The National Socialists saw workers as cogs in a socio-economic machine, rather than individuals. After taking power in 1933, the Nazis abolished unions and formed their own agency to monitor labour and workplaces. Work in Nazi Germany became heavily regulated, with workers having few rights and no bargaining power.
Nazi attitues to work
In Nazi Germany, attitudes to work and labour were by fascist fixations with order, hierarchy and the state. In a fascist society, the needs of the nation-state are paramount. There is little to no concern for the petty interests of individuals.
As a consequence, there is little tolerance of concepts like trade unions or workers’ rights and freedoms. Any support for these would imply the individual has rights that transcend those of the nation or must be protected from the state.
This fascist attitude to work was reflected in Nazi labour policies, workplace organisation and propaganda. The Nazi regime radically changed the organisation of labour within Germany, particularly in heavy industry and military production. This left workers worse off – although, after the difficulties of the 1920s and the Great Depression, many Germans were happy to be working at all.
Guiding youth to work
A significant focus of Nazi labour programs was preparing young Germans for their future roles. German children received plenty of state direction or advice about their future education, careers and gender roles. The Nazis went as far as offering vocational blueprints to the German people.
In the propaganda poster Der Weg des Gleichgeschalteten Burger, or ‘The Way of the Coordinated Citizen’ (click here) the regime mapped out its preferred path for men and women, from birth to adulthood. The options were clear and simple: school and Nazi youth groups for children; motherhood and home duties for women; party membership, industrial work or military service for men.
The Nazi model contained little scope for individual choice. Instead, individuals were steered into vocations to benefit and strengthen the German economy and the Nazi state.
Unions out, DAF in
The NSDAP’s first major labour policy was to ban trade unions (May 2nd 1933). To extend his grip on German labour, Hitler established the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (the DAF or German Labour Front). The DAF became, in essence, a government-run union.
DAF membership became compulsory for employment in most occupations. DAF members belonged to one of 20 ‘worker ranks’ and paid weekly membership dues, ranging from 15 Pfenning to three Reichmarks. These membership dues made the DAF a significant source of revenue. In 1934, it collected 300 million Reichmarks. By 1936, this amount had doubled.
The DAF was led by Dr Robert Ley, a chemist by trade, a World War I veteran and a fanatical NSDAP member. Ley made grandiose promises to DAF members, telling them in 1933: “I myself am the son of a poor peasant … I swear to you we will not only keep everything which exists. We will build up the rights and protection of the workers even further”.
Ley did initiate a few positive reforms, like cracking down on bosses who dismissed employees for trivial reasons. But as the Nazis sought to increase economic production in the mid-1930s, the DAF traded off and surrendered workers’ rights to increase productivity. This was hardly surprising since the DAF was a virtual branch of the Nazi government rather than a true trade union. As historian Michael Thomsett explains: “The German worker was no longer represented by anyone. The [DAF’s] real job was to control German labour, not work for its good.”
Workbooks and regulations
The year 1935 brought more concerted attacks on the rights of German workers. These measures were condoned and, in some cases, initiated by the DAF.
From February, each German employee was required to keep a workbook, listing his or her skills and previous occupations. If a worker quit their job then the employer was entitled to retain their workbook, which made obtaining a new job almost impossible. From June 1935, Nazi-run agencies took over the management of work assignments, deciding who was employed where. Wages were set by employers in collaboration with DAF officials; workers could no longer bargain or negotiate for higher wages.
The most telling reform was the removal of limitations on working hours. By the start of World War II (1939), many Germans were working between 10-12 hours per day, six days a week.
Opposition to Nazi labour laws
There was opposition to this attack on workers’ rights.
In 1936, a document called the ‘People’s Manifesto’ called for the removal of the Nazis and the restoration of pre-Nazi rights. The ‘People’s Manifesto’ was declared an illegal document but was still circulated in some workplaces.
Large factories were also infiltrated by communist agents, who attempted to whip up opposition to the Nazi regime. One group, led by Robert Uhrig, published and circulated anti-Nazi material in industrial factories around Berlin.
After the outbreak of World War II these groups collected information about Nazi industrial and military production and smuggled it out of Germany to the Allies. But by and large, most Germans did not complain much about Nazi labour policies or the DAF. Most of them recalled the horrors of the Great Depression and were grateful to be working at all.
Improvements and benefits
For those who could tolerate these reductions in workers’ rights, there were improvements in other areas. Job security certainly improved under the NSDAP; it became more difficult for managers to arbitrarily sack employees.
There were also safety improvements and aesthetic improvements to many workplaces, funded and organised by a branch of the DAF called Schonheit der Arbeit (‘Beauty of Work’). Work areas were tidied up, new bathrooms and canteens were built and social facilities were constructed.
These changes, though largely cosmetic, allowed the DAF to create the illusion of prosperity and worker satisfaction. Nazi propaganda showed German workers as fit, healthy, happy and satisfied with Hitler’s policies and leadership.
Kraft durch Freude
These propaganda devices extended into leisure time. In 1933, the DAF established Kraft durch Freude (“Strength through Joy”) or KdF, essentially a state-run holiday company.
KdF encouraged hard work by offering cheap holidays and after-work activities. DAF leader Robert Ley ordered the construction of two new cruise liners to supply subsidised overseas holidays for German workers. A cruise to the Canary Islands, for example, would cost just 62 marks (around half the average monthly wage for unskilled factory workers). In reality, most of the places on these cruise ships were snapped up by NSDAP officials and members.
Skiing holidays in the Bavarian Alps were offered for just 28 marks, while a fortnight-long holiday in Italy cost 155 marks. In 1938 alone, 180,000 Germans went on cruises to exotic locations like Madeira and the Norwegian fjords. Others were given free holidays within Germany. Kraft durch Freude also built sports facilities, paid for theatre visits and supported travelling musicians and entertainers.
None of this came free: German workers paid for these benefits through their compulsory DAF deductions. Nevertheless, the image of German workers being given holidays and entertainment had significant propaganda value.
A historian’s view:
“Workers in the Third Reich lost most of their freedoms and rights… with their unions gone, workers had no say in wages and conditions of employment, which were now regulated by the state. Despite the economic recovery, real wages never rose to what they had been in 1928. Taxes were high; the cost of many consumer goods such as clothing and beer increased… on the other hand, workers were not cast into a condition of deprivation. To some extent, workers were pacified by what the Nazi state did provide.”
1. Nazi labour policy was largely based on fascist ideas. Fascism was concerned with order, hierarchy and the surrender of individual rights to national interests.
2. Trade unions were abolished by the Nazi regime in May 1933 and replaced by the German Labour Front or DAF, a gigantic state-run workers’ union headed by Dr Robert Ley.
3. In reality, the DAF did little to protect workers’ rights, wages or interests. Instead, as Nazi production quotas increased, the DAF allowed longer working hours and stricter controls on employment.
4. There was some opposition from workers and underground activists, who circulated anti-Nazi material, however, many workers remained grateful for the improved job security under the DAF.
5. The DAF also ran other agencies, Beauty of Work and Strength through Joy, that improved workplace conditions and subsidised cheap holidays for workers. While these benefited some workers, their main value was as propaganda for the Nazi regime.