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"Arbeit macht frei" (German pronunciation: [ˈaɐ̯baɪt ˈmaxt ˈfʁaɪ]) is a German phrase meaning "work makes (you) free". The slogan is known for having been placed over the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps during World War II, including most infamously 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 ant scientist, 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.
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, and the upper bowl in the B of the word ARBEIT is wider than the lower bowl—thus making the letter seem upside-down. The "flipped" B has fuelled ongoing rumours that the apparent error was done on purpose as a signal to new arrivals about what was actually happening behind the facility's gates, but this style was also seen elsewhere in the era.
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 as well as Flossenbürg. 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.)
In The Kingdom of Auschwitz, Otto Friedrich wrote regarding Höss:
The sign over Auschwitz was stolen in December 2009 by thieves, and later recovered by authorities in three pieces. Anders Högström, a Swedish former neo-Nazi leader, and two Poles were jailed for the act. As a result, the original is now in the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and a replica has been placed over the gate.