Arbeit macht frei
"Arbeit macht frei" (German pronunciation: [ˈaɐ̯baɪt ˈmaxt ˈfʁaɪ]) is a German phrase meaning "work makes (you) free." The slogan was placed over the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps during World War II, including Auschwitz I, where it was made by prisoners with metalwork skills and erected by order of the Nazis in June 1940.
The expression comes from the title of a novel by German philologist Lorenz Diefenbach, Arbeit macht frei: Erzählung von Lorenz Diefenbach (1873), in which gamblers and fraudsters find the path to virtue through labour. The phrase was also used in French ("le travail rend libre!") by Auguste Forel, a Swiss entomologist, neuroanatomist and psychiatrist, in his "Fourmis de la Suisse" ["Ants of Switzerland"] (1920). In 1922, the Deutsche Schulverein of Vienna, an ethnic nationalist "protective" organization of Germans within the Austrian empire, printed membership stamps with the phrase Arbeit macht frei. It was adopted in 1928 by the Weimar government as a slogan extolling the effects of their desired policy of large-scale public works programmes to end unemployment. This use of the phrase was continued by the Nazi Party when it came to power in 1933.
Use by the Nazis
The slogan "Arbeit macht frei" was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. The slogan's use in this instance was ordered by SS General Theodor Eicke, inspector of concentration camps and second commandant of Dachau Concentration Camp.
The slogan can still be seen at several sites, including over the entrance to Auschwitz I where, according to BBC historian Laurence Rees in his "Auschwitz: a New History", the sign was erected by order of commandant Rudolf Höss. This particular sign was made by prisoner-labourers including Jan Liwacz. The sign features an upside-down 'B', which has been interpreted as an act of defiance by the prisoners who made it.
In 1933 the first political prisoners were being rounded up for an indefinite period without charges. They were held in a number of places in Germany. The slogan was first used over the gate of a "wild camp" in the city of Oranienburg, which was set up in an abandoned brewery in March 1933 (it was later rebuilt in 1936 as Sachsenhausen). It can also be seen at the Dachau concentration camp, Gross-Rosen concentration camp, and the Theresienstadt Ghetto-Camp, as well as at Fort Breendonk in Belgium. It has been claimed that the slogan was placed over entrance gates to Auschwitz III / Buna/Monowitz. The slogan appeared at the Flossenbürg camp on the left gate post at the camp entry. The original gate posts survive in another part of the camp, but the slogan sign no longer exists. Primo Levi describes seeing the words illuminated over a doorway (as distinct from a gate) in Auschwitz III/Buna Monowitz.
In 1938 the Austrian political cabaret writer Jura Soyfer and the composer Herbert Zipper, while prisoners at Dachau Concentration Camp, wrote the Dachaulied (The Dachau Song). They had spent weeks marching in and out of the camp's gate to daily forced labour, and considered the motto "Arbeit macht frei" over the gate an insult. The song repeats the phrase cynically as a "lesson" taught by Dachau. (The first verse is translated in the article on Jura Soyfer.)
- He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labour does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.
Considering the role played by the Auschwitz prisons during the Holocaust as well as the individual prisoner's knowledge that once they entered the camp freedom was not likely to be obtained by any means other than death, the cruel comedy of the slogan becomes strikingly clear. The psychological impact it wrought on those who passed through the gates of each of the camps where it was seen was incredibly powerful.
Thefts of "Arbeit Macht Frei" Signs
Signs displaying the slogan at the interpretive centers which now occupy the former Nazi concentration camps have repeatedly been targeted by thieves. Motivation for the thefts was originally thought to be for financial gain, however when the individuals responsible for the theft were identified it was revealed that in at least one instance the thieves themselves were affiliated with the Neo-Nazi movement. What political goals that they hoped to achieve through stealing the signs is unclear.
The sign over Auschwitz was stolen in December 2009 and later recovered by authorities in three pieces. Anders Högström, a Swedish former neo-Nazi leader, and two Poles were jailed as a result. The original sign is now on display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and a replica was put over the gate in its place.
Five years later, the sign over the Dachau gate was stolen by unknown thieves. The November 2014 theft of the Dachau sign remains unsolved and the artifact has never been recovered.
- Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem, 1990, vol. 4, p. 1751.
- Connolly, Kate (18 December 2009). "Poland declares state of emergency after 'Arbeit Macht Frei' stolen from Auschwitz". The Guardian.
- Diefenbach, Lorenz. Arbeit macht frei: Erzählung von Lorenz Diefenbach. J. Kühtmann's Buchhandlung, 1873.
- Forel, Auguste (1920). "Les fourmis de la Suisse (2nd Ed.)" (in French). La Chaux-de-Fonds: Imprimarie cooperative. Retrieved 22 November 2010.
- "Auschwitz's sign of death and defiance". BBC News. Retrieved April 23, 2015.
- "B - the sculpture". International Auschwitz Committee. Retrieved April 23, 2015.
- Denis Avey with Rob Broomby The Man who Broke into Auschwitz, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 2011 p.236
- Freddie Knoller with Robert Landaw Desperate Journey: Vienna-Paris-Auschwitz, Metro, London, 2002, ISBN 978-184-358028-7 p.158
- KZ-Gedenkstaette Flossenbuerg
- Primo Levi, trans. Stuart Woolf, If This is a Man Abacus, London, 2004, p.28.
- Friedrich, Otto (August 1994). The Kingdom of Auschwitz. Harper Perennial. pp. 2–3. ISBN 978-0-06-097640-8.
- "Auschwitz sign theft: Swedish man jailed". BBC News. 30 December 2010.
- "Dachau infamous Nazi concentration camp gate stolen". BBC. 3 November 2014.
- Media related to Arbeit macht frei at Wikimedia Commons
- The dictionary definition of Arbeit macht frei at Wiktionary
- Rudy Owens' Photos of Arbeit Macht Frei slogans at Nazi camps
- Arbeit Macht Frei in An Auschwitz Alphabet