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Arbeit Macht Frei gate at KZ Sachsenhausen

"Arbeit macht frei" (German pronunciation: [ˈaɐ̯baɪt ˈmaxt ˈfʁaɪ]; literally "work makes free") is a German phrase that can be translated as "work liberates"[1] or "work makes you free".[2][3] The slogan is well-known for being placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps, including most famously 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 an 1873 novel by German philologist Lorenz Diefenbach, in which gamblers and fraudsters find the path to virtue through labour.[2][4] 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, and perhaps mocking the Medieval saying "Stadtluft macht frei" ("City air brings freedom"). It was continued in this usage by the NSDAP (Nazi Party) when it came to power in 1933.


Use by the Nazis

Detail of the Arbeit Macht Frei inscription on the gate at Dachau
Arbeit Macht Frei at Auschwitz, with the inverted B
Arbeit Macht Frei at concentration camp Terezín (Theresienstadt) in the Czech Republic

The slogan "Arbeit macht frei" was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. Although it was common practice in Germany to post inscriptions of this sort at entrances to institutional properties and large estates, 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. According to Auschwitz: a New History, by BBC historian Laurence Rees, the sign was placed there by commandant Rudolf Höss. Höss believed that doing menial work during his own imprisonment under the Weimar Republic helped him through the experience. At Auschwitz, the sign was made in 1940 by Polish political prisoners headed by Jan Liwacz (camp number 1010).[5] The upper bowl in the "B" in "ARBEIT" is wider than the lower bowl, appearing to some as upside-down. Allegedly it was made on purpose by political prisoners to make a signal about what is really going on in Auschwitz.[5] Several geometrically constructed sans-serif typefaces of the 1920s experimented with this variation. Prisoners in Auschwitz ridiculed the German cynicism of the slogan by saying Arbeit Macht Frei durch den Schornstein (Work brings freedom through the chimney).[6]

The slogan can also be seen at the Dachau concentration camp, Gross-Rosen concentration camp, Sachsenhausen, and the Theresienstadt Ghetto-Camp.

At Buchenwald, "Jedem das Seine" (literally, "to each his own", but idiomatically "everyone gets what he deserves") was used.

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.)

It was said by The Ethical Spectacle about Höss:

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 labor does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom. [7]

Sign theft at Auschwitz

Early in the morning of 18 December 2009, the Arbeit macht frei sign over the gate of Auschwitz I was stolen. It was recovered by Polish police two days later, and will be restored to its place above the gate after an improved security system has been installed.

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, vol.4, p.1751 (Glossary). Yad Vashem, 1990.
  2. ^ a b Connolly, Kate (18 December 2009). "Poland declares state of emergency after 'Arbeit Macht Frei' stolen from Auschwitz". Retrieved 25 December 2009. 
  3. ^ Gera, Vanessa (21 December 2009). "Damaged Auschwitz sign to go back up at main gate". The Associated Press. The Salt Lake Tribune. Retrieved 23 December 2009. 
  4. ^ Diefenbach, Lorenz. Arbeit macht frei: Erzählung von Lorenz Diefenbach. J. Kühtmann's Buchhandlung, 1873
  5. ^ a b Łosińska, Ewa; Zychowicz, Piotr (19 December 2009). "Kto ukradł napis z Auschwitz" (in Polish). Rzeczpospolita.,408428.html. 
  6. ^ Zychowicz, Piotr (19 December 2009). "Słowa „Arbeit macht frei” były dla nas symbolem piekła" (in Polish). Rzeczpospolita.,408427.html. 
  7. ^ "Arbeit Macht Frei". Auschwitz Alphabet. The Ethical Spectacle. Retrieved 2008-04-10. 

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