Arbeit Macht Frei

Being fond of talking about ironic German phrases from time to time [1], I would like to discuss a quote whose irony is deeply painful and deeply troubling on a variety of levels. Over the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps was the saying “Arbeit macht frei,” which, translated, means “work makes free.” This was ironic on a variety of levels, in that the work that was done in these camps was done by slave labor, and that there was no hope that the work done by these victims of Nazi oppression would ever make them free in any way, except for the freedom from suffering that comes from death. Given that the Nazis themselves were rather blasé about the death rates among their labor camps, it is quite possible that they intended this saying to exist on two levels, one level being an appeal to a cliché about the ennobling nature of work, and the other being a grimly ironic reflection on the fact that the only freedom that would be found for workers would likely come from either liberation from outside or death, or the exceedingly rare chance of a successful revolt from within.

The idea of work making free coming with the irony of slave labor camps is not unique to Nazi Germany. It is, rather, a fairly common aspect of social control that can be found in a variety of contexts. In the Great Britain and its colonies of the 18th and 19th centuries, one finds workhouses where the poor provided labor in sometimes grim circumstances to pay off debts. In the Soviet Union, the gulag archipelago was famous for its wasting of human life for the purposes of economic exploitation by a brutal (and avowedly pro-labor) regime as well as political control of restive populations condemned by individual character or collective identity. Likewise, the contemporary United States has seen a recent rise in the private use of prison labor as a source of below market wages that have been available for use by government and exploitation by private companies [2]. In none of these contexts is the work intended designed to make free. It is, rather, work designed to make free use of convicts, and simultaneously it can depress the wages of free laborers who must compete in certain industries with slave labor being paid a pittance for their wages and exempt from cost-raising safety and work procedures. This below-market labor even hinders prisoners who are working in such jobs from being able to compensate the victims of their crimes, which is a major principle of justice.

Given the fact that labor is often associated with slavery, how is it that work makes free in the first place. What is it that separates the grinding and depressing spectacle of people being exploited through labor for the benefit of others from an ennobling sort of labor that provides meaning and value to both goods and services and the people themselves providing that labor. It is not mere treatment that makes one free, for slaves can be treated in a paternalistic manner by those who consider themselves as masters, and this kind treatment does not make one free, although it must be freely admitted that in an unjust world, kind treatment is to be greatly preferred to unkind treatment. It is not the difficulty of work or the length of hours that makes work free or unfree, for the entrepreneur works long and hard hours in what he considers as work that is to free him from the burden of responsibility to authorities even as it places a heavy burden on himself to serve his customers. In stark contrast, work that is not particularly demanding may appear to be greatly demeaning to those who do it when that work is not respected or honored.

What sort of work, then, makes one free? There are some sorts of external freedoms that can result from work. Work that is sufficiently remunerating, for example, may free one from debt (assuming one lives modestly and responsibly) and free one from the worry that comes from lacking. Work can free one from boredom, if one’s mind and heart are sufficiently engaged in what one is doing. At times, even in corrupt societies, those who were hard workers and able in body and mind were often given great freedom and great privileges as a way of motivating them to further labor, even increasing their own status as a result of their work. Work can grant freedom in terms of increased self-respect as well as honor and respect from others. To the extent that we labor, whether for ourselves or others, in such a way as fulfills a sense of purpose in our lives, such work can make us free from the despair that often accompanies a purposeless life [3]. A man can be free in mind and spirit regardless of what chains he is tied by and what bars he is behind, although we would all prefer to be free in terms of social class as well as with regards to imprisonment to the greatest extent possible.

How then, is one to be free? When speaking to slaves in the Household codes of his letters, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24: “But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches. Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called.” This passage suggests the the complexity of freedom and slavery, something we need to make some effort to untangle.

Paul is clearly advising that those who are enslaved, if they have an opportunity to become free, to take advantage. Obviously, it is easier to serve God when one does not have to deal with interference from competing authorities. It is for this reason, for example, that we do not volunteer for corrupt armies or seek to enslave ourselves with promises and commitments in ungodly affairs. Yet at the same time, our freedom as human beings consists in choosing how and whom we are to serve in our lives, a choice that we all are responsible for. Our freedom consists in what we do with what we have available. If we have greater options, we have a greater responsibility. To the extent that we are constrained by circumstances, our freedom consists in realizing who we are and acting on that, regardless of whether that reality or that truth is recognized by others around us. Our freedom must sometimes be an interior one, especially for those that face the cruelty of slavery or imprisonment. Nevertheless, our freedom exists in a world where we are connected to each other by ties of blood, love, affection, and duty, and so it is bounded by our responsibility even as it is our freedom that makes us responsible.

It is one of the curiosities of the laws of slavery in the antebellum South that alone among that which was considered to be types of property that was held responsible for sins was that of the slaves. When horses and cattle acted up, it was the owner who was held responsible. Yet when slaves caused trouble, it was the slaves themselves that were held responsible for their actions, as the same law which denied them the status as free men and women held them responsible for the free will that they had as human beings. Likewise, in the horrors of the Nazi labor camps, it was one Viktor Frankl and others like him who realized that although they were unfree in every exterior sense, subject to brutal treatment and degradation and deprivation and disease, that they were still free inside, free to accept the meaning of their lives as the children of God with all that entailed, regardless of how others might think of them. Our freedom, ultimately, does not depend on the laws or actions of others, but rather it depends on our relationship with the One who created us. For it is He who made us free when He made us in His image and likeness, and we must all be accountable for how we use that freedom in the works of our hands, our tongues, and our minds. Let us use that freedom wisely.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Bible, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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