Robert Ley

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Robert Ley
Robert Ley.jpg
Head of the German Labour Front
In office
10 May 1933 – 8 May 1945
LeaderAdolf Hitler
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Stabschef Reichsorganisationsamt, later Reichsorganisationsleiter
In office
9 December 1932 – 8 May 1945
LeaderAdolf Hitler
Preceded byGregor Strasser
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Reichsinspecteur II
In office
10 June 1932 – 9 December 1932
Preceded byPosition created
Succeeded byPosition abolished
In office
2 June 1933 – 8 May 1945
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Gauleiter of Southern Rhineland, later Rhineland
In office
17 July 1925 – 31 May 1931
Preceded byHeinrich Haake
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Reichskommissar for Social Housing Construction
In office
15 November 1940 – 8 May 1945
Personal details
Born(1890-02-15)15 February 1890
Niederbreidenbach, Rhine Province, German Empire
Died25 October 1945(1945-10-25) (aged 55)
Nuremberg Prison, Nuremberg, Allied-occupied Germany
Cause of deathSuicide by hanging
Political partyNational Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP)
Alma mater Jena, Bonn, Münster
Known forHead of the German Labour Front (1933–1945)
Military service
Allegiance German Empire
Branch/serviceImperial German Army
Years of service1914–1920
Unit10th Foot Artillery Regiment
Battles/warsWorld War I
AwardsIron Cross 2nd class
Wound Badge, in silver

Robert Ley (German: [ˈlaɪ]; 15 February 1890 – 25 October 1945), a German politician and labour-union leader during the Nazi era, headed the German Labour Front from 1933 to 1945. He also held many other high positions in the German Nazi Party, including Gauleiter, Reichsleiter and Reichsorganisationsleiter. He committed suicide while awaiting trial at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity and war crimes.[1]

Early life[edit]

Ley was born in Niederbreidenbach (now a part of Nümbrecht) in the Rhine Province, the seventh of 11 children of a farmer, Friedrich Ley, and his wife Emilie (née Wald). He studied chemistry at the universities of Jena, Bonn, and Münster. He volunteered for the army on the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and spent two years in the 10th Foot Artillery Regiment and saw action on both the eastern and western fronts.[2] In 1916 he was promoted to Leutnant and trained as an aerial artillery spotter[3] with Artillery Flier Detachment 202. In July 1917 his aircraft was shot down over France and he was taken prisoner of war. It has been suggested that he suffered a traumatic brain injury in the crash; for the rest of his life he spoke with a stammer and suffered bouts of erratic behaviour, aggravated by heavy drinking.[4] He earned the Iron Cross, 2nd class and the Wound Badge, in silver.[5]

After the war Ley was released from captivity in January 1920 and returned to university, gaining a doctorate later that year. He was employed as a food chemist by a branch of the giant IG Farben company, based in Leverkusen in the Ruhr. Enraged by the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1924, Ley became an ultra-nationalist and joined the Nazi Party soon after reading Adolf Hitler's speech at his trial following the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. Ley proved unswervingly loyal to Hitler, which led Hitler to ignore complaints about his arrogance, incompetence and drunkenness.[6]

Ley's impoverished upbringing and his experience as head of the largely working-class Rhineland party region meant that he was sympathetic to those elements in the party who were open to socialism, but he always sided with Hitler in inner party disputes. This helped him survive the hostility of other party officials such as the party treasurer, Franz Xaver Schwarz, who regarded him as an incompetent drunk.

Rise in the Nazi Party[edit]

Ley rejoined the re-founded Nazi Party in March 1925, shortly after the ban on the Party was lifted (membership number 18,441). He was named Deputy Gauleiter of the Southern Rhineland (later, Rhineland) that month, and was promoted to Gauleiter on 17 July.[7] In September 1925, he became a member of the National Socialist Working Association, a short-lived group of northern and western German Gauleiters, organized and led by Gregor Strasser, which supported the "socialist" wing of the Party and unsuccessfully sought to amend the Party program.[8] At a meeting on 24 January 1926, however, Ley joined with others in raising objections to Strasser's proposed new draft program and it was shelved.[9] Shortly thereafter, the Working Association was dissolved following the Bamberg Conference.

In March 1928, Ley became the editor and publisher of a virulently anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper, the Westdeutscher Beobachter (West German Observer) in Cologne. On 20 May 1928, he was elected to the Prussian Landtag, and also was appointed to the Rhenish provincial legislature. He was first elected to the Reichstag in September 1930 from electoral constituency 20, Cologne-Aachen. He remained as the Gauleiter of Rhineland until 1 June 1931 when his Gau was divided into two and new leaders named.[10]

On 21 October 1931, Ley was brought to Munich party headquarters as the Deputy to Strasser, then the head of party organization. Ley was styled Reichsorganisationsinspekteur and conducted inspection visits to the various Gaue. On 10 June 1932, following a further organizational restructuring by Strasser, Ley was named one of two Reichsinspecteurs with oversight of approximately half the Gaue. Furthermore, he was made the Acting Landesinspekteur for Bavaria with direct responsibility for the six Bavarian Gaue.[11] This was a short-lived initiative by Strasser to centralize control over the Gaue. However, it was unpopular with the Gauleiters and was repealed on Strasser's fall from power. Strasser resigned on 8 December 1932 in a break with Hitler over the future direction of the Party. Hitler himself took over as Reichsorganisationsleiter and installed Ley as his Stabschef (Chief of Staff). The positions of Reichsinspecteur and Landesinspekteur were abolished.[12] When Hitler became Reich Chancellor in January 1933, Ley accompanied him to Berlin. On 2 June 1933, Ley was among those raised to Reichsleiter, the second highest political rank in the Nazi Party.[13] This was followed on 14 September 1933 by his appointment to the reconstituted Prussian State Council by Prussian Minister-President Hermann Göring. On 3 October 1933, Ley was named to Hans Frank's Academy for German Law and, on 10 November 1934, Hitler finally formally promoted Ley to the position of Reichsorganisationsleiter. Ley would retain these positions until the fall of the Nazi regime.[14]

Labour Front head[edit]

Flag of Robert Ley's German Labour Front
Edward, Duke of Windsor reviewing SS guards with Robert Ley, 1937

By April, 1933 Hitler decided to have the Nazi Party take over the trade union movement. On 10 May 1933, Hitler appointed Ley head of the newly founded German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF). The DAF took over the existing Nazi trade union formation, the National Socialist Factory Cell Organisation (Nationalsozialistische Betriebszellenorganisation, NSBO) as well as the main trade union federation. But Ley's lack of administrative ability meant that the NSBO leader, Reinhold Muchow, a member of the socialist wing of the Nazi Party, soon became the dominant figure in the DAF, overshadowing Ley. Muchow began a purge of the DAF administration, rooting out ex-Social Democrats and ex-Communists and placing his own militants in their place.

The NSBO cells continued to agitate in the factories on issues of wages and conditions, annoying the employers, who soon complained to Hitler and other Nazi leaders that the DAF was as bad as the Communists had been.[15]

Philipp Bouhler, Karl Freiherr Michel von Tüßling, and Robert Ley with his wife Inge (Munich, July 1939)

Hitler had no sympathy with the syndicalist tendencies of the NSBO, and in January 1934 a new Law for the Ordering of National Labour effectively suppressed independent working-class factory organisations, even Nazi ones, and put questions of wages and conditions in the hands of the Trustees of Labour (Treuhänder der Arbeit), dominated by the employers. At the same time Muchow was purged and Ley's control over the DAF re-established. The NSBO was completely suppressed and the DAF became little more than an arm of the state for the more efficient deployment and disciplining of labour to serve the needs of the regime, particularly its massive expansion of the arms industry.

As head of the Labour Front, Ley invited Edward, Duke of Windsor, and Wallis, Duchess of Windsor, to conduct a tour of Germany in 1937, months after Edward had abdicated the British throne. Ley served as their host and their personal chaperone. During the visit, Ley's alcoholism was noticed, and at one point he crashed the Windsors' car into a gate.[16][17]

Once his power was established, Ley began to abuse it in a way that was conspicuous even by the standards of the Nazi regime. On top of his generous salaries as DAF head, Reichsorganisationsleiter, and Reichstag deputy, he pocketed the large profits of the Westdeutscher Beobachter, and freely embezzled DAF funds for his personal use.[18] By 1938 he owned a luxurious estate near Cologne, a string of villas in other cities, a fleet of cars, a private railway carriage and a large art collection. He increasingly devoted his time to "womanising and heavy drinking, both of which often led to embarrassing scenes in public."[18]

On 29 December 1942 his second wife Inge Ursula née Spilcker (1916–1942) shot herself after a drunken brawl [18] Ley's subordinates took their lead from him, and the DAF became a notorious centre of corruption, all paid for with the compulsory dues paid by German workers. One historian says: "The DAF quickly began to gain a reputation as perhaps the most corrupt of all the major institutions of the Third Reich. For this, Ley himself had to shoulder a large part of the blame."[18]

Strength Through Joy[edit]

The KDF-Schiff Robert Ley, March 1939
The KDF-Schiff Wilhelm Gustloff, 23 Sept 1939

Hitler and Ley were aware that the suppression of the trade unions and the prevention of wage increases by the Trustees of Labour system, when coupled with their relentless demands for increased productivity to hasten German rearmament, created a real risk of working-class discontent. In November 1933, as a means of preventing labour disaffection, the DAF established Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude, KdF), to provide a range of benefits and amenities to the German working class and their families. These included subsidised holidays both at resorts across Germany and in "safe" countries abroad (particularly Italy). Two of the world's first purpose-built cruise-liners, the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Robert Ley, were built to take KdF members on Mediterranean cruises.

Other KdF programs included concerts, opera and other forms of entertainment in factories and other workplaces, free physical education and gymnastics training and coaching in sports such as football, tennis and sailing. All this was paid for by the DAF, at a cost of 29 million ℛℳ a year by 1937, and ultimately by the workers themselves through their dues, although the employers also contributed. KdF was one of the Nazi regime's most popular programs, and played a large part in reconciling the working class to the regime, at least before 1939.

The DAF and KdF's most ambitious program was the "people's car," the Volkswagen, originally a project undertaken at Hitler's request by the car-maker Ferdinand Porsche. When the German car industry was unable to meet Hitler's demand that the Volkswagen be sold at 1,000 ℛℳ or less, the project was taken over by the DAF. This brought Ley's old socialist tendencies back into prominence. The party, he said, had taken over where private industry had failed, because of the "short-sightedness, malevolence, profiteering and stupidity" of the business class. Now working for the DAF, Porsche built a new Volkswagen factory at Fallersleben, at a huge cost which was partly met by raiding the DAF's accumulated assets and misappropriating the dues paid by DAF members. The Volkswagen was sold to German workers on an installment plan, and the first models appeared in February 1939. The outbreak of war, however, meant that none of the 340,000 workers who paid for a car ever received one.

Wartime role[edit]

Ley said in a speech in 1939: "We National Socialists have monopolized all resources and all our energies during the past seven years so as to be able to be equipped for the supreme effort of battle."[19] (→ German rearmament) After the beginning of World War II in September 1939, Ley's importance declined. The militarisation of the workforce and the diversion of resources to the war greatly reduced the role of the DAF, and the KdF was largely curtailed. Ley's drunkenness and erratic behaviour were less tolerated in wartime, and he was supplanted by Armaments Minister Fritz Todt and his successor Albert Speer as the czar of the German workforce (the head of the Organisation Todt (OT)). As German workers were increasingly conscripted, foreign workers, first "guest workers" from France and later slave labourers from Poland, Ukraine and other eastern countries, were brought in to replace them. Ley played some role in this program, but was overshadowed by Fritz Sauckel, General Plenipotentiary for the Distribution of Labour (Generalbevollmächtigter für den Arbeitseinsatz) since March 1942.

Nevertheless, Ley was deeply implicated in the mistreatment of foreign slave workers. In October 1942 he attended a meeting in Essen with Paul Plieger (head of the giant Hermann Göring Works industrial combine) and leaders of the German coal industry. A verbatim account of the meeting was kept by one of the managers. A recent historian writes:

The key item on the agenda was the question of 'how to treat the Russians.'... Robert Ley, as usual, was drunk. And when Ley got drunk he was prone to speak his mind. With so much at stake, there was no room for compassion or civility. No degree of coercion was too much, and Ley expected the mine managers to back up their foremen in meting out the necessary discipline. As Ley put it: 'When a Russian pig has to be beaten, it would be the ordinary German worker who would have to do it.'[20]

Despite his failings, Ley retained Hitler's favour; until the last months of the war he was part of Hitler's inner circle along with Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels.[21] In November 1940 he was given a new role, as Reich Commissioner for Social Housing Construction (Reichskommissar für den sozialen Wohnungsbau), later shortened to Reich Housing Commissioner (Reichswohnungskommissar).[22] Here his job was to prepare for the effects on German housing of the expected Allied air attacks on German cities, which began to increase in intensity from 1941 onwards. In this role he became a key ally of Armaments Minister Albert Speer, who recognised that German workers must be adequately housed if productivity was to be maintained. As the air war against Germany increased from 1943, "dehousing" German workers became an objective of the Allied area bombing campaign, and Ley's organisation was increasingly unable to cope with the resulting housing crisis.

He was aware in general terms of the Nazi regime's programme of extermination of the Jews of Europe. Ley encouraged it through the virulent anti-Semitism of his publications and speeches. In February 1941 he was present at a meeting along with Speer, Bormann and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel at which Hitler had set out his views on the "Jewish question" at some length, making it clear that he intended the "disappearance" of the Jews one way or another.[23] According to American historian Jeffrey Herf, Ley issued some of the most overt propaganda accusing Jews of plotting the extermination of Germans and threatening to do the reverse. In December 1939, he said that in the event of a British victory:

... the German people, man, woman, and child would be exterminated [ausgerottet]. . . . The Jew would be wading in blood. Funeral pyres would be built on which the Jews would burn us... we want to prevent this. Hence it should be rather the Jews who fry, rather they who should burn, they who should starve, they who should be exterminated.[24]

In April 1945, Ley became enamored with the idea of creating a "death ray" after receiving a letter from an unnamed inventor: "I've studied the documentation; there's no doubt about it. This will be the decisive weapon!" Once Ley gave Speer a list of materials, including a particular model circuit breaker, Speer found that the circuit breaker had not been manufactured in 40 years.[25]

Postwar; arrest and suicide[edit]

Ley is arrested in his pyjamas by US paratroopers in May 1945.
The cell where Robert Ley hanged himself

As Nazi Germany collapsed in early 1945, Ley was among the government figures who remained fanatically loyal to Hitler.[26] He last saw Hitler on 20 April 1945, Hitler's birthday, in the Führerbunker in central Berlin. The next day he left for southern Bavaria, in the expectation that Hitler would make his last stand in the "National Redoubt" in the alpine areas. When Hitler refused to leave Berlin, Ley was effectively unemployed.

On 16 May he was captured by American paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division in a shoemaker's house in the village of Schleching.[27] Ley told them he was "Dr Ernst Distelmeyer," but he was identified by Franz Xaver Schwarz, the treasurer of the Nazi Party and a long-time enemy. After his arrest, he declared "You can torture or beat me or impale me on a stake. But I will never doubt the greater deeds of Hitler."[28]

At the Nuremberg Trials, Ley was indicted under Count One ("The Common Plan or Conspiracy to wage an aggressive war in violation of international law or treaties"), Count Three (War Crimes, including among other things "mistreatment of prisoners of war or civilian populations") and Count Four ("Crimes Against Humanity – murder, extermination, enslavement of civilian populations; persecution on the basis of racial, religious or political grounds").[29] Ley was apparently indignant at being regarded as a war criminal, telling the American psychiatrist Douglas Kelley[30] and psychologist Gustave Gilbert who had seen and tested him in prison: "Stand us against a wall and shoot us, well and good, you are victors. But why should I be brought before a Tribunal like a c-c-c- ... I can't even get the word out!".[31]

On 24 October, three days after receiving the indictment, Ley strangled himself to death in his prison cell using a noose made by tearing a towel into strips, fastened to the toilet pipe in his cell.[31]

See also[edit]




  1. ^ "Dr. Ley's Brain: Study by Army Doctors Show Nazi Suicide was Medically Degenerate". LIFE. February 4, 1946. p. 45.
  2. ^ Miller & Schulz 2017, p. 191.
  3. ^ Smelser 1988, p. 15.
  4. ^ Evans 2005, p. 458.
  5. ^ Miller & Schulz 2017, p. 214.
  6. ^ Evans 2005, p. 459.
  7. ^ Miller & Schulz 2017, pp. 190–192.
  8. ^ Miller & Schulz 2017, p. 193.
  9. ^ Noakes 1966, pp. 26–27.
  10. ^ Miller & Schulz 2017, pp. 192–194.
  11. ^ Miller & Schulz 2017, p. 194.
  12. ^ Orlow 1969, pp. 293–295.
  13. ^ Orlow 1973, p. 74.
  14. ^ Miller & Schulz 2017, pp. 197–198.
  15. ^ Evans 2005, p. 460.
  16. ^ Brendon, P. (2016). Edward VIII (Penguin Monarchs): The Uncrowned King. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-24119-642-7.
  17. ^ Cadbury, D. (2015). Princes at War: The British Royal Family's Private Battle in the Second World War. London: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-40884-509-7.
  18. ^ a b c d Evans 2005, p. 463.
  19. ^ Jackson 1946.
  20. ^ Tooze 2006, p. 529.
  21. ^ Sereny 1995, p. 477.
  22. ^ Miller & Schulz 2017, pp. 206–207.
  23. ^ Kershaw 2000, p. 350.
  24. ^ Herf 2005, p. 57.
  25. ^ Speer 1970, p. 464.
  26. ^ Kershaw 2000, p. 774.
  27. ^ Rapport, Northwood & Marshall 1948, pp. 741–744.
  28. ^ Ullrich, Volker (2020). Eight days in May. Liveright Publishing Corporation. p. 262. ISBN 978-1-63149-827-5.
  29. ^ Nuremberg Indictment.
  30. ^ Jack El-Hai : The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Dr Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII, Publisher: PublicAffairs, 2013, ISBN 161039156X
  31. ^ a b Sereny 1995, p. 573.


External links[edit]