Orwellian Undertones?

by John Holbo on June 24, 2010

Jonah Goldberg points out that there is something sinister, even progressive, about the German phrase, ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ – quite apart from the association with Auschwitz. “The Orwellian undertones to the phrase are real, and the associations with the Holocaust are horrific, but Arbeit Macht Frei was a popular “progressive” slogan on the road to serfdom.” Do you know where the phrase came from?

The Arbeit Macht Frei sign [at Auschwitz] was erected by prisoners with metalwork skills on Nazi orders in June 1940, and was a cynical take on the title of an 1873 work by the lexicographer, linguist and novelist Lorenz Diefenbach in which gamblers and fraudsters discover the path to virtue through hard work.

I appreciate that Republicans are hard-pressed to come up with a positive platform in 2010, but this seems an unpromising trial balloon: we must restore a culture of healthy recklessness and corruption, lest, by treading the perilous path of work and responsibility, we be beguiled into serfdom.

It’s like ‘the Fascist octopus has sung its swan song,’ but with Poor Richard’s Almanack as the libretto.



Dr. Hilarius 06.24.10 at 5:14 am

Jonah Goldberg: doubleplusgood duckspeaker


Alex K 06.24.10 at 5:54 am

What a joke this man is.


mk 06.24.10 at 10:42 am


P O'Neill 06.24.10 at 11:28 am

The story of “to each his own” reflects a similar cynicism and bizarre provenance. Way too complicated for Jonah.


zamfir 06.24.10 at 3:47 pm

we might have been tempted to consider events like Auschwitz as relatively innocuous. Luckily, Jonah is there to remind us that they could easily lead to soc1alism.


roac 06.24.10 at 3:52 pm

zamfir for the win.


Steve LaBonne 06.24.10 at 4:11 pm

So if work is now revealed as a sinister liberal-fascist plot, Doughy Pantload must be in favor of extending unemployment insurance indefinitely, amirite?

(I know, lame after Zamfir’s intertubes-winning comment…)


cate 06.24.10 at 5:09 pm

My father and uncle used to gently tease their mother for identifying every bridge she saw, regardless of vintage, as a WPA bridge. Thinking back, I find it pretty moving–WPA projects, the work that made them and the civic pride that work inspired, had made such a strong impression upon her that later she would look for them everywhere. Not only had remaining WPA bridges taken on the character of something like a monument or memorial–in a deeply meaningful sense, my grandmother saw the WPA in every bridge.

Which I guess is a roundabout of saying that I get WHY conservatives want to delink production (and consumption) from labor, but this line of argument is pretty profoundly unpersuasive in comparison to the strength of feeling most people have towards their work. Goldberg’s contortions certainly aren’t making the “producing [but not working] class” any more attractive.


Castorp 06.24.10 at 6:33 pm

Look it pained Jonah to write that, but those meanies at college who called him a fascist because he was a conservative forced him to tell the Truth: “I know you are but what am I?”


Keith 06.24.10 at 7:06 pm

I had my doubts that English was Goldberg’s first language but now we can rule out German too. Is there a language this man is proficient in (besides Klingon)?


Bloix 06.24.10 at 7:49 pm

Jonah Goldberg:
an 1873 work by the lexicographer, linguist and novelist Lorenz Diefenbach in which gamblers and fraudsters discover the path to virtue through hard work.

Georg Anton Lorenz Diefenbach … was a German philologist and lexicographer, as well as a novelist…
The novel was published in Bremen in 1873… The main hero is a gambler and fraudster who, through regular employment, succeeds in regaining the path of virtue.

So, Goldberg: gamblers and fraudsters
Wikipedia: gambler and faudster
Goldberg: path to virtue
Wikipedia: path of virtue

Coincidence, no doubt.


pidgas 06.24.10 at 10:29 pm

@Bloix: The block-quote is from an article in the Guardian. Goldberg did not write it. Your sentence for making this sloppy false accusation is to meditate on the meaning of the blog post itself and Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” (from which the fascist octopus metaphor originates).


bianca steele 06.24.10 at 10:42 pm

Was Carlo Collodi a liberal fascist? And if Octopus is fascist, what is the political significance of Squid?


Keith 06.24.10 at 11:45 pm

bianca steele @13: everyone knows squid are socialist. You can tell by their excessive number of tentacles.


Bloix 06.25.10 at 12:21 am

Ah, well. I’ve been wrong before and will no doubt be wrong again. This is just one in a series.


Jamey 06.25.10 at 2:16 am

I honestly think that Mr. Goldberg’s book might have started out as one of the office practical jokes that got out of hand. Like when you send the new intern down to supply division looking for a box of grid squares or a laser stapler or send him off looking for Amanda Lovinhold and he runs all over the office telling everyone “Excuse me, I’m looking for Amanda Lovinhold “(not that there’s anything wrong with that).

“Jonah, come over here for a moment. I’m working on a paper outlining how progressivism gradually over time became fascism. I’m rather busy on something urgent right now and I was wondering if you could maybe get together about 5 pages or so of notes and references suggesting where I can start my research.” Jonah, eager to prove his mettle, rushes off to start his project. Everyone has a good laugh once he’s out of earshot and then 6 months later everyone is thinking “Oh my god, we’ve created a monster, should someone tell him?”


Jamey 06.25.10 at 3:15 am

Now that I think about it, it’s high time someone outlined the connections between conservative thought and fascism. Nationalism. A certain pseudo-darwinian style of thinking. A belief that a nation ought to be united in opinion, not just in looking out for each other’s well being. A list of enemies of the people, who weren’t just wrong but were dangerous, potential traitors. Militarism. Racism (although most conservatives will no longer official acknowledge this and some of them seem to genuinely be repelled by it, usually the libertarian leaning types.) As a matter of fact, when it comes to Southern conservatives in the 1930’s, it’s not entirely clear who was learning eugenics and racial classification from who.

I’m pretty sure somebody has already done this. But it would be nice to see it done in a a polemical style designed to provoke the right’s button, but carefully argued and not outside the bounds of logic and plausibility.

Feel free to add to the list. I’m sure I’ve missed something. As a matter of fact, the only reason I can think of why this book hasn’t been already written is because it would be such a godawful editing task to pare it down to 2,000 pages.


chris 06.25.10 at 6:52 pm

@17: Sounds a bit like Eco’s “Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt”. IIRC, Eco is old enough to remember actual Fascists.


James H 06.29.10 at 2:30 am

Jamey, I’d suggest Bob Altemeyer’s “The Authoritarians”, which, as an added socialist bonus squid special, is free.

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