Adolf Hitler had been hostile towards trade unionism since his youth. Konrad Heiden, a journalist who investigated Hitler's time in Vienna, pointed out that as a young man he had come under the influence of Karl Lueger. His main opponent at the time was Victor Adler, the chairman of the Social Democratic Workers' Party (SDAP). Adler was Jewish and this had a major impact on the development of his political philosophy. "But whatever Hitler learned or thought he had learned from his model, Lueger, he learned far more from his opponent. And this opponent, whom he combated from the profound hatred of his soul, is and remains plain ordinary work. Organized, it calls itself labour movement, trade union, Socialist Party. And, or so it seems to him, Jews are always the leaders." Hitler was also aware that Adler's hero, Karl Marx, was also a Jew.
Heiden argued in Der Führer – Hitler's Rise to Power (1944): "The relatively high percentage of Jews in the leadership of the Socialist parties on the European continent cannot be denied. The intellectual of the bourgeois era had not yet discovered the workers, and if the workers wanted to have leaders with university education, often only the Jewish intellectual remained - the type which might have liked to become a judge or Government official, but in Germany, Austria, or Russia simply could not. Yet, though many Socialist leaders are Jews, only few Jews are Socialist leaders. To call the mass of modern Jewry Socialist, let alone revolutionary, is a bad propaganda joke." (1)
In 1919 Hitler joined the German Workers Party (GWP). The following year the GWP published its first programme which became known as the "Twenty-Five Points". It was written by Hitler, Gottfried Feder, Anton Drexler and Dietrich Eckart. To appeal to the working class and socialists, the programme included several measures that would redistribute income and war profits, profit-sharing in large industries, nationalization of trusts, increases in old-age pensions and free education. (2)
Hitler's reputation as an orator grew and it soon became clear that he was the main reason why people were joining the party. At one meeting in Hofbräuhaus he attracted an audience of over 2,000 people and several hundred new members were enrolled. This gave Hitler tremendous power within the organization as they knew they could not afford to lose him. One change suggested by Hitler concerned adding "Socialist" to the name of the party. Hitler had always been hostile to socialist ideas, especially those that involved racial or sexual equality. However, socialism was a popular political philosophy in Germany after the First World War. This was reflected in the growth in the German Social Democrat Party (SDP), the largest political party in Germany.
Hitler, therefore redefined socialism by placing the word "National" before it. He claimed he was only in favour of equality for those who had "German blood". Jews and other "aliens" would lose their rights of citizenship, and immigration of non-Germans should be brought to an end. Hitler knew he was in a battle with Marxism, that was beginning to have a great influence over German trade unionists. "The Nazis used exclusionary nationalism as an antidote to the influence of Marxist internationalism on sections of the industrial working class. Marxism was depicted as an alien import, notwithstanding the German origins of its two founding fathers." (3)
In a pamphlet produced by Anton Drexler, on behalf of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi Party), argued that many leaders of trade unions were Jews who were involved in a joint conspiracy with capitalists. "There is a secret world conspiracy, which while speaking much about humanity and tolerance, in reality wants only to harness the people to a new yoke. A number of workers' leaders belong to this group. The leaders are big capitalists. 300 big bankers, financiers and press barons, who are interconnected across the world, are the real dictators. They belong almost exclusively to the 'chosen people'. They are members of this same secret conspiracy, which organises world politics."
Drexler then went on to warn workers not to support the German Communist Party (KPD). "Shake off your Jewish leaders, and those in the pay of Judas! Don't expect anything from Bolshevism. It doesn't bring the worker freedom... In Russia the eight-hour day has been abolished. There are no more worker's councils. All cower under the dictatorship of a hundred government commissars, who are nine-tenths Jewish. Bolshevism is a Jewish swindle." (4)
Trade union membership in Germany grew during the Weimar Republic. Between 1927 and 1930 the number of working days lost through industrial disputes annually was at 3.7 million, only half the total in the period leading up to the First World War. As Richard Grunberger, the author of A Social History of the Third Reich (1971), has pointed out: "The subsidence of industrial warfare resulted partly from Weimar's labour legislation, which drew the government into all wage agreements as a participant and stipulated an elaborate conciliation procedure before strikes could legally be called." (5)
In 1928 Ruhr steel industrialists imposed a lock-out on 250,000 workers. Although unable to defeat the unions at the time, the employers' associations succeeded in blunting the government's power to make collective-bargaining mandatory on all firms within an industry. Industry was opposed to state participation in the collective-bargaining process, because it considered that the government was unduly biased in favour of the workers. (6)
Heinrich Brüning became chancellor in March 1930. Brüning attempted to halt the growth in German unemployed that followed the Wall Street Crash by increasing taxation and by imposing high tariffs on foreign imports. He also reduced government expenditure by lowering unemployment benefits. The policies were not successful and by 1930 unemployment reached 4 million. As Louis L. Snyder has pointed out that "From 1930 to 1932 Brüning struggled unsuccessfully to resolve the deepening economic crisis. Unemployment rose to more than 6 million, and he was attacked bitterly by the Communists on the left and the National Socialists on the right." (7)
Large-scale unemployment caused great changes in German society. "The unemployed spent their days reading newspapers, smoking, standing in meal queues, squabbling at benefit offices or loitering aimlessly in parks and on street corners. Men tried to keep warm in waiting rooms and fed themselves by scavenging in dustbins... Others held signs or carried placards advertising their desire to work. Many became apathetic and resigned to being unemployed. Others grew desperate. By 1932, the German suicide rate stood at 260 per million (as against 85 in Britain and 133 in the United States). Since women were paid less than men, they found it easier to get jobs and worked while their husbands and sons brooded at home, an inversion of the gender roles normal at the time that made for domestic fractiousness... There was a rise in juvenile crime, prostitution, vagrancy and vandalism, and also in the population in remand homes and the juvenile wings of prisons... As the proportion of income spent on housing rose from 10 to 50 per cent, the number of evictions mounted, and many unemployed workers moved to squatter settlements in the suburbs." (8)
In May 1932 General Hans von Seeckt joined up with Alfred Hugenberg, Hjalmar Schacht and several industrialists, to call for the uniting of the parties of the right. They demanding the resignation of Brüning. Germany's president, Paul von Hindenburg, agreed and forced him to leave office and he was replaced as chancellor by Franz von Papen. The new chancellor was also a member of the Catholic Centre Party. (9)
In an attempt to gain support for his new government, Papen called another election. Mass unemployment had resulted in a dramatic fall in trade union membership. Ian Kershaw has argued: "For those still fortunate enough to have work, self-confidence was eaten away by fear of losing their jobs, by the loss of the power of the unions, exposure to employer aggressiveness, and... by the SPD's perceived failure to look after working-class interests." (10)
Adolf Hitler had been secretly building support from wealthy industrialists in Germany. In exchange for this money he promised to reduce the power of the trade unions. Rudolf Olden, a journalist working for the newspaper, Berliner Tageblatt, carried out an investigation into the funding of the Nazi Party. "Without money, Hitler's rise would be inconceivable. The money which supports him does not come from under the mattresses of the poor. It is not a question of widows' mites. It came straight from the capitalists." (11)
Olden named Emile Kirdorf, Alfried Krupp, Fritz Thyssen, Hjalmar Schacht and Kurt von Schröder as major funders of the Nazi Party. James Pool, the author of Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler's Rise to Power (1979) claims that the reason why these industrialists supported Hitler was because of his promise "to win the working-class away from the Marxist trade-union leaders". (12)
In October 1932 a major transport strike erupted in Berlin as a result of von Papen's attempt to cut wages. In an attempt to get the support of the trade unions, the Nazi Party supported the strike. This was a tactical mistake as it upset some wealthy businessmen who had supported the party in the past. Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary: "Scarcity of money has become a chronic illness with us. We lack enough to really carry out a big campaign. Many bourgeois circles have been frightened off by our participation in the strike. Even many of our party comrades are beginning to have their doubts." (13)
Mass unemployment resulted in more German people voting for right-wing parties. As William L. Shirer has pointed out, politicians such as Hitler "thrive only... when the masses were unemployed, hungry and desperate". (14) In the election in November 1932 the Nazi Party won 230 seats, making it the largest party in the Reichstag. The German National Party, won nearly a million additional votes. However the German Social Democrat Party (133) and the German Communist Party (89) still had the support of the urban working class and Hitler was deprived of an overall majority in parliament. In numerical terms, the socialist parties obtained 13,228,000 votes compared to the 14,696,000 votes recorded for the Nazis and the German Nationalists. (15)
Soon after Hitler became chancellor in January 1933 he announced new elections. Hermann Goering called a meeting of important industrialists where he told them that the election would be the last in Germany for a very long time. He explained that Hitler "disapproved of trade unions and workers' interference in the freedom of owners and managers to run their concerns." (16)
Goering added that the NSDAP would need a considerable amount of of money to ensure victory. Those present responded by donating 3 million Reichmarks. As Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary after the meeting: "Radio and press are at our disposal. Even money is not lacking this time." (17)
Behind the scenes Goering, who was minister of the interior in Hitler's government, was busily sacking senior police officers and replacing them with Nazi supporters. These men were later to become known as the Gestapo. Goering also recruited 50,000 members of the Sturm Abteilung (SA) to work as police auxiliaries. Goering then raided the headquarters of the German Communist Party (KPD) in Berlin and claimed that he had uncovered a plot to overthrow the government. Leaders of the KPD were arrested but no evidence was ever produced to support Goering's accusations. He also announced he had discovered a communist plot to poison German milk supplies. (18)
Thousands of members of the Social Democrat Party and trade union activists were arrested and sent to recently opened concentration camps. Left-wing election meetings were broken up by the Sturm Abteilung (SA) and several candidates were murdered. Newspapers that supported these political parties were closed down during the election. Although it was extremely difficult for the opposition parties to campaign properly, Hitler and the Nazi party still failed to win an overall victory in the election on 5th March, 1933. The Nazi Party received 43.9% of the vote and only 288 seats out of the available 647. The increase in the Nazi vote had mainly come from the Catholic rural areas who feared the possibility of an atheistic Communist government.
Hitler proclaimed May Day, 1933, as a national holiday and arranged to celebrate it as it had never been celebrated before. Trade union leaders were flown to Berlin from all parts of Germany. Joseph Goebbels staged the greatest mass demonstration Germany had ever seen. Hitler told the workers' delegates: "You will see how untrue and unjust is the statement that the revolution is directed against the German workers." Later that day Hitler told a meeting of more than 100,000 workers that "reestablishing social peace in the world of labour" would soon begin. (19)
The next day, Hitler ordered the Sturm Abteilung (SA) to destroy the trade union movement. Their headquarters throughout the country were occupied, union funds confiscated, the unions dissolved and the leaders arrested. Large numbers were sent to concentration camps. Within a few days 169 different trade unions were under Nazi control. (20)
Hitler gave Robert Ley the task of forming the German Labour Front (DAF). Ley, in his first proclamation, stated: "Workers! Your institutions are sacred to us National Socialists. I myself am a poor peasant's son and understand poverty... I know the exploitation of anonymous capitalism. Workers! I swear to you, we will not only keep everything that exists, we will build up the protection and the rights of the workers still further." (21)
Three weeks later Hitler decreed a law bringing an end to collective bargaining and providing that henceforth "labour trustees", appointed by him, would "regulate labour contracts" and maintain "labour peace". Since the decisions of the trustees were to be legally binding, the law, in effect, outlawed strikes. Ley promised "to restore absolute leadership to the natural leader of a factory - that is, the employer... Only the employer can decide." (22)
The German Labour Front was the only union organization allowed in the Third Reich and had over 20 million members. Ley appointed twelve state officials whose job it was to regulate wages, conditions of work and labour contracts in each of their respective districts, and to maintain peace between workers and employers. (23) The DAF was "rendered totally docile and workers no longer had any voice in management". (24)
The results of the elections to works councils suggest that the Labour Front representatives were not popular with the German workforce. As a result, no further elections were held after 1935. Some workers continued to resist fascism and in some sectors, such as metal and wood workers, railwaymen and seafarers maintained impressive illegal networks. (25)
Strength Through Joy (KdF) was established as a subsidiary of the German Labour Front on 27th November, 1933. It was an attempt to organize workers' leisure time rather than allow them to organize it for themselves, and therefore enable leisure to serve the interests of the government. Ley claimed that "workers were to gain strength for their work by experiencing joy in their leisure". (26) The scheme has been described as "regimented leisure" and that Hitler deemed it "necessary to control not only the working hours but the leisure hours of the individual". (27)
The scheme had been heavily influenced by the theories of the Belgian fascist, Henri de Man, who sought to fuse the theories of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. It also took some of the ideas behind the Italian Fascist Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro, the leisure and recreational organization, concentrating on sports and other outings for adults, that had been introduced by Benito Mussolini in 1925. (28)
Albert Speer was a great supporter of Ley's plan to persuade factory owners to improve the workplace: "First we persuaded factory owners to modernize their offices and to have some flowers about. But we did not stop there. Lawn was to take the place of asphalt. What had been wasteland was to be turned into little parks where the workers could sit during breaks. We urged that window areas within factories be enlarged and workers' canteen set up... We provided educational movies and a counseling service to help businessmen on questions of illumination and ventilation... One and all devoted themselves to the cause of making some improvements in the workers' living conditions and moving closer to the ideal of a classless People's Community." (29)
Since the late 19th century the Social Democrat Party (SDP) and the German trade unions had built sports grounds and hiking hostels. These were now taken over by the German Labour Front and used for its members. With these resources it was able to offer discounted leisure activities that were within the financial reach of many workers and their families. By 1934-35, over three million people were taking part in its physical education and gymnastics evenings, while many others took advantage of the cheap coaching it offered in tennis, golf, skiing, sailing and other upper-middle-class-sports. (30)
Strength Through Joy promoted evening classes, amateur cultural activities, recitals and travelling art exhibitions. Plays were performed in factories and specially organized KdF concerts, featuring important classical conductors and soloists, such as Carl Bohm, Eugen Jochum and Wilhelm Furtwanger, played to German workers. (31) The KdF had its own ninety-piece symphony orchestra which continually toured the country and in 1938 over two and a half million people attended its concerts. One observer pointed out that the KdF "made available at bargain rates tickets to the theatre, the opera and concerts, thus making available more highbrow entertainment to the labouring man." (32)
The success of the KdF brought Ley into conflict with Joseph Goebbels. According to his biographer, Toby Thacker, Goebbels objected to the idea that the professional associations of German artists should be part of the Labour Front. (33) Goebbels held a meeting with Adolf Hitler and eventually he agreed that he should be free to organize all persons "belonging to the areas of activity under his jurisdiction". (34)
The most popular aspect of Strength Through Joy was the provision of subsidized holidays. Large sections of the labour force were for the first time given the opportunity of holidaying away from home. The holidays ranged in price from a week in the Harz Mountains (28 marks), one week at the North Sea coast (35 marks) and a fortnight at Lake Constance (65 marks). As the average wage of an industrial worker was about 30 marks, it enabled a third of all workers to go on holiday. (35)
The KdF set about building its own model resort on the Baltic island of Rügen. Construction began under the supervision of Albert Speer on 3rd May 1936. "The resort spanned eight kilometres of the Baltic shore, with six-story residence blocks interspersed with refectories and centred on a huge communal hall designed to accommodate all 20,000 of the resort's holidaymakers as they engaged in collective demonstration of enthusiasm for the regime and its policies. It was consciously designed for families, to make good the lack of facilities for them in other Strength Through Joy enterprises, and it was intended to be cheap enough for the ordinary worker to afford, at a price of no more than 20 Reichsmarks for a week's stay." (36)
The better paid workers were able to go abroad. A tour of Italy cost 155 marks. Strength Through Joy commissioned the building of two 25,000-ton purpose-built ships and chartered ten others to handle ocean cruises. The Robert Ley could carry 1,600 passengers. It only had forty lavatories and 100 showers but 156 loudspeakers that relayed on-board propaganda. (37) The liner also included a gymnasium, a theatre and a swimming pool to ensure that participants engaged in regular healthy exercise and experienced serious cultural events. (38)
These cruise liners sailed as far as the Norwegian fjords, Maderia, Libya, Finland, Bulgaria and Turkey. 180,000 Germans went on cruises in 1938 and the volume of tourism doubled. (39) In 1939 alone, 175,000 people went to Italy on organized trips, a good number of them travelling on cruise liners. (40)
William L. Shirer, an American journalist went on a KdF cruise: "Though life abroad was organized by Nazi leaders to a point of excruciation, the German workers seemed to have a good time. And at bargain rates! A cruise to Maderia, for instance, cost only $25, including rail fare to and from the German port, and other jaunts were equally inexpensive... In winter special skiing excursions to the Bavarian Alps were organized at a cost of $11 a week, including car fare, room and board, rental of skis and lessons from a ski instructor." (41)
The governments of other European countries took an interest in what the KdF was doing. The British ambassador in Berlin, Sir Neville Henderson, pointed out: "There are, in fact, many things in the Nazi organization and ideology, which we might study and adapt to our own use with great profit both to the health and happiness of our own nation and old democracy." (42)
The German Labour Front deprived the workers of any bargaining mechanism. The employer, with the support of the Labour Front, was able to decide on the amount that the workforce were paid. A wage freeze was decreed in 1933 and was enforced by the Labour Front during the period that the Nazis were in power, despite rising costs of living. "The Labour Front had become a gigantic state prison from which workers had no way out." (43)
There was little resistance to the policies of the Labour Front. In June 1936, there was a seventeen-minute stoppage at Rüsselsheim Opel Works by 262 workers protesting against a wage cut brought about by raw-material shortages. The leaders were immediately arrested and over 40 of the men were blacklisted. (44) These tactics appeared to work. In 1928 a total of 20,339,000 days were lost to strikes. After the formation of the Labour Front, there were no recorded strikes in Nazi Germany.
In 1935 Robert Ley claimed that Germany was the first country in Europe to overcome the class struggle. (45) Although millions more had jobs, the share of all German workers in the national income fell from 56.9% in the depression year of 1932 to 53.6% in the boom year of 1938. At the same time income from capital and business rose from 17.4% of the national income for 26.6%.
William L. Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany (1959) states: "All the propagandists in the Third Reich from Hitler on down were accustomed to rant in their public speeches against the bourgeois and the capitalist and proclaim their solidarity with the worker. But... the official statistics... revealed that the much maligned capitalists, not the workers, benefited most from Nazi policies." (46)
Robert Ley told the workers at the Siemens factory in Berlin: "We are all soldiers of labour, amongst whom some command and the others obey. Obedience and responsibility have to count amongst us again... We can't all be on the captain's bridge, because then there would be nobody to raise the sails and pull the ropes. No, we can't all do that, we've got to grasp the fact." (47)
One historian has claimed that the Labour Front was "the most corrupt of all the major institutions of the Third Reich." (48) In the early months of 1935, German newspapers reported over one hundred cases of misappropriation of funds involving officials of the Winter Relief, one of the schemes operated by the Labour Front. This led to so many rumours and speculations that the Labour Front decided to discontinue door-to-door collection of subscriptions in favour of deductions from wages. (49)
The Labour Front eventually had 25.3 million members. Each worker had 1.5 per cent of their wages deducted to cover costs. (50) By 1937 the annual income from membership fees to the Labour Front reached $160,000,000. How this money was spent remained a secret as Ley never published the accounts of the organization. It was believed that the institution was open to corruption. It was also claimed that Ley stole money that had been confiscated from former trade unions.
Ley was well rewarded for his role in the movement. As head of the Labour Front he was granted a salary of 4,000 Reichsmarks. His income was increased by 2,000 Reichsmarks as Reich Organization Leader of the Party, 700 Reichsmarks as a Reichstag deputy, and 400 Reichsmarks as a Prussian State Councillor. He also received royalties from books and pamphlets, which Labour Front officials were encouraged to buy in bulk for distribution to the members.
According to Richard Evans, the author of The Third Reich in Power (2005), "Ley... bought a whole series of grand villas in the most fashionable districts of Germany's towns and cities. The running costs, which in his villa in Berlin's Grunewald included a cook, two nannies, a chambermaid, a gardener and a housekeeper, were met by the Labour Front up to 1938, and even after that it paid all Ley's entertainment expenses. He was fond of expensive automobiles and gave two to his second wife as presents. Ley also had a railway carriage refitted for his personal use. He collected paintings and furniture for his houses." (51)
Some former union activists such as Julius Leber, Jakob Kaiser and Wilhelm Leuschner, forged connections with the conservative and military resistance. Later the trade union group joined with Claus von Stauffenberg, Friedrich Olbricht, Henning von Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Fabian Schlabrendorff, Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben. After the assassination of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler it was planned for troops in Berlin to seize key government buildings, telephone and signal centres and radio stations.
On 20th July, 1944, Stauffenberg attended a conference attended by Hitler on 20th July, 1944. The bomb exploded at 12.42 p.m. Joachim Fest, the author of Plotting Hitler's Death (1997) has pointed out: "Suddenly, as witnesses later recounted, a deafening crack shattered the midday quiet, and a bluish-yellow flame rocketed skyward... A dark plume of smoke rose and hung in the air over the wreckage of the briefing barracks. Shards of glass, wood, and fiberboard swirled about, and scorched pieces of paper and insulation rained down... When the bomb exploded, twenty-four people were in the conference room. All were hurled to the ground, some with their hair in flames." The bomb killed four men in the hut: General Rudolf Schmundt, General Günther Korten, Colonel Heinz Brandt and stenographer Heinz Berger. Hitler's right arm was badly injured but he survived what became known as the July Plot. (52)
Anton Drexler, the original founder of the Party, was there most evenings, but by this time he was only its honorary president and had been pushed more or less to one side. A blacksmith by trade, he had a trade union background and although it was he who had thought up the original idea of appealing to the workers with a patriotic programme, he disapproved strongly of the street fighting and violence which was slowly becoming a factor in the Party's activities and wanted to build up as a working-class movement in an orderly fashion.
Despite his harassed life, the businessman made good profits... the businessman was also cheered by the way the workers had been put in their place under Hitler. There were no more unreasonable wage demands. Actually, wages were reduced a little despite a 25 per cent rise in the cost of living. And above all, there were no costly strikes. In fact, there were no strikes at all... the Law Regulating National Labour of January 20,1934, known as the "Charter of Labour", had put the worker in his place and raised the employer to his old position of absolute master - subject, of course, to interference by the all-powerful State.
By building palaces or tremendous new offices for the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, or covering the country with a network of Autobahnen, the residue of the unemployed could be at once absorbed. Eight thousand men worked on the construction of Herr Hitler's new chancellery, "the largest and most palatial Government edifice in Europe," and the cost, including furnishings, probably exceeded 150 million Reichsmarks... We must also remember that in recent years factory methods in Nazi Germany have taken on a very different tempo from what was formerly the custom. Work has been considerably speeded up. Piece-work has been organised accordingly, and wage-rates have in many cases been reduced in order to lower the cost of production.
We demand from ourselves service to the end,
Even when no eyes are upon us. We know that we should love our Fatherland
More than our own life.
We vow that no one shall outdo us in loyalty,
That our life shall be one great labour-service for Germany.
So in this solemn hour we pray for blessing on the oath we take,
We thank thee, Führer, that we now have seen thee,
Do thou behold us as thine own creation?
May our hearts ever beat with thy heart's pulses,
Our lives find inspiration in thy love,
Behold us here! Thy Germany are we!
(Source 5) Days lost in strikes and unemployment in Germany Date
Days lost in strikes (in thousands)
% of workers registered as unemployed
1931 1,890 23.3 1932 1,130 30.1 1933 96 26.3 1934 14.9 1935 11.6 1936 8.3 1937
I hate the treatment of the Jews. I think it is a bad side of the movement and I will have nothing to do with it. I did not join the party to do that sort of thing. I joined the party because I thought and still think that Hitler did the greatest Christian work for twenty-five years. I saw seven million men rotting in the streets - often I was there too, and no one, not even the Churches, seemed to care that it was a wicked thing that children of God should be thus left to rot. .. Then Hitler came and he took all those men off the streets and gave them health and security and work at least for the time being. Wasn't that a Christian act? So it was because I am a Catholic that I said, "I will join the party and I will do all I can to help a movement which refuses to let the young manhood of this nation be wasted."