Robert Ley was in charge of the German Labour Front in Nazi Germany. As such Ley was in charge of ‘Strength through Joy’ (Kraft durch Freude), a movement which played a major part in the lives of all German civilians.
Ley was born on February 15th 1890. He was one of eleven children and his father – a farmer – always struggled to make ends meet financially. Despite this, Ley got to university where he studied chemistry. World War One interrupted any chance Ley had of finding employment in the chemical industry. At the age of 24, he volunteered at the start of the war. Ley spent two years fighting with artillery units but then trained to become an aerial artillery spotter. In July 1917, his war ended when his aircraft was shot down and he was taken prisoner-of-war.
Once World War One had ended and Ley had been released from his POW camp, he returned to university where he was awarded a doctorate. He found work in the Ruhr as a food chemist for I G Farben, one of the largest industrial concerns in Germany. Up to this point in his life there is little evidence that he was politicised. This changed in 1924.
As part of the Treaty of Versailles, Weimar Germany had to accept responsibility for starting the war. When her representatives signed the document, it was seen as an admission that Germany was responsible for all the war damage in France and Belgium. Therefore, also included in the Versailles Treaty was the fact that Germany had to pay reparations – to repair war-damaged Western Europe. No figure was actually set at Versailles but eventually – and with no German input – it was set at the massive figure of £6.6 billion. In 1923, Germany failed to pay what was required and this resulted in French and Belgian forces occupying the Ruhr, Germany’s most important industrial base. This infuriated Ley as the occupation led to passive civilian resistance, including strikes, which destabilised this important region. The French arrested anyone they associated with civil disobedience and their treatment of the Germans in the Ruhr was highly questionable. What we do know is that Ley, along with many others in the Ruhr, was outraged by the French and wanted redress.
He joined the Nazi Party shortly afterwards. Ley became someone who followed and accepted every word Hitler said. He became highly anti-Semitic and felt no qualms about venting his beliefs in the Nazi newspaper ‘Westdeutsche Beobachter’, which he was appointed to edit. Ley was also appointed the Nazi Party’s Gauleiter in the Southern Rhineland in 1925. However, at this period in time the Nazi Party was a noisy but small party will a minimal presence in the Reichstag.
Hitler was taken in by Ley’s loyalty and in 1931 he was brought into the Nazi heart when he was appointed head of party organisation and was based at its headquarters in Munich. It soon became clear to many in the party that he was out of his depth. On top of his inability to cope with the tasks his position required, Ley’s critics were also concerned by his excessive drinking. However, Hitler would not hear any criticisms.
When Hitler gained power in January 1933, he surrounded himself with ‘yes’ men and this included Ley. In April 1933, Ley was appointed the head of the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront - DAF). This took over the role that would have traditionally been associated with trade unions – banned by the Nazis. However, Ley was unable to cope with the pressures placed on him by the appointment and he was soon overshadowed by a subordinate within DAF – Reinhard Muchow. He was a socialist and he encouraged workers to agitate for better wages and working conditions. Employers complained to senior Nazi officials who relayed the issue to Hitler. In January 1934, the issue was resolved when all problems surrounding wages and conditions of work were placed in the hands of the Trustees of Labour – an organisation dominated by employers. Ley’s control over DAF was re-established and Muchow was removed from office.
Ley remained in power solely because he had the support of Hitler. Once his control over DAF had been re-established, he embarked on a course of corruption and excess that rivalled Goering’s. Ley embezzled large amounts of money earmarked for DAF and his drinking and womanising brought DAF a notoriety that served only to embarrass the party. However, protected by Hitler, there was little that other senior Nazi officials could do.
To convince the workers that the Nazi Party had some interest in their well-being, DAF introduced an organisation called Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch Freude - KdF). This organisation took control of the workers free time and organised holidays and other leisure services for them. As head of DAF, Ley was also in charge of KdF.
The start of World War Two showed up Ley’s incompetence as an administrator. Now more than ever, the workers needed to be organised to ensure that the Nazi war machine was fully equipped. The war ensured the end of KdF as the workers could hardly expect leisure time during war. The work of Ley was effectively taken over by Fritz Todt, the Armaments Minister. Todt in turn was succeeded by Albert Speer. Ley was very much pushed to one side. Hitler was solely preoccupied with the war. Ley could no longer expect any protection from him.
However, Ley was very much implicated in the mistreatment of slave labourers. He said in 1942 that there was no limit on the amount of force that could be used on a slave labourer. Ley told an audience in Essen that “there was no room for compassion”. He referred to Russians as “pigs”. His approach was very similar to Heinrich Himmler who once publicly stated that he did not care how many Russians died building a tank trap so long as the tank trap was built. Whether Ley adopted the same tone because he believed in it or whether he adopted it to re-ingratiate himself among the Nazi élite is not known.
After the effective fall of his influence in terms of industrial production, Ley was given the task in November 1941 as tackling the housing crisis that was being brought on by the Allied bombing campaign. As Nazi Germany faced more and more bombing raids against its cities, this was a task that even an able man would have found impossible to master. Ley was not an able man and it quickly became apparent that he was unable to cope with the situation.
For all this, Ley remained on the inside of Hitler’s inner circle. He stayed in Berlin until Hitler’s birthday on April 20th 1945. On April 21st, he left for southern Bavaria where he expected to be joined by Hitler at the ‘National Redoubt’. Here in the German Alps, Ley expected both he and Hitler to make a last stand. It never happened and on May 16th 1945 Ley was arrested by men from the US 101st Airborne Division.
On October 21st, Ley was charged with crimes against humanity and conspiracy to wage war. He committed suicide on October 24th by hanging himself in his cell.