Arbeit macht frei

The iron sign over the entrance to the Lager at Auschwitz that reads Arbeit macht frei – German for work sets you free – was stolen at sunup on December 18, 2009. Three days later it was found by Polish police in the north of the country. Five people were arrested for the robbery, probably a robbery committed on commission. The incident set off a profound sense of indignation all over the world and was widely covered in the press. In reaction to this event, the newspaper La Repubblica decided to reprint an article entitled Arbeit macht frei the next day. In fact, Primo Levi had written that article in 1959 for Triangolo rosso [red triangle], the journal of ANED, the association of Italian ex-deportees. We offer the text of that article along with an interview of the scholar Marcello Pezzetti, which was published on the same page of the newspaper. Finally, we have added an excerpt from an interview of Levi, conducted by the historian Nicola Tranfaglia on May 22, 1981 for RAI, the Italian national network. This interview brings out the clear distinction between the point of view of the Nazis and that of the deportees. This distinction helps us place the savagely ironic aspect of this slogan into its context.

Tranfaglia: You were saying that there was the slogan, Work sets you free, placed over the Lager and that this slogan was perceived….
Levi: By us as a savage piece of irony, but probably it was not perceived like that by those that had written it.
T.: In what way wasn’t it?
L.: In the sense that the official Nazi ideology really believed that work is liberating, in the sense that it integrates you with the Vaterland [the fatherland], the country where you are living. It was the only way that a citizen who is not a warrior could contribute to the strength of the country.
T.: This was something that had to do with the German working class. It had to do with the Germans. However, this work ethic had rather different implications when it referred, instead, to the peoples who came into contact with the citizens of the Reich.
L.: Certainly. From our point of view we were witnessing an extreme stratification… into five, six levels. The German worker was inaccessible for us. They were hardly to be seen…there were very few of them. Most German workers were at the front. There was a stratification in the Lager that evidently was deliberate. The upper level was that of the French voluntary workers and the Italians too. Then came the Allied prisoners of war. After that there were the Slavic, Russian, and Polish prisoners. And then there was the last stage, that of the pariahs, which was that of the Jews.

Fragment taken from the interview given by Primo Levi for RAI to the historian Nicola Tranfaglia on May 22nd 1981.

«Arbeit macht frei», by Primo Levi

English version from: Primo Levi, The Black Hole of Auschwitz, edited by M. Belpoliti, Polity Press, Cambridge-Malden, 2005.

These are the well-known words written over the entrance gate of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Their literal meaning is ‘work makes free’, but their real meaning is somewhat less clear; it inevitably leaves us puzzled, and is worth some consideration.

The concentration camp at Auschwitz was created relatively late, and was conceived from the start non as a work camp but as an extermination camp. It became a work camp later, in 1943, and then only in partial and subsidiary fashion. I think we can therefore exclude the hypothesis that in the intention of the person who coined it, this phrase was to be understood in its straightforwarded sense and for its obvious proverbial and moral value.

It is more likely that the meaning is ironic, springing from the heavy, arrogant, funereal wit to which only Germans are privy, and which only in German has a name. translated into explicit language it should, it seems, have gone something like this: ‘Work is humiliation and suffering, and is fit not for us, the Herrenvolk, the people of masters and heroes, but for you, enemies of the Third Reich. The only freedom which awaits you is death’.

In reality, and despite appearances to the contrary, denial of and contempt for the moral value of work is fundamental to the Fascist myth in all its forms. Under each form of militarism, colonialism and corporatism lies the precise desire of one class to exploit the work of others, and at the same time to deny that class any human value. This desire was already clear in the anti-worker position adopted by Italian Fascism right from its early years, and became increasingly refined in the evolution of the German version of Fascism, reaching the point of the wide-scale deportation to Germany of workers from all the occupied countries. But it is in the universe of the camps that it finds both its crowning glory and its reductio ad absurdum.

The exaltation of violence has a similar goal in mind and this, too, is essential to Fascism; the club, which quickly assumes a symbolic value, is the instrument used to simulate beasts of burden and haulage to work harder.

The experimental character of the camps is clear to us today and arouses an intense retrospective horror. We know now that the German camps, whether intended for work or for extermination, were not, so to speak, a by-product of conditions of national emergency (the Nazi revolution first, then the war). They were not an unfortunate transitory necessity, but the early seedlings of the New Order. In the New Order, some human races (Jews, Gypsies) would be wiped out while others, for example the Slavs in general and the Russians in particular, would be enslaved and subject to a carefully controlled regime of biological degradation, transforming individuals into good labouring animals, illiterate, devoid of all initiative, incapable of either rebellion or criticism.

The camps were thus largely ‘pilots plants’, an anticipation of the future assigned to Europe in Nazi planning. In the light of these considerations, phrases such as the one at Auschwitz, ‘Work makes free’, or the one at Buchenwald, ‘To each his own’, take on a precise and sinister meaning. They are, in their turn, an anticipation of the new tablets of the Law, dictated by master to slave, and valid only for the slave.

If Fascism had prevailed, the whole of Europe would have been transformed into a complex system of forced labour and extermination camps, and those cynically edifying words would have been read on the entrance to every workshop and every worksite.

In Triangolo Rosso, Aned, November 1959

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