The expression comes from the title of an 1873 novel by German philologist Lorenz Diefenbach, Arbeit macht frei: Erzählung von Lorenz Diefenbach, in which gamblers and fraudsters find the path to virtue through labour. The phrase was also used in French (le travail rend libre!) by Auguste Forel, a Swiss entomologist, neuroanatomist and psychiatrist, in his Fourmis de la Suisse (English: "Ants of Switzerland") (1920). In 1922, the Deutsche Schulverein of Vienna, an ethnic nationalist "protective" organization of Germans within the Austrian empire, printed membership stamps with the phrase Arbeit macht frei. According to visitcracow.com: "In the 1930s, they (Nazis) promoted programs against unemployment through this sentence."
The phrase is also evocative of the medieval German principle of Stadtluft macht frei ("urban air makes you free"), according to which serfs were liberated after being a city resident for one year and one day.
The slogan Arbeit macht frei was placed at the entrances to a number of Nazi concentration camps. The slogan's use was implemented by SS officer Theodor Eicke at Dachau concentration camp and then copied by Rudolf Höss at Auschwitz.
The slogan can still be seen at several sites, including over the entrance to Auschwitz I where the sign was erected by order of commandant Rudolf Höss.The Auschwitz I sign was made by prisoner-labourers including master blacksmith Jan Liwacz, and features an upside-down B, which has been interpreted[by whom?] as an act of defiance by the prisoners who made it. An example of ridiculing the falsity of the slogan was a popular saying used among Auschwitz prisoners:
Arbeit macht frei (Work makes you free)
durch Krematorium Nummer drei (Through Krematorium Number Three)
In 1933 the first political prisoners were being rounded up for an indefinite period without charges. They were held in a number of places in Germany. The slogan was first used over the gate of a "wild camp" in the city of Oranienburg, which was set up in an abandoned brewery in March 1933 (it was later rebuilt in 1936 as Sachsenhausen). It can also be seen at the Dachau, Gross-Rosen, and Theresienstadt camps, as well as at Fort Breendonk in Belgium. It has been claimed that the slogan was placed over the entrance gates of the Monowitz camp (also known as Auschwitz III). The slogan appeared at the Flossenbürg camp on the left gate post at the camp entry. The original gate posts survive in another part of the camp, but the slogan sign no longer exists.Primo Levi describes seeing the words illuminated over a doorway (as distinct from a gate) at Monowitz.
In 1938 the Austrian political cabaret writer Jura Soyfer and the composer Herbert Zipper, while prisoners at Dachau Concentration Camp, wrote the Dachaulied, or The Dachau Song. They had spent weeks marching in and out of the camp's gate to daily forced labour, and considered the motto Arbeit macht frei over the gate an insult. The song repeats the phrase cynically as a "lesson" taught by Dachau.
He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labour does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.
The signs are prominently displayed, and were seen by all prisoners and staff—all of whom knew, suspected, or quickly learned that prisoners confined there would likely only be freed by death. The signs' psychological impact was tremendous.
The Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the Auschwitz I gate was stolen in December 2009 and later recovered by authorities in three pieces. Anders Högström, a Swedish neo-Nazi, and two Polish men were jailed as a result. The original sign is now in storage at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and a replica was put over the gate in its place.
On 2 November 2014, the sign over the Dachau gate was stolen. It was found on 28 November 2016 under a tarpaulin at a parking lot in Ytre Arna, a settlement north of Bergen, Norway's second-largest city.