The Social Renaissance

Germany’s triumph over unemployment, without foreign help and during worldwide economic depression, was in itself an accomplishment any government could be satisfied with. For Hitler, it was a step toward far-reaching social programs intended to elevate and unify the population. Like other elements of National Socialist rule, subsequent reforms realized ideas that long had been developing in German society. During the mid-18th Century, the Prussian monarch Friedrich the Great created an efficient state bureaucracy and revised taxation. His law providing pensions for civil servants and officers invited criticism that it would bankrupt the treasury.

The progressive thinking in the Prussian-German civil service led to the country’s first labor law the following century. The regulation, ratified on April 6, 1839, banned the practice of working small children in mines. No boy could enter the work force until after at least three years of schooling. It became illegal for children to work night shifts or Sundays. More child labor laws followed in 1853. Though primitive by modern standards, the regulations were advanced for the time. The North German League’s Vocational Decree of 1869 and further measures to safeguard labor after the country’s unification in 1871 placed Germany in the lead among industrial nations in the realm of social reform.

The social programs Hitler introduced had two objectives. One was to improve the standard of living of the average citizen. The other was to create a classless society in which the bourgeois, labor, agrarian folk and nobility enjoyed equal status as Volksgenossen. This translates literally to “ethnic national comrades,” though the expression “fellow Germans” better conveys its spirit. Hitler believed that removing traditional class barriers would create social mobility for talented individuals to advance. All Germany would benefit through the maturation of the more promising human resources.

An important organization for promoting National Socialist community values was the Volunteer Labor Service (FAD). Founded in August 1931, the FAD recruited the unemployed for public works. Paying volunteers two reichsmarks a day, a primary purpose of the FAD was to improve the physical and mental well-being of unemployed and unoccupied young Germans. Upon assuming power, Hitler expanded the organization and raised the pay scale. It numbered 263,000 members by mid-1933. The Führer considered it “superbly suited for conscious instruction in the concept of a Volksgemeinschaft (national community)."55 Membership in the FAD declined as more jobs became available. In June 1935, Hitler enacted a law making six months' labor service compulsory for teenagers upon high school graduation. No longer voluntary, the FAD became the RAD: Reich’s Labor Service. Members assisted in Autobahn construction, drained swamps, planted trees, upgraded poorer farms and improved waterways.

At the NSDAP congress in September 1935, Hitler defined the RAD’s social purpose to 54,000 assembled members: “To us National Socialists, the idea of sending all Germans through a single school of labor is among the means of making this national community a reality. In this way, Germans will get to know one another. The prejudices common among different occupations will then be so thoroughly wiped away as to never again resurface. Life unavoidably divides us into many groups and vocations.... This is the primary task of the labor service; to bring all Germans together through work and form them into a community."56 At an earlier NSDAP congress, Hitler had described the labor service as “an assault against a horrible pre-conceived notion, namely that manual labor is inferior."57

Having disbanded the trade unions in 1933, Hitler wanted an umbrella organization devoted to the welfare of both labor and management, so that “Within its ranks the worker will stand beside the employer, no longer divided by groups and associations that serve to protect a particular economic and social stratum and its interests."58 In his own proclamation defining the organization’s objectives, Hitler stated, “It is in essence to bring together members of the former trade unions, the previous office worker associations and the former managers' leagues as equal members."59

The structure supported the goal of eliminating strife within industry by encouraging mutual respect, based not on position but on performance. As defined in one publication, “There is neither employer nor employee, but only those entrusted with the work of the entire nation.... Everyone works for the people, regardless of whether a so-called employer or so-called employee, as it was in the previous middle class order."60

This represented a revolutionary departure from the liberal democratic perception, as another German study maintained: “In the capitalist system of the past, money became the goal of work for the employee as well as for the employer. It was the individual’s wages that appeared to give work a sense of purpose. The employee saw the employer simply as someone who 'earns more.' And the employer regarded the staff of workers in his firm only as a means to an end, an instrument for him to earn more. The consequences of this thinking were ominous. Should the working man have any ambition to work anymore when he says to himself, 'I'm only working so that the man over in the office can earn more?' Can a business deliver quality work if everyone thinks only of himself? . . . Labor—its purpose, its honor, the creative value, the German worker as a master of his trade and a proud, capable working man, all this became secondary. Reorganizing labor does not just mean removing the crass material deficiencies of life. It must penetrate the relationship of person to person."61

In May 1933, the first congress of the German Labor Front took place in Berlin. Known by the acronym DAF, it replaced the disbanded unions and managers' associations. Hitler stated, “The goal of the German Labor Front is the creation of genuine cooperative fellowship and efficiency among all Germans. It must see to it that every single person can find a place in the economic life of the nation according to his mental and physical capabilities that will insure his highest level of achievement. In this way, the greatest benefit to the overall community will be realized."62

The DAF therefore contributed to Hitler’s goal of welding the Germans into a Volksgemeinschaft. Here, he stated, “the head and the hand are one. The eternal petty differences will of course still exist. But there must be a common foundation, the national interests of all, that grows beyond the ridiculous, trivial personal squabbles, occupational rivalries, economic conflicts and so forth."63 The Führer’s blueprint for eliminating class division was largely an equalization process. Through useful work, everyone could earn the respect of the community. “No one has the right to elevate himself socially above another because some outward circumstance makes him appear better,” Hitler argued. “The loftiest individual is not the one who has the most, but the one who does the most for everyone else.... The honest man, even if he is poor, is worth more than a wealthy one possessing fewer virtues."64

One revolutionary measure, appalling to laissez faire disciples like the banker Schacht, was the government’s regulation of salaries and managerial privileges. It first addressed the custom in private sector of paying white collar workers monthly stipends even when absent from the job, while according no similar benefit to factory personnel. The government abolished this discrepancy. It arranged instead “to insure the laborer a certain measure of compensation when missing work due to important family matters, plus a fixed, company-financed subsidy in case of illness."65

The Law for Regulation of Wages introduced guidelines for calculating salaries. Based on the principle of comparable pay for equal demands on an individual’s time and energy, its goal was to guarantee a decent standard of living for everyone who worked hard. The law stated, “Grading of salaries must correspond to the actual demands of the work involved. It therefore doesn't matter what job the individual has. Personal engagement is the decisive factor."66 The regulation further called for an adjustment in salary for employees with unavoidable financial hardships, in order to guarantee their standard of living. Even time lost from work due to weather conditions became a factor. It also required that every citizen receive pay for overtime.

The wage law did not level off personal income regardless of occupation. Grading took such factors into consideration as physical or mental demands of a job, the precision or independent initiative required, education, hazards and experience. Its purpose was to establish a system that could be applied to the most diverse careers and activities and help reduce social and economic differences. It acknowledged the value of honest labor and the need to adequately compensate all who perform it. A guiding principle of the wage grading program was not to reduce the standard of living of previously higher paid associates, but to elevate that of those who earned less.

This arrangement sliced into the profits of industry. By 1938, the costs to employers for workers' salaries had risen by another 6.5 percent.67 They included paid holidays for labor, a measure Hitler personally introduced. The wage law established a minimum monthly income per person, sufficient to guarantee a decent living standard. It affected 96 percent of all salaries nationwide. The Führer himself wrote that bringing a particular class of people into the community “does not succeed by dragging down the upper classes, but by elevating the lower. This process can never be carried out by the higher class, but by the lower one fighting for its equal rights."68

His concern for the welfare of poorer working people sometimes led to Hitler’s personal involvement in correcting lesser social ills. During a dinner monolog, he once complained of the contrast in comfort and luxury between first, second and third class passenger accommodations on steamship lines: “It’s unbelievable that no one worried about how conspicuous the differences in living conditions of this sort were.” Apparently during a tour of an ocean liner, Hitler took umbrage at the comparatively wretched crew’s quarters. He ordered them upgraded on all passenger ships. The controversy he later described in a discussion about social problems with Abel Bonnard, a member of the Academie Francaise, in May 1937: “When we demanded that crew members should have better quarters, we received the answer that space on large steamers is too precious to fulfill our wishes. When we required that crew members should have a deck specially reserved for them to get fresh air, we were told that this involves technical difficulties the engineers haven't solved yet."69

As can be imagined, these objections had no influence on Hitler’s resolve. He further related to his French guest, “Today crews on the ships have decent cabins. They have their own deck where they can relax on good deck chairs, they have radios for diversion. They have a dining room where they take their meals with a deck officer. All these improvements really weren't so costly. They just had to want to do it.”

Funneling officers into the same mess hall as the sailors corresponded to Hitler’s commitment to demolish class barriers throughout society. The German navy custom of providing four menus per ship, the quality of meals varying according to rank, he also abolished. Observing once at dinner that “during the World War, the field kitchen was incomparably better when officers had to be fed from it to,” Hitler arranged that henceforth, the German armed forces nourish all ranks with the same rations. “The view that it will weaken authority if distinctions are not maintained is groundless,” he contended. “Whoever can do more and knows more than another will have the authority he needs. For one who is not superior in ability and knowledge, his rank in whatever office he tenants won't help."70

Corrections in salary, benefits and accommodations not only raised the standard of living for labor, but helped integrate it socially. Advantages previously associated with middle class prestige became universal. This diminished one more status symbol dividing the complacent, privileged caste from those seeking acceptance. Hitler had no faith in the good will of the bourgeois and in fact blamed it for Germany’s class barriers. He passed laws making exploitation of labor a punishable offense: “This must be considered necessary as long as there are employers who not only have no sense of social responsibility, but possess not even the most primitive feeling for human rights."71 In January 1934, the government enacted the Law for Regulation of National Labor, containing 73 paragraphs. At a press conference, Reich’s Labor Minister Franz Seldte defined the foundation of the law as removal of “unsavory” class distinctions which had previously contributed to the collapse of the German economy, in favor now of “emphasizing the concept of social esteem,” and the leadership idea in business life.72

The law’s vocabulary replaced the terms “employer and employee” with “leader and follower.” It designated respective roles in this way: “The leader of the facility makes decisions for the followers in all matters of production in so far as they fall under the law’s regulation. He is responsible for the welfare of the followers. They are to be dutiful to him, in accordance with the mutual trust expected in a cooperative working environment."73 The law imposed moral obligations on both. The German economist Dr. Hans Leistritz described them in these words: “Both the facility leader and the followers are under the commission of the people. Each always faces the same choice, of whether he should fulfill his duty or become caught up in self-serving goals. Both the facility leader and the followers can face disciplinary action that punishes transgressions against this social code of honor.” The law cited examples, such as “if a contractor, leader of the facility or other supervisory personnel misuse their authority in the workplace to unethically exploit the labors of members of the following or insult their esteem.” The law likewise held workers accountable for “jeopardizing the harmony of the workplace by intentionally stirring up their co-workers."74

Though according management autonomy in decision-making, the law included serious restrictions as well. Business owners and directors were responsible not only for sound fiscal management of the company, but for the protection of employees from abuse. This was not presented as benign advice from the government. It was a law word for word. Income and profit were no longer the primary objectives of an enterprise. The well-being of its associates became a concurrent purpose. The Reich’s Ministry of Labor published a table of offenses under the category of unjust exploitation of employees. These included paying salaries below fixed wage scales or failure to compensate workers for overtime, refusing to grant employees vacations, cutting back hours, providing insufficient meals, inadequate heating of work stations, and maintaining an unhygienic or hazardous work environment. Supervisors were even disciplined for browbeating their staff to work harder.75

Provisions of the labor law extended to rural regions as well, according similar protection for farm hands. In 1938, the periodical Soziale Praxis (Social Custom) reported on “serious punishments” meted out to landowners who quartered their hands in inadequate accommodations. Owners were also cited “for not taking advantage of possibilities for financing the construction of housing for farm workers offered by the agent of the Four Year (reconstruction) Plan."76

The record of court proceedings for 1939 demonstrates that the labor law primarily safeguarded the well-being of employees rather than their overseers. During that year, the courts conducted 14 hearings against workers and 153 against plant managers, assistant managers and supervisors. In seven cases, the directors lost their jobs. For more serious violations, the labor ministry enlisted Germany’s Secret State Police, the Gestapo. This generally resulted in the arrest and confinement of “asocial” managers and usually involved cases where consciously allowing hazardous or unsanitary working conditions impaired an employee’s health.77

One of the most proactive advocates for the working class was the leader of the DAF, Dr. Robert Ley. A combat airman during World War I and former chemist, Ley had joined the NSDAP in 1925. His words lent emphasis to the regulations governing treatment of labor: “Today the owner can no longer tell us, 'my factory is my private affair.' That was before, that’s over now. The people inside of it depend on his factory for their contentment, and these people belong to us.... This is no longer a private affair, this is a public matter. And he must think and act accordingly and answer for it."78

Despite the involvement of law enforcement, the DAF’s long-term goal was to voluntarily correct attitudes that led to social injustices. Hitler opined that “the police should not be on people’s backs everywhere. Otherwise, life for people in the homeland will become just like living in prison. The job of the police is to spot asocial elements and ruthlessly stamp them out."79 A 1937 issue of Soziale Praxis maintained, “The state does not want to run businesses itself. It only wants to arrange that they operate with a sense of social awareness.” The DAF acknowledged that any labor law will “remain ineffective as long as it fails to persuade the leaders and followers working in the factories of the correctness and necessity of such a perception of labor, and train them in a corresponding viewpoint.80

In October 1934, Hitler published a decree defining the nature and the tasks of the DAF. He wrote, “The German Labor Front is to insure harmony in the work place by creating an understanding among facility leaders for the justifiable requirements of their followers, and balancing this with an appreciation among the followers for the circumstances of and for what is feasible for their factory.” In this sense, Hitler assigned the DAF an educational mission as well. It was but a single element of an extensive, lengthy process of “total inward re-education of people as a prerequisite” to achieve “genuine socialism."81 At the party congress in 1935, Hitler pledged to “continue educating the German people to become a true community."82

The Führer was personally skeptical regarding the possibility of winning his own generation for the NSDAP’s social program. He expressed concerns to his aid Wagener in September 1930: “Do you think that a die-hard industrialist is ready to suddenly admit that what he owns is not a right but an obligation? That capital no longer rules but will be ruled? That it’s not about the life of the individual, but about that of the whole group? It’s a radical and total adjustment that the grown-up is no longer capable of making. Only the young people can be changed."83

During a speech to leaders of the party’s fighting organizations in 1933, Hitler stated, “With very few exceptions, practically all revolutions failed because their supporters did not recognize that the most essential part of a revolution is not taking power, but educating the people."84 At an address in Berlin opening the annual winter charity drive for 1940, Hitler discussed the importance of education: “National Socialism has from the start held the view that every outlook is really the product of schooling, customs, and heredity, therefore susceptible to re-education. The child who grows up in our nation today is not genetically born with any sort of prejudices of a class-conscious origin. These have to be instilled in him.... Only in the course of a lifetime are these differences artificially forced upon him by his environs. And to eliminate this is our mission, if we don't want to despair of building a truly organic and enduring society."85

Hitler told German youngsters in a 1938 speech in Nuremburg that the job of inwardly transforming the population “can only be accomplished by a unified body of our people, which did not come into being through wishes and hopes, but only through education. Through it alone can we create the nation we need."86 In this way, the Führer strove to achieve acceptance of the party’s socialist program among the German people with voluntary obedience rather than compliance based on law enforcement. “With police, machine guns and rubber clubs, no regimen can be maintained in the long run,” he warned.87 In 1939, he called for drastic reduction of the national police force to release manpower to relieve the industrial labor shortage.

New legislation, public instruction and the DAF worked together to upgrade on-the-job conditions for labor. Hitler simultaneously devoted equal attention to improving housing for the working class. Revitalizing the construction industry, which was the crux of Reinhardt’s program to reduce unemployment, played a crucial role in the government’s social agenda as well. Without decent homes, labor could not obtain self-respect and the respect of the German community to fully integrate into national life.

Since before World War I, inadequate dwellings for the working people had been an acute problem in German society. Of available residences, 47 percent had just one to two rooms plus a kitchen. An estimated 900,000 homes suffered from overcrowding. There was a shortfall of one-and-a-half million houses. New construction added 317,682 in 1929, the peak year, but just 141,265 in 1932. Nearly half consisted of small dwellings. An estimated four to six million houses required modernization. A large percentage lacked electricity, hook-up to municipal water lines, or facilities for bath and shower.88 A study by the DAF concluded, “In the interior of the Reich, most families are concentrated into cramped and insufficient lodgings. Because of this not only are morals, cultural awareness, health and social tranquility jeopardized, but especially the future offspring. At present around 300,000 children annually are never born, just because the miserable living conditions rob parents of the heart to bring them into the world."89

Hitler tackled the issue in his customary way, by addressing it as a social problem affecting the entire nation; taxpayers could subsidize construction costs of new homes. The labor ministry resisted this proposal. Its staff consisted largely of conservative economists who wished to limit spending and avoid tax increases such social programs require. The ministry promoted the Volkswohnung, or People’s Residence, with just two bedrooms, a kitchen and bath. During the first years of National Socialist rule, 46 percent of new home construction adopted this unpopular design. Frequently at loggerheads with the labor ministry, the DAF advocated more spacious bedrooms and the addition of a living room for family activities. The director of the Reich’s Homestead Office, Dr. Steinhauser, helped solve the problem of the additional cost for larger houses in a novel way. He involved businesses in co-financing construction of superior homes for their employees. The DAF rewarded participating companies with civic honors and favorable publicity. The campaign enjoyed widespread success.90

Hitler became personally involved in designing four-room homes. Each was to have central heating, a combined coal/electric kitchen range and a shower with a hot water heater. The government ordered development of a basic, affordable refrigerator to replace the commercial models that were still a luxury for most families. Hitler himself decided on installing showers instead of baths in each new home. He stipulated that the stall must include a low wall to enable parents to bathe small children. Buyers had the option of ordering a bathtub as an upgrade.

In May 1938, the ground-breaking ceremony took place for Wolfsburg, a new city designed for the families of industrial workers employed at the KdF automobile assembly plant. By supporting the project, Hitler tacitly demonstrated his disapproval of the plan to relocate labor back to farms, which many National Socialists advocated. He considered the “return to the soil” program “wasted effort and money thrown away.” Wolfsburg provided comfortable, well-appointed units, avoiding what Hitler called a “monotonous pile of stacked floors like American big-city skyscrapers."91 The plan made liberal use of space for laying out residential areas. It included landscaped corridors to screen off motor vehicle routes, plus parks, walking trails, sidewalks and bicycle paths. Eight percent of the housing consisted of single family homes, for people who preferred gardening and yard work.

Hitler helped in details of the city planning. He determined the square footage of domiciles, insisting on large kitchens where families could dine together. The Führer conducted repeated, in-depth conferences with his court architect, Albert Speer, and Dr. Ley regarding the project. Based on Hitler’s plan to construct pre-fabricated houses at the factory to be assembled on site, Ley calculated that builders could reduce construction costs by half.92

When Hitler appointed Ley commissioner for Social Housing Construction in November 1940, it gave the DAF director a free hand to pursue his agenda without obstruction from the labor ministry. Ley had already fought this ponderous bureaucracy to implement social security benefits for retired persons, widows and the disabled. Recipients also included orphans or children with infirmities.93 Opponents considered the measure too costly. Under the old insurance system supported by Seldte’s ministry, Ley contended that aging was the same as growing destitute. He demanded that payments be sufficient to allow the recipient to maintain a standard of living nearly equal to that during one’s working life. Here too Ley triumphed, but only after years of persistent effort.

Insufficient funding also delayed legislation of a national healthcare program. When Hitler became chancellor, most working class people had no medical insurance. Labor relied on plant physicians, while ailing family members cared for one another at home. Bad lighting, factory noise, excessive toil and similar circumstances contributed to illness in the work place, so that an average of three percent of employees were absent from their jobs each day nationwide. Poor housing and lack of recreation were also detrimental to workers' health. Most people could not afford doctors, likening the profession to a fire brigade only summoned during dire emergencies. Physicians often set up shop in districts where clientele could pay more for their services. This led to a dearth of healthcare professionals in rural communities. Remote and less populated areas lacked not only doctors but clinics. The death rate among infants and small children in one poorer district polled was six percent.

Ley grappled with Reich’s Director of Physicians, Dr. Leonardo Conti, over reforms. Conti resisted the suggestion that family doctors be distributed at the discretion of the government to cover underprivileged communities, or be posted to new clinics established there. He presented the somewhat lame argument that transferring sick persons from the home environment to healing institutions contradicts the National Socialist concept of the family as the hub of society. Ley argued that allowing healthcare professionals to practice only in areas where they can earn a profit is a typically liberal perception, which neglects the welfare of the community for the benefit of the individual. He insisted that health insurance companies be disbanded and replaced by socialized medicine. Each German was to receive a medical card for life, which when presented during clinic or doctor’s visits would entitle him or her to state-financed care. Conti considered the price for establishing, supplying and staffing rural clinics, plus governmental obligation to cover treatment costs, an oppressive burden on taxpayers.

Another proposal introduced by the DAF leader was that when workers have to stay home due to illness, the employer must continue to pay 70 percent of their salary. Employees absent from work to care for family members would receive the same compensation. Once again, Ley advocated tapping into the profits of industry to elevate the standard of living for labor. Ley and Conti eventually compromised, signing a national healthcare agreement at Bad Saarow in January 1941. It authorized founding of free local clinics, annual physicals for all citizens, and state-financed coverage for medical treatment of sick and injured persons. This negated the need for people to purchase medical insurance. To offset expenditures, the plan called for far-reaching “preventative medicine” measures. The DAF allotted funds to build more health spas, resorts, and other recreational facilities to serve as local weekend retreats for workers and their families. This was to improve public health through rest and relaxation.

The agreement also called for expanded educational programs to instruct citizens in maintaining wholesome lifestyles. Plant physicians received the additional task of training employees in disease prevention. The government’s companion publicity campaign urged Germans to avoid indulgences detrimental to physical well-being, describing it as a civic duty to preserve one’s health and not burden the community. The overall program led to a substantial reduction in premature deaths, and also reduced time lost from work by nearly half. Thus the government, while providing healthcare for its citizens, also imposed the return obligation on the public to live responsibly.

The government’s emphasis on social reform penetrated the public consciousness. It was the responsibility of every German, Hitler declared, to assist the underprivileged, the economically ruined and those no longer self-sufficient. At the 1935 party congress, he said that the German community must “help them back on their feet, must support them and incorporate them once more into the affairs of our national life."94

The annual Winter Help Work charity drive demonstrates how Hitler envisioned a dual purpose for public assistance: both to bring relief to the poor and to promote solidarity. Launched in the fall of 1933, the program solicited financial contributions from the population to aid the unemployed. Associates used the donations to purchase groceries, heating materials and vouchers for the needy, or to fund affiliated charitable institutions. During the winter of 1935/36, the drive assisted nearly 13 million Germans. As the Reich’s employment situation improved, Winter Help Work became less necessary. Considering it “an essential means for continuously educating fellow Germans in the spirit of a German community,” Hitler maintained the charity throughout his tenure in office.95 He opened the drive each September with a well-publicized speech before a live audience in Berlin.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!