Stolen “Arbeit macht frei” gate returned to Dachau

A wrought iron gate bearing the infamous Nazi slogan “Arbeit macht frei” stolen from the entrance to Dachau in 2014 was returned to the concentration camp memorial in a ceremony on Wednesday, Feb. 22th. The gate was stolen from the Dachau memorial on the night of November 1-2, 2014. It was found two years later rusting under a tarp in a parking lot in Ytre Arna outside Bergen, Norway. The thieves remain unknown.

“This is a meaningful day for the memorial,” said Ludwig Spaenle, the Bavarian minister of cultural affairs. He called the theft of the gate an attack on a place of remembrance and said that the integrity of the memorial could now be “somewhat healed.”

Karl Freller, who heads the foundation responsible for the Dachau memorial, said he was “happy and grateful,” stating “now that we have the gate back we will not let it out of our sight.”

Dachau bears the repulsive distinction of being the first concentration camp established by the shiny new Nazi government on March 22nd, 1933, less than two months after Hitler’s ascension to the chancellorship of Germany. The former munitions factory was converted into a forced labour camp for political prisoners which at that time were the Communists and Social Democrats who opposed the Nazi Party. As soon as Hitler was appointed chancellor, he ordered the systematic persecution of his political rivals to consolidate his grip on power. Dachau became a death camp for the slaughter of Jews, homosexuals, Roma and anyone else they deemed inferior during the war, but of course they kept that “Works Sets You Free” sign (always a blatant lie since from day one none of those political prisoners could ever work their way to freedom), as if the purpose of the camp were labour, not mass-murder.

The Jourhaus, the entrance and exit to the prison camp, was built by prisoners by command of the SS in May and June of 1936. The SS ordered Communist political prisoner Karl Röder to make the “Arbeit macht frei” sign. The news stories about the theft, recovery and reinstallation all refer to the stolen gate as the “original,” in contrast to the replica that was put in its place in 2015 for ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Dachau by the US Army on April 29th, 1945. In fact, the “Arbeit macht frei” sign in the stolen gate is not the original made by Röder.

It’s not clear what happened to the original original. It was in place right after liberation. There’s an undated photograph of the gate taken by former political prisoner Franz Brückl that shows the sign in place. Researchers believe it was taken immediately after liberation. Another photograph, also unfortunately undated, but taken after Brückl’s shows the gate with the inscription removed. An exact replica was created from historical photographs and installed in the gate after the Dachau memorial opened in 1965. This is confirmed by a 1972 memorandum in the memorial’s archives which notes: “Reconstruction of the inscription removed from the iron gate, work is free.”

So the gate is original, but the sign is not. The symbolic significance of the gate and the most chilling words inscribed over a doorway since Dante’s Inferno remains undiminished, which is why it and the much larger Auschwitz sign were stolen in the first place.

The recovered gate is now being treated by conservators. It will go back on public display this April 29th, but will not be reinstalled in the Jourhaus. Instead, it will be on view in the Dachau concentration camp memorial museum. The 2015 replica will stay in place.

4 thoughts on “Stolen “Arbeit macht frei” gate returned to Dachau

  1. When I visited Dachau in 1986, the party line was still that the camp was a place for incarceration and forced labor, but not a death camp. The “Arbeit mach Frei” sign was not in place. In fact, most of the buildings had been torn down as well, and foundations and walls were most of what was left. Some of the walls had obvious bullet marks. I don’t remember whether I bothered to ask about them, but I’m sure the answer would have been that they were from the battles of liberation.

    You took the commuter train to Dachau, whose station had cheery murals of pastoral Bavarian life, in the same vein as the cute maps and 19th century newspapers that used to line the walls of Subway restaurants.

    To the credit of someone, at least one long hall was standing and was used as a photographic museum of the camp, including pictures of the strappado (a shoulder-dislocating type of bondage) used as punishment. But overall, denial was very much in place. Nevertheless the horror of the site was so apparent to me at least that I wouldn’t profane the place by opening my mouth to speak with my travelmates until I was off site. I’m not sure they understood.

  2. WHEN do people start to realize that the slogan Arbeit macht frei is not meant to be taken literally. It is a figurative way of telling that suffering in your mortal life leads to salvation after death.

    Suffering and humiliation/humility lead to freedom in the afterlife.

    A common concept in religions.

  3. Josef, if you are writing your comment from a religious perspective, you are not doing your religion a service. It really doesn’t matter what was intended by the phrase. It is indeed, as Livius writes, an “infamous Nazi slogan,” and because of its context, it is horrifying whether it is taken as a cynical lie or as some sort of metaphysical promise.

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