When Hitler came to power in January 1933, he saw trade unions as exercising more power over the workers than he could. Therefore, trade unions were seen as a challenge to be dispensed with. Hitler knew that he needed the workers to be on his side but he could not allow trade unions to exert the potential power they had. Therefore, trade unions were banned in Nazi Germany and the state took over the role of looking after the working class.
Just months after Hitler was appointed Chancellor, he took the decision to end trade unions in Nazi Germany. On May 2nd, 1933, police units occupied all trade unions headquarters and union officials and leaders were arrested. The funds that belonged to the trade unions – effectively this was workers money – were confiscated. However, Hitler had to be careful. He had only been in power for a few months and there were many members of the working class he had to deal with. If the working class movement in Germany organised itself, it would have presented the new Chancellor with a lot of major issues that would have to be dealt with. Removing trade union leaders helped this but it did not fully guarantee that the working class would ‘behave’ itself. Hitler had to offer the workers something more. Hitler announced that the German Labour Force, headed by Robert Ley, would replace all trade unions and would look after the working class. The title was chosen carefully. The new organisation was deliberately cloaked in patriotism, as it was now a German entity as was seen in its title. The working class was now a ‘labour force’. The Nazi Party did all that it could to ensure the workers felt that they were better off under the guidance of the Nazi Party via the German Labour Front.
They had to be brought onto the side of the Nazis as Hitler had major plans for the workers. There were simply too many of them to brutalise into submission, so the workers were offered the ‘Strength Through Joy’ movement (Kraft durch Freude’) which offered them subsidised holidays, cheap theatre trips etc.
Hitler offered the working class an improved leisure life in one hand and took away their traditional rights in the other. Strikes – the traditional way for the working class to vent their anger over an issue – were banned. Strikes had been a thorn in the side of Weimar Germany in its final years. In 1928, the equivalent of 20,339,000 days had been lost as a result of strikes. In 1930, 4,029,000 days had been lost. In 1933, it was just 96,000 days and from 1934 to 1939 there were none. New laws had been brought in after the burning down of the Reichstag and one covered ‘un-German activities’ and strikes were classed as un-German. In January 1934, the Law Regulating National Labour (the ‘Charter of Labour’) banned strikes at statute level.
Trade unions had looked after the rights of the working class. The German Labour Front now did this. However, Hitler was still fearful of large group of unemployed men existing in the fledgling Nazi state. In January 1933, he inherited an unemployment rate of 26.3%. This had the potential for long-term trouble. Therefore, job creation schemes were introduced. An individual had no choice about a job placement as anyone labelled ‘work shy’ was sent to prison. But such an approach brought down unemployment figures. By 1936, it had dropped to 8.3% - an 18% fall. Between 1936 and 1939, this 8.3% would be mopped up by conscription. Also women were no longer included in employment/unemployment figures, so the figure had to tumble.
Those brought into the Labour Front to participate in job creation schemes were regimented almost as much as if they were in the military. A song sung by members of the GFL went as follows:
“We demand from ourselves service to the end, even when no eyes are upon us.
We know that we should love our Fatherland more than our own life.
We vow that no one shall outdo us in loyalty,
That our life shall be one great labour service for Germany.
So in this solemn hour we pray for blessing on the oath we take,
We thank thee, Fuhrer, that we have now seen thee,
Do thou behold us as thine own creation?
May our hearts ever beat with thy heart’s pulses, Our lives find inspiration in thy love,
Behold us here! Thy Germany are we.”
Their conditions of work and pay were controlled and determined by the German Labour Front and the GLF represented the workers when disputes arose between management and workers. Between 1933 and 1939, the wages paid out to those in the GLF actually dropped a little. The cost of living rose during the same time by 25%. However, Hitler’s grip on the working class by 1939 was so great that they had no choice but to continue in this way.