke may have been on the ordinary Germans who were successfully manipulated by such slogans.  They, too, were starved, raped, and killed by the millions, in the course of the war into which their era's clueless leader led them; but unlike the concentration camp inmates and staff, the joke passed them by.  They, too, were the butt of it; but unlike the people the camps, they didn't get it.  They evidently tended to believe that "arbeit macht frei," and other Nazi propaganda, for a very long time.

To express it in today's terms, ordinary Germans seem to have been sufficiently unhappy with the Goldman Sachs of their time - with, that is, the perceived Jewish financial elite (see Feingold, 2008, p. ix) - that they were willing to accept retaliation against Jews of every type.  In the present day, fortunately, we are not burdened with the need for a strong leader who will promise to bring us out of the financial depths, as Hitler did for Germany, and who will do so partly by making Jews the scapegoats, either deliberately or as an inadvertent result of his policies.  Let's hope it stays that way.



I have long suspected that the slogan was a cynical joke about what was about to happen to the Jews and other inmates. Most of the physically fit arrivals were not gassed immediately, but were worked under brutal conditions and insufficient food until they collapsed. Then they were sent to the gas chambers, after which they were "free from kings and desperate men".


Note a recent comment on excesses at Goldman Sachs.