"Arbeit macht frei" was not just about the gates of Auschwitz. As far as I know, it was at every labor camp. I know for certain that it was on the gates as I entered a concentration camp outside of Berlin, Germany. The only thing that stands out more than those three words, the three words that symbolized the Orwellian-world in which these people found themselves, the three words which in the end implied quite simply death; the only thing that stands out more is a smiling skull and crossbones that warned, "do not cross - you will be shot without warning".


Inscription on the gates of numerous German concentration camps during the early 1940s, including Auschwitz, Dachau and Theresienstadt. This was not the only mystical slogan used in those camps or by the Nazis in general but it is by far the most famous. My preferred translation of the phrase is "work liberates" and, in a genial stroke of suggestive ambiguity, it carried multiple meanings that could be interpreted by anyone according to their situation.

The question that arises is: Whose work liberates who and in what sense?

Superficially, it stood as a socio-political axiom and propaganda referring to the poor economy and high unemployment before National Socialism. Memories of the economic slump of the 1920s and its massive poverty and unemployment (partially responsible for Hitler's election in 1933) were still fresh. The national socialists, as part of their successful economic programme, built a cult glorifying labour based on these memories. It implied that there was work to be done, everyone should work and only the lazy would not. Work was a Nazi opiate of the masses, not just the recovery tool it had been in the United States.

It could be seen as a false incentive for inmates to hang on and be productive longer than they would have been without this vague non-promise. The psychological impact of something so tantalisingly ambiguous cannot go unnoticed... what is the promised freedom and to whom is it promised? Applied in a situation where a human will cling to the remotest and falsest ray of hope, it may have been very important. For many of those people, liberation ultimately lay in death.

As a statement towards inmates that by working there they not only had an occupation (many Jews and other unwanteds lost their jobs in the 1930s), but also would no longer be subject to the arbitrary discrimination and hatred they would have encountered in civilian life. Conditions in the labour camps may have been barbaric by anyone's standards but there was a stronger sense of discipline. If you were an undesirable, it may be the sad truth that you stood a better chance of avoiding trouble by being disciplined and inobtrusive in a camp than you did in a German city. In a sense, security lay in numbers since you were surrounded by people guilty of the same fictitious or real crimes and did not stand out as an undesirable anymore than the rest. It is of course ironic that you had to get into the biggest trap of all to avoid that kind of trouble. The sense of relative security may have been false but at the time the end that would justify or vilify the means was unknown. Today's history was bitter reality then. We know the outcome, they did not.

For the military and civilian employees of the camp, work there was not only employment but also a service that would free their country of the undesirables. It was not only their work acting in their favour but they would also benefit from the work of the slaves/inmates.

Rudolf Höss, Kommandant of the Auschwitz camp, is said to have been the first to use the slogan. He had trained at Dachau though so it may have originated there, even if it was not displayed there first. Its original context is not exactly known but its many possible interpretations make me inclined to believe it was Höss's personal epiphany and carried multiple meanings for him too.

The most famous of the wrought-iron epigrams--the one at Auschwitz--was once "liberated" itself. Despite the cameras and guards, it disappeared on the night of 2009-12-18. Five Polish men were arrested within three days of the deed and the sign was recovered in three pieces. Two months later a Swede with a neo-Nazi background was arrested on suspicion of commissioning the abduction.

This writeup is to be treated as an historical document and not as an expression of my opinion on the subject of National Socialism and the Holocaust.

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