Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude) was set up in Nazi Germany so that all aspects of a worker’s non-working time were looked after. Strength Through Joy supervised after-work activities, holidays and leisure time. Strength Through Joy served two main purposes. The first was to ensure that no one had too much time on their hands to get involved in untoward activities against the state. There was a belief that idle hands might get involved in anti-state misdemeanours. The second main purpose of Strength Through Joy was to produce an environment within Nazi Germany whereby the average worker would be grateful to the state for providing activities and holidays that in ‘normal’ circumstances they could not afford as individuals.
Robert Ley was put in charge of Strength Through Joy.
By 1936, KdF had a membership of 30 million Germans. The scope of the organisation was vast. It arranged theatre trips, summer holidays, skiing holidays, summer and winter hikes, cruises and outdoors activities. People living in the countryside had trains made available for them to get into a city to watch theatre performances. The state provided about as much as could be needed to take up anyone’s slack free time.
Even exiled opponents of the Nazi regime expressed a veiled recognition of KdF. SOPADE – the Social Democrat Party in Exile – listed everything that the party had to offer in terms of activities including trains that would cover over 100 miles simply to take groups to an activity. However, a report by SOPADE smuggled out of the country in 1936, ended with the chilling sentence: “There is simply no other choice." This was the issue with KdF – it was effectively compulsory to participate in what it had to offer. Nazi laws did include the vastly sweeping ‘anti-government activity’ legislation and anyone who refused to participate in KdF activities could be classed as being anti-government. A D17 notice would result in any such people being sent to concentration camps as a punishment.
However, SOPADE also noticed that many Germans living under the Nazi regime actually seemed to accept that what KdF did. ‘Nobody ever bothered about us before’ was a common comment identified by SOPADE members still based in Nazi Germany. In a secret report by SOPADE they clearly made the point that “KdF events have become very popular".
The number of people who participated in KdF events was huge. In 1934, 2.1 million people took part in some form of KdF event. By 1937, this had risen to 9.6 million. Between 1936 and 1937, over 1 million hikes were organised. Fascist Italy was one of the few European countries to help out. Cheap skiing holidays were held in the Italian Alps while in the summer around 30,000 people holidayed on the Italian Riviera. Strength Through Joy ships took a lucky few on cruise holidays.
However, like so many things in Nazi Germany, much of what KdF did was no more than a card trick. In 1936, KdF had a membership of 30 million workers. Yet ‘only’ 7.4 million participated in a KdF trip that year, with nearly 23 million not doing so. A total of 150,000 went on KdF cruises between 1934 and 1939. This was a considerable number but vastly short of the total membership of KdF. Some workers went to holiday camps but while they were there they found that their holidays were regimented and controlled. No one was allowed to do exactly what he or she wanted to do. In a totalitarian state, the government even wanted to control a worker’s holiday. At these camps, the day started with the raising of the swastika flag and ended with the flag being taken down. They had a large number of government spies there who masqueraded as holidaymakers. They listened in to conversations and identified anyone who made what were deemed to be anti-Hitler comments. Huge holiday resorts were promised and one was actually built at Prora on the Baltic coastline. While it was completed, no one ever holidayed there as World War Two broke out just weeks before the complex was due to open.
Robert Ley constantly reminded the German workers that they should be grateful for what the state, and in essence therefore Hitler, had provided for them. They may have had their trade unions taken away from them but:
“The worker sees that we are serious about raising his social position. He sees that it is not the so-called ‘educated classes’ whom we send out as representatives of the new German, but himself, the German worker, whom we show to the world." (Ley)
Strength Through Joy also set up the scheme for a worker to purchase a car – the People’s Car; the Volkswagen. Hitler himself approved of the Volkswagen and workers were allowed to make monthly payments towards a new car, which were recorded in a savings book. But once again this was a card trick. As war approached, the factories that were meant to produce Volkswagens were turned over to war work and produced the Kübelwagen. No worker ever received a Volkswagen car but such was the entrenchment of the police state – and the fear of a knock on the door – no one was brave enough to complain. Those Volkswagens that were built went to military staff, while the payments made for a new car were invested into the expansion of the military.
Whether Hitler saw the KdF as a means of bringing all the workers onto his side – socialists and communists had suffered very badly after January 1933 – or as another way of controlling the numerically much larger working class will never be known. Even an anonymous member of the German Freedom Party wrote in May 1939 that the activities offered by the KdF “have their good points" but it was also noted that they served as just another element of controlling the people of Nazi Germany and if you protested against it, you would almost certainly pay the price.