As Detroiters wait to see if the latest plans to raze the decrepit century old abandoned Packard plant on the city’s east side come to fruition, someone apparently tried to make a point by putting up posters reading Arbeit Macht Frei in the frames of the broken windows of the overpass at Concord Street that connected the two halves of the giant factory. That phrase, German for “work makes you free”, sat above the gates of many Nazi concentration and death camps. Of course that slogan was part of the Nazis’ cruelty because in those camps, the only freedom a prisoner could hope for was the freedom of the grave as they were at best worked to death in labor camps and slave factories, or exterminated in factories of death. The Nazis dangled that carrot, the hope that you could survive if only you worked hard enough, but for eleven million of their victims, more than half of them Jews, that hope was not fulfilled. But in Detroit?
I’m sure that whoever put Arbeit Macht Freiup on the Packard plant thought it was clever, and maybe they were trying to make a point, some grand conceptual or artistic statement, but the only sense that I can make out of it is that the “artists” were too clever by half, or as we Michiganders like to say, stupid. To begin with, the Packard plant is closely associated with Jewish architect Albert Kahn, who designed it.
More to the point, do I really have to say that it trivializes genocide and mass murder to compare it to people freely taking an industrial job to improve their lot in life? Though Packard was not without labor strife in it’s more than half century history, the take I get from automotive history is that Packard employees were exceptionally proud that they produced a world class car, in some ways America’s most prestigious car brand. While the conditions in 1903 when the factory was new were undoubtedly less pleasant than in a modern automotive assembly plant, Kahn’s designs made the factory on East Grand Blvd a nice place to work by the standards of the day, with natural sunlight and ventilation. The old Packard plant was a far cry from a slave labor factory. Remember, the Nazis literally worked people to death. They had guards with machine guns to keep people from escaping. On East Grand Blvd, people lined up for a chance at a job.
People flocked to Detroit, first from around the world, and then from the southern United States, to make a better life for themselves and while they may have resented some aspects of their jobs, or even hated them, I doubt that any would have voluntarily changed places with prisoners in Nazi camps and factories. Those immigrants to Detroit helped create the middle class as we know it. Actually, perhaps that’s the reason for the graffiti. The impulse of épater le bourgeois, skewering the bourgeoisie is not exactly unknown in the art world. The rejection of “middle class values” has driven a lot of modern art and pop culture since the beatniks of the 1950s and maybe even back to American expats in Paris. Maybe the graffiti is trying to tells us that the middle class is a chimera, that industrialization ultimately leads to the Detroit’s famous ruins. Or maybe I’m just thinking too much about a stupid sign.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If you think 3D is a plot to get you to buy yet another new TV set, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS