The German phrase “Arbeit macht frei” was placed at the gates of many Nazi concentration camps during World War II. It was meant to imply that self-sacrifice through labor brings spiritual freedom but was regarded as a cruel insult by prisoners who were forced to work till death.
“Work in liberty” is one of the translations of the German phrase “Arbeit macht frei.” These words were placed on the entrance of many Nazi concentration camps during World War II. It is also translated as “Work sets you free,” or “Work makes one free.” The slogan comes from the title of an 1873 novel by Lorenz Diefenbach. In the book, criminals find the path to virtue through labor. It was first used at Dachau camp and then copied at other concentration camps throughout Germany. The phrase became one of the most recognizable symbols of the Holocaust.
The slogan had a tremendous psychological impact on prisoners, who had to march in and out of the camps’ gates to daily forced labor in horrific conditions. In his book The Kingdom of Auschwitz, Otto Friedrich claims that the slogan was not intended as a mockery or insult, nor as a false promise of freedom for those who worked to exhaustion. He writes that it was rather “a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labor does in itself brings a kind of spiritual freedom.” By prisoners, who knew that they could not obtain their freedom by any means other than death, the slogan was regarded as a cruel insult and a symbol of their suffering.