Modern history



By far the largest social class in Germany in 1933 was the proletariat, comprising roughly 46 per cent of the economically active population. The occupational census of 16 June 1933, long planned and carried out largely free of Nazi interference, showed that a further 17 per cent could be classed as civil servants, white-collar workers or soldiers, 16.4 per cent as self-employed, the same proportion, 16.4 per cent, as unpaid family assistants (mostly on small farms), and 3.8 per cent as domestic servants. Looking at the adult population by economic sector, the census-takers reckoned that 13.1 million were active in industry and artisanal trades in 1933, 9.3 million in agriculture and forestry, 5.9 million in trade and transport, 2.7 million in public and private service, and 1.3 million in domestic service. German society, in other words, was a society in which the industrial working class was large and growing, agriculture was still significant but in decline, and the service sector, which dominates the advanced economies of the twenty-first century, was only relatively small in scale, though expanding rapidly. Modern industries, like chemicals, printing and copying, and electrical products, pointed to the future with between a quarter and a fifth of their workers being women, and women were prominent in some areas of the service sector too. In the traditional and still immensely powerful industries such as mining, metalworking, construction and the like, however, it was still a man’s world. Roughly a quarter of all economically active people in industry were concentrated in metallurgy and engineering in their broadest sense. More than three million people were active in these industries in 1933, and over two million in building and construction; to these, in the core of the traditional industrial working class, could be added 867,000 in the timber and woodworking industries, just over 700,000 in mining, saltworking and turf-digging and 605,000 in quarrying and stone-working. Only a tiny proportion of those active in these fields were women - less than 2 per cent in mining and construction, for example. And it was these classic areas of male employment - or, in the early 1930s, unemployment - that gave the tone to the working class and the labour movement as a whole.92

Mass unemployment had undermined the cohesion and morale of the working class in the early 1930s. It had destabilized Germany’s large and well-organized trade union movement. In the search for a solution, the major working-class parties had either lost the capacity for independent action, like the Social Democrats, or deceived themselves with futile and self-destructive revolutionary fantasies, like the Communists. In 1933 they paid the price. Between March and July 1933 the Nazis destroyed the long-established German labour movement, closed down the trade unions and banned the two main parties of the working class. Organized resistance by remnants of the old labour movement continued for a while but it too was eventually suppressed.93 In the meantime, the Nazis moved to create a new labour organization that would co-ordinate the workers under the control of the state. The existing Nazi trade union, the National Socialist Factory Cell Organization, was viewed with suspicion by employers, who saw its potential for militancy as a threat. Business did not want to get rid of the old trade unions only to see another, more powerful form of unionism taking their place. Industrialists and bankers were dismayed by the disorder in the factories, as brownshirts and Factory Cell Organization agents attacked and expelled elected union and workers’ council representatives and took over the representation of employees themselves. Employers soon began complaining that these agents were interfering in the running of their businesses, making unreasonable demands, and generally disrupting things by throwing their weight around. In Saxony, for example, the Nazi Party Regional Leader Martin Mustchmann even arrested the President of the State Bank, Carl Degenhardt, and held him in custody for a month. Such actions were not welcomed by the business community.94

The disruption was a consequence not least of the radical ambitions of the Factory Cell Organization, whose influence in this period was out of all proportion to its relatively weak membership of a mere 300,000 employees. Backed by the muscle of the stormtroopers and the co-ordinating will of the new regime, its agents had already moved in to trade union offices and were beginning to run their affairs well before the unions were effectively abolished on 2 May 1933. The Factory Cell Organization’s leading figure, Reinhard Muchow, not yet thirty years of age at the time of the Nazi seizure of power, had cut his teeth in a series of bitter labour disputes in the final years of the Weimar Republic, most notably in the Berlin transport workers’ strike of 1932, when the Nazis had fought side by side with the Communists. As propaganda assistant to Goebbels in the latter’s capacity as Party Regional Leader for Berlin, Muchow had directed his appeal to the capital city’s working class, to which indeed he himself belonged. In his vision, the Factory Cell Organization would grow into a gigantic trade union organization representing every employed person in the Third Reich. In this capacity it would form a crucial element in the new corporate state; it would determine wages and salaries, present the government with new labour protection measures, and take over the unions’ social functions.95

But the Nazi leadership did not want class conflict imported from the Weimar Republic into the new Reich. Already on 7 April, Hess had ordered the Factory Cell Organization not to interfere in the running of businesses, or, indeed, to disrupt the work of the trade unions, whose role in paying benefits to unemployed members was crucial during the Depression. The takeover of the unions on 2 May was in some respects a classic example of the Nazi leadership’s tendency to try to channel uncoordinated activism into institutional forms when it began to become a nuisance.96 The unions were immediately replaced by the German Labour Front, officially celebrated at a ceremony attended by Hitler and the cabinet on 10 May 1933. The man appointed to lead the Labour Front was one of the Third Reich’s more colourful characters, Robert Ley. Born in 1890 as the seventh of eleven children of a West German farmer, Ley had suffered a life-shaping trauma as a child when his father had got deeply into debt and tried to raise insurance money to repay it by setting fire to his farm. To judge from Ley’s later autobiographical writings, the poverty and disgrace that ensued for the family after his father’s conviction for arson left the boy with a permanent sense of social insecurity and resentment against the upper classes. Intelligent and ambitious, he chose to rebound by working hard at his studies, and, unusually for someone of his background, entered university. Partly supporting himself through part-time work, he studied chemistry from 1910 onwards. In 1914, however, the war put a temporary halt to all this; Ley volunteered immediately and served in an artillery unit on the Western Front until 1916, when, bored with the constant pounding and the bloody stalemate of trench warfare, he trained as a pilot and began to fly spotter-planes. On 29 July 1917 his aircraft was shot down; almost miraculously, his co-pilot managed a crash-landing. But they landed behind enemy lines. Ley was captured, and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner of the French. The incident left Ley with serious injuries, including not just damage to his leg, which was saved only after six operations, but also to the frontal lobe of his brain, which seems to have gradually deteriorated over the years. He spoke with a stammer, and became increasingly prone to bouts of alcoholism and unrestrained behaviour of all kinds.97

Ley returned to university at the end of the war and completed his studies, gaining a doctorate in 1920 for his dissertation in food chemistry, part of which was published in a scientific journal. With this training, it is not surprising that he secured a good job in the Bayer chemical company, in Leverkusen. This enabled him to marry and start a family. Yet he remained discontented and insecure, his dissatisfaction with the humdrum routine of everyday life fired by his reading of romantic and utopian literature. The French occupation of the Rhineland, where he lived, fuelled his nationalist beliefs, which turned into admiration for Hitler when Ley read reports of the Nazi Leader’s speech at the trial of the Munich putschists early in 1924. Ley joined the Nazi Party and soon became a leading local campaigner, rising to become Regional Leader for the Southern Rhineland in June 1925. As with many other prominent early Nazis, Ley was won over by Hitler’s oratory on first hearing it. He conceived a boundless admiration for the Nazi Leader, perhaps, as psychohistorians have suggested, finding in him a substitute for the father whose disgrace had cast such a pall over Ley’s childhood. Ley backed Hitler in the disputes that divided the Rhineland branches of the Party from the leadership in the mid-1920s, and helped Hitler to take the reins of power in the Party back into his hands again after his enforced inactivity following the failure of the 1923 Munich putsch. It was for this reason, and because Ley, despite his stutter, proved to be an effective, rabble-rousing speaker, that Hitler repeatedly overlooked complaints from Ley’s colleagues about his financial mismanagement, his high-handed attitude towards subordinates, and his administrative incompetence. Ley was soon running a regional Nazi newspaper, full of antisemitic propaganda whose virulence yielded little to that of the more notorious The Stormer, published by Julius Streicher, the Party Regional Leader in Nuremberg. The paper, the West German Observer, ran repeated allegations of ritual murder by Jews, and carried pornographic stories about the supposed seduction of Aryan girls by their Jewish employers. Such claims led to several prosecutions and fines being imposed on Ley, which did nothing to deter him from repeating them.98

Brought by Hitler to Munich Party headquarters in 1931, Ley stepped into Gregor Strasser’s shoes on the latter’s sudden resignation as Reich Organization Leader of the Party in December, 1932, though he did not inherit the immense administrative power his predecessor had possessed. Ley’s experience in trying to win over the voters of the strongly working-class areas of the Rhineland, coupled with his utopian idealism and his social resentments, gave his Nazism a discernibly collectivist tinge. It made him Hitler’s obvious choice to work out plans for the remodelling of Germany’s labour organizations early in April 1933. In formal political terms, Ley’s task was to fulfil Hitler’s vision of integrating the working class into the new Germany, to win over perhaps the most recalcitrant, most anti-Nazi part of Germany’s population to enthusiastic support of the new order. But Ley lacked the expertise to do this on his own initiative. He was quick to install the Labour Front in the old trade union offices and to incorporate the Factory Cell Organization. But he had little alternative but to make use of the Organization’s officials in setting up the Labour Front’s internal structures. Initially, these just placed existing union institutions under new management with new names and arranged them into five large sub-groups. Thus the old trade union organization became one sub-group, with all its subordinate divisions such as its press bureau and its newspaper, while the white-collar unions formed another sub-group, retailers a third, the professions a fourth and business the fifth. The way for the Labour Front to become the nucleus of a Corporate State on the Italian Fascist model, reconciling the interests of all the different sectors of the economy in the service of the new political order, seemed to be open.99

But these ideas, pushed by Muchow and the Factory Cell Organization leaders, did not last very long. Neither the professions nor business were enthusiastic about them, the retailers never had much influence, and Muchow and his friends were by far the most dynamic force in the new structure. Before long, the Labour Front had become what they had wanted the Factory Cell Organization to be, a sort of super-union representing above all the interests of the workers. In this capacity it issued orders regulating paid vacations, wage agreements, equal pay for women, health and safety and much more besides. At a local level, agitation continued, with some officials threatening to send employers to concentration camp if they did not give in to their demands. Muchow declared that ex-Social Democrats and even some ex-Communists were responsible, and instituted an investigation of the political past of all the functionaries of the Labour Front with a view to purging 100,000 of them from the organization. But complaints continued to multiply, from the Minister of Labour, the Interior Minister, even the Transportation Minister, all worried that their authority was being eroded by the unilateral actions of lower-level Labour Front functionaries. Things seemed to be getting out of hand, and it was time to bring the situation under control.100


On 19 May 1933, acting under pressure from the employers and from government Ministries in Berlin, the cabinet promulgated a Law on Trustees of Labour. This established 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. The Trustees were officials of the Reich Ministry of Labour. Only two of them belonged to the Factory Cell Organization; five of them were corporate lawyers and four were civil servants. The rather vague terms of the Law were filled out in detail in a further measure, the Law for the Ordering of National Labour, issued on 20 January 1934 and drafted by a civil servant who had previously been employed by an industrial pressure-group.101 The new Laws swept away the framework of bilateral collective bargaining and regulation between employers and unions that had been one of the great achievements of Weimar labour policy and replaced it with a new structure that incorporated the National Socialist ‘leadership principle’. They stressed that there was no need for antagonism between workers and employers in the new National Socialist state; both would work together in harmony as part of the newly unified German racial community. To underline this, the Laws were couched in a neo-feudal language of reciprocity which, like the real feudalism of the Middle Ages, concealed the fact that real power lay predominantly in the hands of one side: the employers. The powers of the Trustees of Labour included the appointment of Councils of Trust for individual plants, the arbitration of disputes, the confirmation of redundancies, the regulation of working hours and the basis for calculating piece-rates, and the referral of abuses of authority, provocation, disruption, breach of confidence and similar misdemeanours to Courts of Honour which would have a quasi-judicial function and include judges appointed by the Ministry of Justice among their members. The employer was now called the ‘plant leader’ (Betriebsführer) and the workers his ‘retinue’ (Gefolgschaft). Replacing Weimar’s system of elected works councils and legally binding contracts of employment, the new system put all the cards into the hands of the bosses in collaboration with the Trustees of Labour. In fact, the Courts of Honour were virtually a dead letter; only 516 cases were brought before them in 1934-6, mostly concerning the physical abuse of apprentices by master-artisans. They might have looked fair and just on paper, but in practice they had little real effect.102

This new system of industrial relations represented a major victory for the employers, backed by Hitler and the Nazi leadership, who badly needed the co-operation of industry in their drive to rearm. While the new Trustees of Labour poured open scorn upon the idea of a corporate state, the chances of the Factory Cell Organization’s ideas gaining wider influence were struck a fatal blow by the shooting of Reinhard Muchow in a tavern brawl on 12 September 1933. This took the driving force out of the radical wing of the Labour Front, and opened the way for Ley, now more versed in the complexities of labour relations than he had been the previous spring, to re-establish his authority. On 1 November 1933, Ley told 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 that fact.103

Ley now reorganized the Labour Front, getting rid of the remnants of trade union culture and attitudes, abolishing the last separate functions of the Factory Cell Organization, and acceding to the insistence of the Labour Ministry and the new labour laws that it had no role to play in the negotiation of wage agreements. The Labour Front was restructured along the same lines as the Party, with a top-down organization replacing the previous parallel representation of workers, white-collar employees and the rest. It now had a number of central departments - propaganda, law, education, social affairs, etc. - whose orders went down to the corresponding departments at the regional and local level. The old Factory Cell Organization officials did their best to obstruct the new system, but after the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ they were summarily dismissed en masse. Behind these political manoueverings lay the recognition of Hitler and the other regime leaders that rearmament, their principal economic priority, could only be achieved smoothly and rapidly if the workforce could be kept under control. This involved clearing away the more revolutionary elements in the Labour Front, just as it involved clamping down on any ideas of a ‘second revolution’ pushed by the brownshirts and their leaders. By the autumn of 1934 it was clear that in the battle to control labour relations, the employers had come out on top. Yet the struggle had not left them in the situation they really wanted. The organization and structure of the shopfloor under National Socialism certainly had a lot in common with the kind of management and industrial relations system desired by many employers in the 1920s and early 1930s, but it also introduced massive interference in labour relations by the state, the Labour Front and the Party, in areas where management had traditionally sought exclusive control. The trade unions were gone, but despite this, the employers were not masters in their own house any more.104

In the meantime, the huge apparatus of the German Labour Front quickly began to gain a reputation as perhaps the most corrupt of all the major institutions of the Third Reich. For this, Ley himself had to shoulder a large part of the blame. His position as head of the Labour Front made him comfortably off, with a salary of 4,000 Reichsmarks, to which he added 2,000 Reichsmarks as Reich Organization Leader of the Party, 700 Reichsmarks as a Reichstag deputy, and 400 Reichsmarks as a Prussian State Councillor. But this was only the beginning. His books and pamphlets, which Labour Front officials were encouraged to buy in bulk for distribution to the members, brought in substantial royalties, while profits from his newspaper - 50,000 Reichsmarks a year - went straight into his pocket. Ley made free personal use of the substantial funds confiscated by the Labour Front from the former trade unions, and in 1940 he benefited from a one-off gift of a million Reichsmarks bestowed on him by Hitler. With such funds, he 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. In 1935 he bought a landed estate near Cologne and promptly began to turn it into a Nazi utopia, demolishing the old buildings and hiring the architect Clemens Klotz, designer of the Nazi Order Castles, to construct a new house in a grandiose style, confiscated land to increase the acreage of his own, drained marshes, introduced new machinery and set up a training scheme for apprentice farmhands. Here Ley played the neo-feudal landlord, with the staff lined up, standing to attention, to greet him when he flew in from Berlin, and secured the farm’s official designation as a hereditary entailed estate.

Ensconced within such pretentious residences, surrounded by expensive paintings and furniture, Ley spent his leisure hours in womanizing and increasingly heavy drinking, both of which often led to embarrassing scenes in public. The drinking bouts he indulged in with his entourage often ended in violence. One such occasion in Heidelberg ended with the Minister-President of Baden being beaten up. In 1937 Ley was visibly drunk while hosting a visit by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and after driving them in his Mercedes straight through a set of locked factory gates, was hurriedly replaced on Hitler’s orders by Herman Goring for the rest of the visit. Two years earlier, after a string of affairs, Ley had begun a liaison with the young soprano Inge Spilker, whom he married in 1938 immediately after divorcing his first wife. His infatuation with her physical charms led to him commissioning a painting of her, naked from the waist up, which he proudly showed to visiting dignitaries, while on one occasion he was even said to have torn her clothes off in the presence of guests in order to show them how beautiful her body was. Subjected to such pressure, and unable to cope with Ley’s growing alcoholism, Inge herself took to the bottle, became a drug addict, and shot herself dead on 29 December 1942 after the last of many violent rows with her husband. Hitler warned the Labour Front leader about his behaviour on more than one occasion, but he carried on regardless. As so often, the Nazi Leader was prepared to forgive almost anything of a subordinate so long as he remained loyal.105

Corruption within the Labour Front by no means ended with Ley himself; indeed he could be said to have set an example to his subordinates in how to milk the organization for personal gain. A huge variety of business enterprises of one kind and another operated by the Labour Front offered multifarious opportunities for making money on the side. The Labour Front’s construction companies, led by a senior official, Anton Karl, a man with previous convictions for theft and embezzlement himself, paid out more than 580,000 Reichsmarks in bribes in 1936-7 alone in order to secure contracts. Sepp Dietrich, the leader of Hitler’s SS bodyguard, took due note of the gifts showered over him by Karl, including a gold cigarette-case, hunting-weaponry, silk shirts and a holiday in Italy for his wife, and issued Karl’s Labour Front construction firm with a contract to rebuild his unit’s barracks in Berlin. In return for favour and influence, Karl used the Labour Front’s bank to grant leading Nazis cheap credit or even to buy houses for them at well below their market price. Hitler’s adjutants, Julius Schaub and Wilhelm Brückner, his photographer Heinrich Hoffmann and anyone else thought to possess the Leader’s ear were the frequent recipients of bribes from the Labour Front; Ley gave them 20,000 Reichsmarks each as a ‘Christmas present’ in 1935 alone.106 Social Democratic observers gleefully chronicled a whole mass of corruption and embezzlement cases involving officials of the Labour Front every year. In 1935, for example, they noted that Alois Wenger, a Labour Front official in Konstanz, had been condemned for pocketing funds intended for workers’ leisure activities and forging receipts to try and deceive the auditors. Another official, an ‘old fighter’ of the Nazi Party, embezzled his colleagues’ Labour Front contributions and obtained 2,000 Reichsmarks - probably with menaces - from his employer to cover the missing money. He spent it all on drink. What was done with Labour Front contributions, reported another Social Democratic agent, could be seen in front of the organization’s headquarters in Berlin:

2 to 3 private cars used to be parked in front of the old Trade Union House up to 1932. They belonged to the Workers’ Bank or the Trade Unions. Nowadays you ought just to see them waiting there in a rank, it’s 50 or 60 cars a day, and sometimes even more. The Labour Front chauffeurs have got blank cheques for petrol, they can fill their tanks as much as they like, and they do it often because they don’t have to account for it. The corruption in the Labour Front is vast, and the general standard of morals correspondingly low.107

Ley was far from the only beneficiary of the Labour Front’s funds; his open and obvious corruption was only the tip of an enormous iceberg of peculation. Such goings-on did not endear the Labour Front to the millions of workers who were forced to sustain it with compulsory contributions from their wages.


The Nazi regime was all too aware that the closure of the trade unions and the regimentation and subordination of workers in the corrupt and authoritarian Labour Front might cause discontent in the ranks of Germany’s largest social class, a class which until 1933 had given powerful support to Nazism’s bitterest enemies, the Communists and the Social Democrats. Along with its constant propaganda trumpeting of victories in the ‘struggle for work’, therefore, it also sought to provide alternative means of reconciling the working class with the Third Reich. Chief among these was the extraordinary organization known as the ‘National Socialist Community Strength Through Joy’, founded as a subsidiary of the German Labour Front on 27 November 1933. Strength Through Joy aimed to organize workers’ leisure time rather than allow them to organize it for themselves, and thus to make leisure serve the interests of the racial community and reconcile the divergent worlds of work and free time, factory and home, production line and recreation ground. Workers were to gain strength for their work by experiencing joy in their leisure. Above all, Strength Through Joy would bridge the class divide by making middle-class leisure activities available to the masses. Material prosperity, declared Robert Ley in his inaugural address on 27 November, would not make the German nation happy; that was the vulgar error of the ‘Marxists’ of the Weimar years. The National Socialist regime would use spiritual and cultural means to achieve the integration of the workers into the national community. Borrowing from the Italian Fascist organization ‘After Work’ (Dopolavoro), but extending its tentacles into the workplace as well, Strength Through Joy rapidly developed a wide range of activities, and quickly mushroomed into one of the Third Reich’s largest organizations. By 1939 it had over 7,000 paid employees and 135,000 voluntary workers, organized into divisions covering such areas as sport, education and tourism, with wardens in every factory and workshop employing more than twenty people.108 ‘Strength Through Joy’, proclaimed Robert Ley in June 1938, ‘is the shortest formula to which National Socialism for the broad masses can be reduced.’109 It would insert an ideological content into every kind of leisure. In attempting to fulfil this task, it commanded very considerable resources. By 1937 Strength Through Joy was being subsidized by the Labour Front to the tune of 29 million Reichsmarks a year, while its incorporation of the huge leisure and cultural apparatus of the Social Democratic labour movement brought in further assets, including premises such as hiking hostels and sports grounds. With such resources, Strength Through Joy was able to offer heavily discounted leisure activities that were within the financial reach of many workers and their families. By 1934-5, 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, sailing and other hitherto quintessentially upper-middle-class sports. In the cultural field, the organization purchased blocks of theatre tickets to make available cheaply to its members, accounting for over half of all theatre bookings in Berlin by 1938. It laid on classical music concerts in factories, creating several touring orchestras to play at them; it built theatres, formed travelling troupes of actors, and arranged art exhibitions. In 1938, over two and a half million people attended its concerts and over thirteen and a half million its ‘folk performances’; more than six and a half million went to opera and operetta evenings under its auspices, and nearly seven and a half million to plays. One and a half million visited its exhibitions, and over two and a half million participated in ‘entertainments’ mounted on the Reich motorways. Membership came automatically with membership of the Labour Front, so that 35 million people belonged to it by 1936. It advertised intensively both at home and abroad, winning many enthusiastic supporters amongst those in Britain, the USA and elsewhere who admired its energy in civilizing the masses.110

Strength Through Joy’s most striking activity was undoubtedly the organization of mass tourism for the workers. ‘For many’, it was reported in February 1938, ‘ “Strength Through Joy” is nothing more than a kind of travel organization.’111 Already in 1934, some 400,000 people participated in package tours provided by Strength Through Joy within Germany itself; by 1937 the number had grown to 1.7 million, while nearly seven million took part in shorter weekend excursions and 1.6 million in organized hikes. Although these numbers fell slightly in 1938- 9, there could be no doubt about the success of these operations. Bulk ordering made it possible to put on package tours at a heavy discount - 75 per cent in the case of rail fares, for example, and 50 per cent in the case of hotel and bed-and-breakfast rooms. This could have a major effect on the economies of tourist regions; already in 1934, for example, Strength Through Joy tourists brought in 175,000 people to southern Bavaria, spending a total of five and a half million Reichsmarks on their vacations. Most striking of all were the foreign trips that the organization mounted, whether rail journeys to destinations in friendly Fascist Italy or cruises to Madeira, which was governed by the favourably disposed Portuguese dictatorship of Dr Salazar. In 1939 alone, 175,000 people went to Italy on such organized trips, a good number of them travelling on cruises. By 1939 the organization owned eight cruise ships (two of which it had had specially constructed) and rented four more on a more or less permanent basis, to carry its members to such exotic places as Libya (an Italian colony), Finland, Bulgaria and Istanbul, celebrating Germany’s solidarity with real or potential allies and advertising the contours of a future German-dominated European empire. That year 140,000 passengers travelled on these cruises. Wherever they called, delegations from the local German consulates were ready to greet them and arrange onshore visits and tours, while friendly governments frequently arranged lavish receptions for the tourists.112

Strength Through Joy cruises were carefully arranged so as to combine pleasure with indoctrination. They were intended to represent the new Germany to the rest of the world, or at least the friendlier parts of it. Traditional passenger liners were divided into different classes of cabin and other facilities, according to the ability to pay, but Strength Through Joy disdained such relics of the past, and celebrated the unity of the German racial community by building its new ships on a one-class basis and converting others to the same model. Once on board, passengers were reminded that they were not there to have fun, or to show off, like traditional bourgeois cruise passengers, but to participate in a serious cultural enterprise. They were exhorted to dress modestly, to avoid excessive drinking, to eschew shipboard affairs and to obey unconditionally the orders of the tour leaders. A new liner such as the Robert Ley included a gymnasium, a theatre and a swimming pool to ensure that participants engaged in regular healthy exercise and partook of serious cultural offerings. Tour brochures advertised the achievement of the cruises and land-based tours in bringing Germans of different classes and regional backgrounds together in a common enterprise to help build the organic racial community of the Third Reich. Participants had to travel to foreign parts above all to educate themselves about the world, and in so doing to remind themselves of the superiority of Germans over other races. Within Germany, a prime purpose of the tours was to help bind the nation together by familiarizing people with regions of their native land which they had never previously visited, especially if, as in some of the more remote rural areas, they could be presented as centres of ancient German folk traditions.113

Yet, as so often in Nazi Germany, the reality did not really match up to the propaganda claims. Often the facilities provided for Strength Through Joy tourists were poor, involving mass dormitories with little or no privacy, or accommodation without proper sanitation. Classical music concerts were not always to the workers’ taste, especially when they had to pay for them. One concert laid on for the organization in Leipzig had to be cancelled when only 130 out of the 1,000 tickets were sold.114 Some theatres, like the ‘Theatre of the West’ in Berlin, put on cheaply staged operettas exclusively for Strength Through Joy, while the mainstream theatres continued to be patronized largely by the middle classes; even when Strength Through Joy bought up blocks of seats for particular performances and made them available to members at a discount, these were generally snapped up by middle-class theatre-goers. 115 The vision of a classless society rapidly receded when Strength Through Joy parties descended noisily upon quiet rural resorts. Far from increasing feelings of national solidarity, package tours in Germany itself led to serious objections from local tourist industries, inns and spas who saw their prices being heavily undercut by the discounted block bookings of the new organization. Well-heeled tourists of the traditional sort, appalled at having their favourite holiday spots invaded by hordes of the socially inferior, whose often rowdy behaviour aroused frequent complaints from innkeepers and hoteliers as well as private holidaymakers, rapidly took their custom elsewhere.116

Undeterred, the organization set about building its own model resort on the Baltic island of Rügen, at Prora. Construction began under the supervision of Albert Speer on 3 May 1936 and was scheduled for completion in 1940. The resort spanned eight kilometres of the Baltic shore, with six-storey 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 demonstrations of enthusiasm for the regime and its policies. It was consciously designed for families, to make good the lack of tour 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. The resort was provided with the most up-to-date facilities available, including centrally heated rooms with hot and cold running water, a heated swimming pool, a cinema, bowling alleys, a pier for cruise liners to moor alongside, a large railway station and much more besides. Designed by Clemens Klotz, the architect of the Order Castle at Vogelsang, it represented pseudo-Classical Nazi modernism at its most monumental. Like everything else in the Strength Through Joy organization, it emphasized gigantism, collectivism, the sinking of the individual in the mass. Unlike the contemporary British holiday camps set up by the entrepreneur Billy Butlin, which provided vacationers with individual holiday chalets and thus freed them from the intrusive supervision of widely feared figures such as the Blackpool landlady, Prora’s massive six-storey accommodation blocks lined up its small guestrooms along endless, anonymous corridors and regimented the visitors whenever they ventured outside, even regulating the amount of space each family was allowed to occupy on the beach. At its height employing almost as many construction workers as the motorways, the resort never opened for business: the outbreak of war led to an immediate suspension of work, though some buildings were later quickly finished to house evacuees from the bombed-out cities. Looted extensively by local people and by the occupying Russians after the war, it was subsequently used as a barracks and training centre by Communist East Germany and today lies in ruins.117


Strength Through Joy thus never got round the difficulties that the Prora resort was intended to solve. But there were worse failures than this. For the people who travelled with Strength Through Joy obstinately refused to do so in the spirit in which the regime intended. Concerned at the possible influence of ex-Social Democrats who participated in the tours, and worried about illicit contacts between arms workers and foreign agents, the organization arranged for the Gestapo and the SS Security Service to send along undercover agents disguised as tourists to spy on the participants. The picture their reports revealed almost as soon as they started work, in March 1936, was a disturbing one. Far from overcoming the social divide in the interests of the racial community, Strength Through Joy tours often brought to light social differences that might otherwise have remained merely latent. Because the income they gained from the tours was so low, hoteliers and restaurateurs frequently served inferior food and drink to the package trippers, who took it ill that the private tourists at the next table were getting something better. Theatre tickets sold to the organization were often for the worst seats in the house, adding to class resentments as those who were allotted them were forced to look down from the gods at the fur-clad bourgeois in the stalls. On cruises, where no amount of internal restructuring of the ships could entirely abolish the differences in quality between cabins on the upper decks and those on or below the water-line, Party officials, civil servants and others took the best berths. Such people indeed took the lion’s share of the best cruises anyway, so much so that the Madeira cruise was popularly known as the ‘bigwigs’ trip’ (Bonzenfahrt). Surveys of passenger lists of Strength Through Joy’s cruise liners revealed that salaried employees were the largest single group, just as they were in ordinary tourism. Only 10 per cent of the thousand passengers on a Strength Through Joy cruise to Norway in 1935 were said to be from the working class; the rest were Party officials, who drank the ship dry long before it reached its home port again. ‘These chaps are stuffing themselves with food and slurping up the drinks like pigs,’ complained a crew member. Single women and young, unmarried men predominated amongst the workers, or in other words, wage-earners with disposable incomes rather than family men or mothers. Most of the workers on the trip were skilled and relatively well paid. The less well-off were usually heavily subsidized by their employers. The cost of the trips was still beyond the pockets of most wage-earners, who could only increase their income by working longer hours, thus reducing the opportunity to go on vacation. In many cases they could not afford the extra expenses that travel inevitably involved, such as holiday clothing.118

On cruises and other trips, while Party officials and middle-class passengers spent lavishly on presents, souvenirs and expensive meals and entertainments onshore, the workers were unable to afford even the simplest additions to the basics provided by the tour itself. There were many complaints from working-class participants about the ostentatious behaviour of their bourgeois fellow tourists, and little real social mixing on most of the trips. Class antagonism was paralleled by regional rivalries; on one cruise to Italy, discord between the Rhinelanders and Silesians on board reached such a pitch that the two groups refused to stay in the same room with each other. On a later Italian trip on the same ship, a group of Westphalians insulted their Silesian fellow passengers, calling them ‘Polacks’, and only the intervention of the crew stopped the quarrel from degenerating into a brawl.119 Moreover, the behaviour of many participants on the tours often signally failed to match up to the standards set by the organizers. Like tourists everywhere, what most of them really wanted was to let their hair down. Instead of being restrained and committed to the racial community, they turned out to be pleasure-seeking and individualistic. Gestapo agents reported frequent mass drunkenness and riotous behaviour. On some ships, the lifeboats were said to be filled with writhing couples every night. Especially shameless, the Gestapo complained, were the young, single women who travelled on the cruise ships in considerable numbers. One agent thought they had only come along for ‘erotic purposes’. Flirtations, dalliances and affairs with men on board or, worse, with dark-skinned young Italian, Greek or Arab men on shore, aroused frequent critical comment from the Gestapo spies. The passengers in general showed a distressing lack of interest in political lectures and meetings. Worst of all were the Party functionaries, whose drunkenness and riotous behaviour became notorious. On one cruise organized for Party Regional Leaders, for example, the Gestapo discovered two known prostitutes on the passenger list. Predictably enough, the very worst was Robert Ley himself, who frequently went on Strength Through Joy cruises, where he spent much of the time so drunk that the captain had to have him flanked by two sailors when he went on deck to ensure that he did not fall overboard. Strength Through Joy wardens arranged for him also to be accompanied by a group of blonde, blue-eyed young women to provide him with ‘companionship’ on the voyage.120 No wonder a popular nickname for Strength Through Joy was the ‘bigwigs’ knocking-shop’ (Bonzenbordell).121

Yet while it largely failed to achieve its ideological aims, Strength Through Joy was still one of the most popular of the regime’s cultural innovations. By providing holidays and other activities that otherwise would have been beyond the means of many of the participants, the organization became widely appreciated amongst workers.122 Much of what Strength Through Joy offered was new to those whom it targeted. Early in 1934, for instance, a poll of 42,000 workers at the Siemens factory in Berlin revealed that 28,500 of them had never taken a holiday outside Berlin and its surrounding countryside; they grasped the opportunity provided by Strength Through Joy. ‘If you get it so cheaply then it’s worth raising your arm now and then!’ said one of them to a Social Democratic agent in 1934.123 ‘The Nazis really have created something good,’ was often the reaction, noted another such report.124 Another agent reported from Berlin in February 1938:

‘Strength Through Joy’ is very popular. Its programmes meet the humble man’s longing to get out for once and participate in the pleasures of the ‘great’. It’s a clever speculation built on the petty-bourgeois inclinations of the unpolitical worker. For such a man it’s really something if he goes on a Scandinavian cruise or even just travels to the Black Forest or the Harz. He imagines that this has moved him up a rung on the social ladder.125

So widespread was the use of Strength Through Joy’s offerings that a popular joke maintained that the people were losing their strength through too much joy.126 Some despairing Social Democratic commentators concluded, therefore, that the programme did in the end have an important function in reconciling people, especially formerly oppositional elements, to the regime. ‘The workers’, as one commented in 1939, ‘have a strong feeling that sand is being thrown in their eyes with Strength Through Joy, but they take part in it all the same, and in this way its propagandistic aim is still achieved in the end.’127

Strength Through Joy, indeed, had a symbolic effect that went far beyond its actual programmes. Its tours and cruises stood out in retrospect amongst the experiences of the peacetime years when workers came to reminisce about the Third Reich after it was over.128 Even - or, as some former Social Democrats sourly asserted, especially - those who had never been on its organized mass tours or cruises admired its enterprise and initiative, and its concern to bring hitherto unattainable pleasures within the reach of the ordinary man’s pocket.129 A Social Democratic observer summed up its purposes and effects as early as December 1935:

Atomization and the loss of individuality, occupational therapy and surveillance for the people. There is to be no room for individual leisure, physical exercise and cultural activities, there is to be no space for voluntary get-togethers or for any independent initiatives that could arise from them. And something is to be ‘offered’ to the masses . . . At the very least, Strength Through Joy distracts people, contributes to the befogging of their brains, and has a propagandistic effect on behalf of the regime.130

People who took part in Strength Through Joy activities might have taken their ideological content with a pinch of salt, but at the same time these activities brought them still further away from the edifying and improving traditions of Social Democratic and Communist mass culture. This no doubt was one reason why some Social Democratic observers looked down on them (‘ “Strength Through Joy” ’, sniffed one in 1935, ‘lacks any cultural foundation. Its events remain at the level of village beer festivals in peasant inns’).131 At the same time, however, they brought about a further, and in the end fatal, undermining of labour movement cultural traditions by the growth of commercialized leisure activities. The vast cultural apparatuses of the Social Democrats and the Communists, built up since the nineteenth century, had been strongly educative, and were linked to a variety of core values of the labour movement. The Nazis not only took all this over, but also reoriented it in a more populist direction, dovetailing with the emergence of popular, unpolitical culture under the Weimar Republic. Partly as a consequence, when working-class culture re-emerged after 1945, it was to be in a far less ideological form than before.132

These effects have to be kept in proportion, however. Most of the people who went to plays and concerts continued to do so as private citizens. Strength Through Joy attracted a good deal of attention, but it never accounted for more than 11 per cent of annual overnight stays in German hotels.133 The annual turnover of the largest commercial tourist agency, the Central European Travel Office, was 250 million Reichsmarks in 1938 compared to 90 million for the tourism department of Strength Through Joy.134Moreover, while Strength Through Joy was drastically scaled down on the outbreak of war, its cruise ships converted into troop transports, its hostels into hospitals and its resorts into convalescent homes, commercial tourism, despite a few disapproving noises from the authorities, continued to flourish. From the beginning, however, the regime had sought to mould it to its own purposes, encouraging people to travel within Germany rather than abroad (for both patriotic and economic reasons), and attempting to direct tourists to countries abroad where their presence as ambassadors for the new Germany would be most useful. New tourist sites emerged, from grandiose structures such as the Reich Chancellery to sites of mourning and memory for the Nazi dead; guidebooks were rewritten to conform to the ideological dictates of the regime, giving greater emphasis to continuities with the remote Germanic past at one end, and mentioning wherever possible the association of Hitler and other Nazi leaders with tourist spots at the other. The leadership of the Third Reich was aware of the tensions that arose between the growing commercial tourist industry and the organized tourism of Strength Through Joy, but far from clamping down on the former in the interests of the latter, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and the boss of the tourist industry, Gottfried Feder, realized that people needed to get away from the stresses and strains of everyday work even if they did so in an unpolitical environment. A consumer society was emerging in Nazi Germany, and for all its prioritization of rearmament in its economic policy, the regime was not only unable, but also unwilling, to stop it.135

Consumer assertion was perhaps one reason for the failure of the department of Strength Through Joy that went under the name of ‘Beauty of Labour’. The basic intention was still to compensate for low wages and long hours, but here it was to be implemented not through the provision of leisure facilities, but through improvements in the workplace. Beauty of Labour campaigned energetically for the provision of washing facilities and toilets, changing rooms and lockers, showers, and generally improved hygiene and cleanliness in factories, for more air, less noise, proper work clothing, tidiness and order. Healthy workers in a clean workplace would work better and be happier in their jobs, and to reinforce all this, Beauty of Labour arranged concerts and similar events on the shopfloor, encouraged the building of onsite sports and recreation facilities and pressured employers to provide decent canteens for their workers and clean up debris and waste lying about on the shop floor. By 1938 it claimed that nearly 34,000 companies had improved their performance in many of these respects, repainting and decorating their shops, building recreation areas and improving sanitation. Tax incentives helped encourage employers to do this, and Beauty of Labour also staged competitions and awarded prizes for the most improved firm, issuing the winners with certificates signed by Hitler declaring them to be ‘model firms’. The benefits both to employers and the regime in terms of the increased productivity that could be expected were obvious. But all these improvements were bought at the workers’ own expense, since many firms expected their employees to do the painting, cleaning and building themselves after hours for no extra pay, docked their wages to cover the costs, and threatened those who did not ‘volunteer’ with dismissal or even the concentration camp.136

Workers were not fooled by the inflated rhetoric of the scheme, least of all if they had been influenced by Communist or Social Democratic ideas before 1933, as millions of them had. If, despite all this, Strength Through Joy as a whole was popular, it was not because of its ostensible aim of motivating people to work harder, but because it allowed them a means of escape from the tedium and repression of everyday life on the shop-floor. People took its offerings of amusement and diversion because for the great mass of them there was nothing else on offer. Many calculated that they were paying for the organization anyway through their compulsory contributions to the Labour Front, so they might as well get their money’s worth. In time, it even overcame the reluctance of former Social Democrats who did not want to be seen taking anything on offer from the hated Labour Front.137 Strength Through Joy events, a Social Democratic report noted in 1935, ‘offer, to be sure, cheap opportunities to find simple relaxation. Old friends can meet each other there in a very casual environment and over a glass of beer they can discuss the very opposite of what the organizers want them to.’138 It was not only old Social Democrats who recognized the compensatory function of such events. A memorandum circulating in the Reich Labour Ministry in 1936 noted soberly: ‘Tourist trips, plays and concerts are not going to clear away any poverty-ridden slums or fill hungry mouths.’ ‘A relaxing cruise on a luxury steamer’, concluded an official of the Labour Front in 1940, ‘does not really bring relaxation, if the tourist has to go back at the end to the material oppressiveness of his everyday existence.’139

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