“Arbeit Macht Frei.”
“Work makes free.” Or perhaps a better English rendering might be, “Work brings freedom.”
This quote was plastered across the front gate of several concentration camps during the reign of the Third Reich and Nazism in World War II Germany. It was forged by prisoners at Auschwitz (ironically not bringing their freedom), and it was on the gate at Dachau, where I recently had opportunity to visit.
“Work makes [you] free.”
I’m no historian, and I’m certainly no expert on World War II, or Nazism. So allow me to vamp a bit while I engage Hitler’s claim, “Arbeit Macht Frei.”
Hitler has become the embodiment of evil in our world. He is the poster child, the author and underwriter of perhaps the most evil chapter in recent world history. His crimes against humanity were vast and horrendous. Surely there were MANY points at which one could challenge his worldview. Engage with his insistence that certain people were “subhuman,” or with his socialistic reforms. Argue against his harsh treatment of humans. But consider if perhaps, the root of his depravity was founded on a much more basic level—a level more common mankind than you might have originally thought.
“Arbeit Macht Frei.”
At the inception of the Concentration camps was a simple idea. There are some in our society that are less. They are broken in their very nature. They are further from God.
But they can be rehabilitated. If they work hard enough, they can be restored to wholeness within society. Did you know that in the earliest days of Dachau (one of the first—and the first of its size—camps established by Hitler), prisoners were often rehabilitated and released? They were trained how to work to maintain their humanity.
This is not a revolutionary idea. It’s not new, and it wasn’t when Hitler rose to power, either. It is the essence of our humanness. We are given revelation of a God who is bigger and greater than anything we can do or even imagine (Romans 1:20). Even without the Bible to guide us, every culture in the history of the world has had some understanding of “God.” It’s what we call “general revelation.” And even without a Bible, we recognize that there is something “wrong” with us (Romans 2:14-15). That’s why every religion has some concept of “salvation.” Every religion in the history of the world depends on Work [to] Make [you] Free.
Arbeit Macht Frei.
At the core of what Hitler believed was that how hard one worked determined his value. How much one accomplished was tied to one’s humanness. Still today, in every religion except Christianity, salvation is the result of Human hard work. Karma is the gross sum of your acts in this life playing out in the next…and the next (Nirvana may take millions of lives to achieve). In Islam, man is on the tip of a sword and at the judgment and God “flicks” you one way or the other, based on your good deeds. Even if you were “mostly good,” Allah may have a “bad day” and condemn you anyway. You just better do your best. In Old Covenant Judaism, everything hinged on rigid obedience to the Law of Moses. In modern American Christendom—and ironically, atheism for that matter—the message can have a tendency toward moralism, being a “good person,” and doing the right thing.
Arbeit Macht Frei.
But true Christianity is different. Christianity is about a God to whom we owe everything. A God we could never pay back for our short-comings because our lives are already his. The Gospel is about a God that saved us “by grace through faith, not by works so that no one can boast.” Trying to be “good enough” is succumbing to “Arbeit Macht Frei” gospel, which is really no gospel it all.
Religion says “works bring freedom.”
Christ says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
The bleak end to the story at Dachau is that in short order, prisoners stopped being released. Men, women and children were brought in with the promise that they could work for their salvation, that Work would bring freedom. And all the work they did—the back-breaking, arduous work that was typically overtly and explicitly pointless—only enslaved them further. They were prisoners of their work. Work would never bring freedom, and it was only when the allied troops arrived and showed them grace that the prisoners received freedom.
Arbeit Macht nicht frei; Gnade Macht Frei.
Work does not make you free; Grace makes us free.