Academic journal article The Historian

Robert Ley's Dream of a Racist Utopia: The Welfare Program of the German People

Academic journal article The Historian

Robert Ley's Dream of a Racist Utopia: The Welfare Program of the German People

Article excerpt

LITTLE MORE THAN a year after gaining control of the German government, Adolf Hitler proclaimed an end to the Nazi revolution and concentrated on working with established elites in industry and the military to prepare Germany for a war of racial restructuring in eastern Europe. Undeterred, Robert Ley (1890-1945), the energetic if erratic leader of the German Labor Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront or DAF), proposed a revolutionary plan that would transform German society into a people's community (Volksgemeinschaft), repudiating the Enlightenment ideas that had shaped European history for over two centuries. Drawing on radical nationalist, anti-Marxist ideas that had been in circulation for decades, adding a racial component to them, combining them with a cult of work, and articulating a rationale for pay-as-you-go pension financing that was more coherent than any that had been suggested up to that time, Ley mounted a serious assault on the established order in German society via the public insurance arena. He failed to achieve his goals because Hitler was more interested in the war and because the Reich Labor Ministry (Reichsarbeitsministerium or RAM) stubbornly defended its turf.

Robert Ley's struggle to revolutionize German society by reforming its social insurance system has been addressed by a surprising number of scholars, usually as part of discussions of other topics. Most of them rely on the same body of sources located in the German Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin-Lichterfelde. Most important among them are the records of the Reich ministries of labor and finance as well as the Nazi Party Main Office for Communal Policy. (1) Some authors also make use of the extensive collection of DAF periodicals and documents published in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the Hamburg Foundation for the Social History of the Twentieth Century, Sozialstrategien der deutschen Arbeitsfront ("Social Strategies of the German Labor Front"). (2) As a result, all provide a reasonably accurate picture of the political aspects of Ley's initiative and all reach essentially the same conclusions, that Ley's plan was unrealistic and that it was not adopted because Hitler considered the war more important. (3) Gotz Aly, using a very narrow selection of sources and ignoring the origins of the German pension system, exaggerates the similarities between Ley's plan and the landmark reform of the West German pension system enacted in 1957. (4) Just one author, Martin Geyer, attempts to put the plan into ideological perspective, though only briefly. (5) The following discussion will focus exclusively on Ley's initiative and put it into a broad conceptual context for the first time by using Ley's public utterances and writings as well as DAF publications and internal studies. It concludes that Ley's initiative was an attempt to replace the rationalist, individualistic, humanist ideals of the French Revolution with an irrational, racist, euphoric worldview built around a cult of work and national sacrifice. Ley hoped to achieve those goals by radically reforming and expanding Germany's largest social program, the core of its social welfare system, its compulsory public pension plan, the Gesetzliche Rentenversicherung (GRV). Except for its racist component, Ley's proposal was remarkably in tune with contemporary social reformist thinking in other developed countries.

Robert Ley hoped to transform German society into a people's community, ridding it of what he considered to be the corrosive influences of both Marxism, which he thought was a device concocted by the Jews to destroy the Aryan race, and plutocratic democracy. He intended to use Germany's social insurance system to create a socialist community based on race, rather than class. He and his followers developed a comprehensive plan to accomplish these ambitious goals. They intended to achieve full employment through a government program that would create jobs and direct people into them. …

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