Home > General Politics > If you’re going to be a Nazi sympathiser, a basic grasp of German helps

If you’re going to be a Nazi sympathiser, a basic grasp of German helps

There’s been the expected reaction and hashtag to Dominique Jackson’s (now edited) not-altogether-intelligent commentary in the Mail:

The German slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” is somewhat tainted by its connection with Nazi concentration camps, but its essential message, “work sets you free” still has something serious to commend it.

Well, it was probably just linkbait……

What interests me, though, is not so much the Mail’s continuing desire to offend, but the fact that “Arbeit Macht Frei” doesn’t actually mean “work sets you free”. 

 “Arbeit Macht Frei” means, literally, “Work renders free(dom)”.  There is no easy English translation. The lack of the ‘you’ in the German is significant.  Dating from the early 1930s and coined in response to the Marxist notion of the ‘alienating’ power of labout under capitalism, the phrase is wholly redolent on the totalitarian state, in which the liberty of the individual is subsumed for the greater ‘freedom’ of the all-powerful state.  There’s simply no need for a ‘you’ in that state. 

For the author therefore to suggest that the phrase has “something serious to commend it” on the basis that individuals gain from working is not just offensive in the obvious way. It also betrays a deep ignorance of what Nazism actually was. 

When Nicolas Sarkozy offered himself up to the far-right with his infamous “Le travail, c’est la liberté” utterance, the deeper significance was well understood by the French left (perhaps because the French translation ‘le travail rend libre’ is more direct):

Le slogan sarkozien n’est donc pas destiné à glorifier les travailleurs, mais à leur faire admettre à la fois l’ordre capitaliste et l’ordre autoritaire. Qu’aucun des candidats adverses se réclamant du camp de la défense des travailleurs, n’ait « décrypté » ce slogan en dit long sur la décomposition de la pensée de la gauche, incapable même de percevoir l’outrance d’un propos si lourdement connoté historiquement.

Perhaps the British left also needs to up it’s game when it comes to casual Nazism from the Daily Mail.

Update: I note from twitter comments that the author of the piece has expressed pretty genuine embarassment and remorse at the way she used the Nazi phrase.  That’s a good thing, and I wish her well.  While some on twitter suggest that the hashtag furore of earlier amounted to bullying, I hope the author will  recognise that a rapid, overwhelmingly negative reaction to the use of such a slogan in the context of domestic employmenet, however inadvertant, is actually a good thing too.  What the French commentary above suggest, after all, is that we need to be on guard against any insidious encroachment towards acceptability of totalitarian narratives.

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Categories: General Politics
  1. August 13, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    Good point – my German’s pretty vestigial now but macht also has the more common meaning of power and might as well (as per Nietzsche’s Wille zur Macht and Luther’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer) – so that phrase must have multiple levels of meaning and mockery within it.

    Her own increasingly desperate twitter-feed seems to indicate that she is not a Mail staff hack or particularly right-wing but a hapless freelancer who was just asked for a piece of filler on youth unemployment and as I believe the Mail still pays relatively well couldn’t turn it down.

    I also wonder if she was silly enough to think she was winding them up ‘woohoo – the Mail just paid me £x hundred to quote Nazi slogans’

    • paulinlancs
      August 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm

      Yes, there may be more in ‘macht’ than meets the eye. I’m not German speaking enough to have a feel for that.

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