By on February 6, 2013

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?

In Dachau

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.

Former slogan

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

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55 Comments on “So What’s the Point? Was Working In A Car Factory Like Being In A Concentration Camp?...”


  • avatar

    Well, one key difference is that if you don’t meet your quota, you don’t get shot in the head.

    Then again, it is Detroit…

  • avatar
    -Cole-

    “but for eleven million of their victims, more than half of them Jews, ”

    Looks like you’re insinuating that this half is more important.

    • 0 avatar

      With folks who have Jews on the brains, one just can’t win. Haters gonna hate.

      I wasn’t insinuating anything, I was just relating a historical fact. You have a problem with history or math?

      If I had just said that the Nazis killed six million Jews, you would have complained that I ignored the millions of Poles, Gypsies and others that they murdered. I deliberately used the 11 million figure because I think it’s necessary to mention all of the Nazis’ victims. However, the simple truth is that a couple of small minorities were specifically targeted for extermination and that those populations suffered disproportionately from the Nazis.

      While millions of Poles were murdered, there was no Nazi plan to exterminate all the Poles. While a few thousand homosexuals were imprisoned by the Nazis (for political reasons, many of them were opponents of the Nazis), all gays and lesbians were not targeted for extermination. The Nazi high command tolerated homosexual and bisexual officers. To my knowledge he only groups that the Nazis specifically tried to exterminate were the Gypsies and the Jews.

      Oh, and your arithmetic is off, albeit in a telling manner. I said that “more than half” of the Nazis’s victims were Jews, 6/11ths, not “half”. How come you dismiss and minimize murder when Jews are the victims?

      Can you explain to me why it is not appropriate to indicate that a majority of the Nazis’ victims were members of a population group that represented a tiny percentage of the European population under Nazi occupation?

      • 0 avatar
        jjster6

        You shouldn’t even need to defend yourself. You merely stated a fact. Cole decided he would turn it into something it wasn’t.

        Can I nominate Cole as a Troll (it even rhymes)?

      • 0 avatar
        danio3834

        Didn’t we just have a thread about trolls?

      • 0 avatar
        Summicron

        No American under 40 cares what happened 80 years ago on another continent to an ethnic group that is at the top of the success ladder here and now. Especially true on a car site.

      • 0 avatar
        skor

        It’s often been claimed that the Nazi regime was out to exterminate homosexuals, the evidence suggests otherwise. Many of the founding members of the Nazi party were homosexual, including Ernst Rohm, the founder of the SA. Hitler (himself rumored to be homosexual) had Rohm, and other early party members executed, because they were rivals for power. So yes, I agree, most of the homosexuals who ended up in the camps were there for political reasons and their homosexuality was used as pretense for their murders.

      • 0 avatar
        jkross22

        @Summicron,

        Sadly, I think you’re more correct than not. But boy, what an ignorant view of history that is.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        …No American under 40 cares what happened 80 years ago on another continent to an ethnic group that is at the top of the success ladder here and now…

        Wow, I don’t even know where to start with this. I could go Godwin law right of the gate but the most chilling part of this post is, “an ethnic group that is at the top of the success ladder…”

        You know, that’s exactly what the propaganda machine was saying in 1933. I mean imagine that, if you’re Jewish, you get a golden ticket to being a one-percenter apparently. At least you didn’t call out Hollywood, banks, and control of the US government in the above. Only implied it.

        Ugh

  • avatar
    shaker

    It’s a bit of snark, fueled by an (possibly) incomplete appreciation of history.

    If it is narrowly intended as a badge of obsolescence, (i.e. “the dust bin of history”) well yes, though many would like to see the Packard plant return in some form, maybe to build Teslas? (hold breath).

    • 0 avatar
      Lorenzo

      That factory complex was well-designed for the way cars were assembled in the early 20th century, with multiple floors on a string of buildings in a one block by seven block area. Today’s modern auto assembly plant is all on one floor, covering more acreage than those Packard buildings occupy. Look at a google satellite view of the Packard plants, then look across the Edsel Ford Freeway (I-94) at GM’s Hamtramck plant for a sense of the scale needed for a modern auto plant. Tesla would never leave the former GM/Toyota NUMMI plant for the Packard property.

      • 0 avatar
        shaker

        I checked it out – you’re right – “square foot”-wise, it takes up about 1/4 the area of the GM plant – but the Tesla operation in Fremont only uses a small portion of the old NUMMI plant – just saying that if the future is bright for Tesla, a plant in the northeast would be a good thing, and land is at bargain-basement prices. But, the area (environmentally) is “toxic”, not only with the leavings of the old ways, but with a decayed community surrounding it. Great hurdles to overcome, and anyone thinking about bringing some life to the area would likely need a lot of (gov’t) help, as no private concerns are knocking down doors to do it.

  • avatar
    mcc.pj

    That’s a new one. Godwin-ing a thread before it even has a chance to start?

    • 0 avatar

      Citing Godwin has become a heckler’s veto and it’s frequently used even when references to the events of 1933-45 are perfectly appropriate.

      In a discussion of good and evil, I could post a list of genocides, Burundi, Cambodia, Mao, Stalin, the Belgian Congo, but if I include the Holocaust, someone will shout “Godwin violation!” as a means of shutting down debate.

      Sometimes referencing the Nazis era is completely appropriate.

      • 0 avatar
        28-Cars-Later

        Odd that you mentioned the atrocities of the Belgian Congo. Until a few months ago I wasn’t really aware they even took place. I recommend an excellent book on the subject to those who are interested, King Leopold’s Ghost.

      • 0 avatar
        Georgewilliamherbert

        Sadly, some moron tried citing Godwin’s Law to shut up Mike Godwin himself last month…

  • avatar
    Toad

    The irony is that Detroit, on it’s current trajectory, will be free from work (or jobs) in the near future.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I miss Packards , they were damn fine Automobiles .

    Carry on with the comments please .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    Kevin Jaeger

    I think it’s just a stupid sign. I doubt the idiot that put it up put much thought into it or ever thought of that plant as a place of work. It’s been an empty hulk for the entire lives of most Detroit residents by now.

    Frankly, compared to the way the current residents have destroyed that area of Detroit this stupid sign is the least of their sins. They don’t need to worry about anyone offering them jobs at that site any time soon.

  • avatar
    mikey

    Exatly…just some idiot that pictures himself as an artist,making a political statement. Nothing more,nothing less.

    I’m sure it won’t take long for some union hating,comment to blame the UAW.

  • avatar
    Junebug

    I think it was some artsy fartsy douchbag with half a brain and he (she?) was trying to make a lame statement. I’ll bet whoever did it has never worked a day in any plant.

  • avatar
    danio3834

    The Packard plant is a fascinating place to explore, truly a time capsule of an era gone by. Compared to other industrial workplaces of the day, it hardly seems like a terrible place to work.

    I imagine the sign was put up by some sort of anti-capitalist attempting to make a statement by being provocative.

  • avatar
    Zackman

    As children and even teenagers, we trivialized history, especially WWll. Google Mattel and others to see western and war toy guns from the 1950s-1960s and see what neat stuff we got to play with! There was even a battery-powered .50 cal machine gun complete with tripod that was a scale model of the real thing!

    My parents bought me quite an arsenal that I was proud of. I even made a what turned out to be an exact scale model out of wood of a Tommy Gun when I was 15 just from looking at pictures, watching “Combat!” and getting a sense of size in relation to a person!

    As kids we used to jokingly “Heil Hitler”and “Sieg Heil” in class and on the street. For some reason, no one stopped us – and these were our parents and teachers, many who fought in the war.

    Go figure…

    Visit the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, and you’ll never think the same about war again, especially if you have never served.

  • avatar
    tresmonos

    The grandeur (and inefficiency) of Khan’s multi storied factories blow my mind. There is a Ford plant in Omaha, NE that was restored to condos. I’m not aware if he ever designed a 1 story, modern factory. It would be neat to see his rendition.

    It’s tough being a resident of the Detroit metro (I store my **** there) while appreciating historic industrial sites/architecture. Who gives a damn about a ‘hip’ artist’s defacing of one of Khan’s work? Look through it and appreciate a forgotten derelict-now hommage to a workforce… while it still stands.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m pretty sure that most of Kahn’s designs for Ford’s Rouge facility were single story buildings. Kahn also designed many of the “Ford Village Industries” factories, which were small shops that usually employed people in the dozens. Many of those factories had a single shop floor. Of course even Kahn’s multi-story factories had much more expansive space per floor than previous “Mill style” buildings which, like Ford’s Piquette Ave. factory, tend to have long and narrow floors. The mills used wooden post and beam construction, Kahn introduced the used of concrete reinforced with steel, allowing substantially larger floors.

      • 0 avatar
        tresmonos

        True, Ronnie. I didn’t think of those facilities. The village factory out in Northville (I think) is a site you made me aware of. It really is an impeccable structure.
        Thanks for the other tid bits of knowledge. Good stuff.

    • 0 avatar
      nikita

      Im not sure multi-story factories are that inefficient. Movement of parts in three dimensions means less distance to travel. Most of the parts of the car may have been made under one roof back then. Today, its all shipped in, so only final assembly and paint is done at one location. Also, heating such a space takes less energy than a sprawling one level building.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      Workspaces were organized differently 100 years ago; you had lots of people doing lots of assembly by hand with fewer machines and automated processes. Manufacturers also needed lots of labor so the factory had to fit into a somewhat urban setting that employees could get to by walking or taking a streetcar.

      A more compact facility made sense in 1900 (just as an office tower does today); now with automation and modern transportation large single story factories function more efficiently.

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      The mill-style structures dominated the industrial landscape of my prior home in the up-state of SC. Numerous facilities with elevators, etc. Those structures became out dated quickly due to energy costs and maintenance bottle necks (and for the reasons outlined by both of you). However, I was never certain why rural mill towns needed such compact buildings when heat, real estate and work force proximity were never really an issue. Most of the facilities still standing are concret and expansive – I’m not aware of any Khan structures, but there may have been a few in the more urban settings. I’m guessing it has everything to do with transplant architects / industrial planners from the North (aka carpet baggers).

      Edit – I always wanted to see the insides of several Milliken’s ‘Judson’ plant in Greenville. It looks to be a converted multi-story set-up. I am such a dork when it comes to old manufacturing sites.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        Those “transplant architects / industrial planners from the North” designed/built the same multi-story factories in the north because they had to be adjacent to water or rail transport which was limited and expensive. I worked in a bakery in Massachusetts that was converted from an 1854 cotton mill built of granite outer walls 3 feet thick, with interior wood beams held up by steel posts. The building was 80 feet by 300 feet, and six stories high, and built over a stream for water power to run the looms, with a rail line behind it. The local newspaper had cited the cost of the land at $50,000 and construction at $35,000 in 1854!

      • 0 avatar
        dtremit

        Keep in mind, too, that the river (or later, a single, large steam engine) was the sole source of power, which was transmitted vertically via belts and then horizontally via overhead shafts. Stacking the levels made it easier to harness that single power source.

      • 0 avatar
        tresmonos

        Some of these mills were city locked and on a hill (but had rail access!). I.E. Easley, Greenville, Pickens (all in SC). There’s a beautiful mill still standing in Newry that I know used to have hyrdro power. Man, you guys make me want to go back and photograph these factories to reflect on it.

        I used to live in a converted cotton mill in Eaton Rapids along side a stream. Beautiful structure and multi story. You guys are making me think :)

    • 0 avatar
      dtremit

      Willow Run was a Kahn design, too — although the scale of the single story is a bit larger, of course.

  • avatar
    grzydj

    They did build V-1650 Merlin engines under license from Rolls-Royce, which in a way set the workers from from the Nazis. I don’t know if they built those engines in this plant however.

    Still, the association with the sign and term is rather offensive, no matter what color of glasses you look through.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    “Or maybe I’m just thinking too much about a stupid sign.”

    I think so, maybe.

    But it’s evidence of what a pampered/entitled culture we’ve become. The sign would make one think that plant was never unionized.

  • avatar
    marmot

    That’s right. Those 12 cylinder Merlin engines Packard built not only powered British planes flying against the Nazis, they were also in our own P-51 Mustangs, widely considered the best fighter of World War II.

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    I’ve never been to Detroit, but among the ruins how many accessible locations have this sort of industrial bridge between buildings? I think this was the case of someone trying to make a clever/political statement in a prominent looking place which resembles in the infamous Auschwitz signage (as opposed to just some random wall etc). Packard has been out of business for fifty years I doubt whomever did this knows anything about the brand let alone making a statement against it specifically. I think place simply signifies if the “opportunity” part of the crime.

  • avatar
    econobiker

    One somewhat ironic or silly aspect about Detroit trying to get to tear down the Packard complex is that the city would have to comply with all kinds of environmental remediation items such as spraying water to contain friable (releasable to the air) asbestos that might be in the building as the structure is demolished and numerous other environmental remediation line items.

    As the city dithers about the issues, the scrappers were/are ripping the building apart with no concern for any environmental remediation at all as they were/are grinding and crushing the buildings’ structures for the copper, aluminum, and steel in it.

    So once 80% of the building is gone by scrappers, why would it matter then to contain the 20% left for remediation?

  • avatar
    icemilkcoffee

    You know, it would have been funnier if the artist had put ‘Strength through Joy’ up there. That particular slogan used to adorn da Fuhrer’s original VW factory.

    • 0 avatar
      Pch101

      The message probably has more to do with the demise of the American industrial city and its working class. I would presume that it’s intended to be ironic, although Americans aren’t necessarily known for their appreciation of irony…

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    A couple of years ago there was a discussion by the B&B that devolved into Nazi and Japanese war crimes. One of the editors/writers of TTAC jumped in and declared, “get over it, that’s ancient history.”

    This is what happens when you say, “get over it, that’s ancient history.”

    This is what happens when our schools teach World War II as an interesting footnote among a long list of other topics.

    Arbeit Macht Frei

    My relatives in Hungary and Belarus walked through gates that had those words over them. I am sure they would have much rather have been in a Packard factory in the United States, working on the war effort voluntarily, and going home each night with the hopes of catching a movie, or enjoying a pint of ice cream before it melted.

    Arbeit Macht Frei

    My relatives never walked out of those gates. For my Hungarian relatives, it was into the ovens of the crematoriums at Auschwitz. The fate of my Belorussian relatives was likely an unmarked mass grave and machine gun fire out in the woods on the outskirts of camp.

    Arbeit Macht Frei

    My father walked through those gates as a solider in Patton’s 3rd Army, 89th Division when he and other advanced forces liberated Buchenwald. The experiences of World War II forever changing him, so I’m told (I was not born, not even a twinkle in his eye) and left him fighting a lifetime of demons, trading in his M1 and bayonet with cigarettes, scotch, and 24 to 36 hours of sleep at a time. The drinking put the “fun” in dysfunctional for my childhood, and my lungs still have the scars of my three-pack-a-day habit by proxy for the 13 years of my life.

    Arbeit Macht Frei

    Clearly, we are forgetting – on what someone thought was likely an artistic statement, or a misguided anarchist or socialist, who thinks corporations, even the shattered remains of ones long gone, are the root of all evil.

    I am not suggesting that we “never forget” in the sense that in the Middle East, you could get killed for something you did last week just as quickly over something your ancestors did 1,000 years ago. Or if we look at Ireland and England, with the same dynamics, where you could get shot for what you did yesterday, or blown up for what your ancestors did 400 years ago (or likewise, lets antagonize you by rubbing it in your face).

    I’m not suggesting we go out and find VWs and Mercedes and flip them over and burn them, like in China over a few stray rocks.

    But I was bitterly disappointed when the atrocities of World War II were brought up, that the editorial staff of TTAC declared it, “ancient history.”

    This is what happens when you declare these events ancient history. Clearly, Europe has already forgotten, one only has to look at the Genocide in Bosnia and Serbia as an example. And genocide goes on to this day.

    I for one will never forget. I can’t. I can’t for my silenced blood relatives. I can’t for my father who just like my relatives, wasn’t truly free from the camp until the sweet release of death came. Even though I am not a practicing Jew I made sure my oldest, when it was age appropriate understood. For my youngest, when she is emotionally ready, we will discuss the Holocaust also.

    Arbeit Macht Frei as graffiti.

    This is what happens when we forget.

    The day this nation truly forgets, is the day we are set up to allow history to repeat itself (or ourselves be perpetrators if the right sequence of events were allowed to happen).

    Please. Never forget.

    • 0 avatar
      Toad

      Very well put.

      Those who forget history are destined to repeat it; perhaps those who want history forgotten also wish to see it happen again.

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      As with many things, there is a fine line between “never forgetting” and eternal bitterness.

      Many WWII vets eventually drove Japanese and German cars because – while never forgetting the horrors of that war – they could move beyond the bitterness of it.

      We should not forget the lessons, but the enemy wins if these conflicts control us forever.

      • 0 avatar
        jkross22

        gslippy,

        The best response to historical ignorance is to remind the ignorant of the past. That’s not living in bitterness – that’s doing what you can do to hopefully ensure those with short term memories not forget lessons history can teach.

        If you’re willing to listen, that is.

        I recall Eisenhower getting quoted as saying something to the effect of, “I wanted to make sure we took pictures (of the concentration camps) because some damn fool will say it didn’t happen”.

      • 0 avatar
        gslippy

        @jkross22: Agreed.

        All I’m saying is that – as best we can – the sins of the past shouldn’t develop into eternal predjudice when the offender has changed their ways. But the past does serve as a warning about other potential offenders.

  • avatar
    BTEFan

    I wonder if the building is past the point of restoration. Wouldn’t it be great if it could be repurposed for use as a retail, office or condo space. I am not familiar with the Detroit area so I am not sure that its possible or viable, but it would be sad to see it torn down.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      Considering that Worcester, Massachusetts was able to restore Grand Central Station after a long list of engineers came in and said it was impossible, I would say almost anything is possible.

      I think one of the biggest problems you’ll have with the Packard factory is its sheer size, the largest industrial building every built in the world I seem to remember is the claim to fame. Filling up that much space in a crumbling city like Detroit seems utterly impossible.

      • 0 avatar
        Lorenzo

        It was the largest manufacturing complex in terms of square feet in 1902, but not a single building. The concrete is deteriorating badly and the neglect has made many of the buildings too expensive to rehab. A couple of them were rehabbed, turned to other uses and occupied, but the derelicts around them, several of them with fire damage as well as on-going vandalism, have prevented the re-use from being popular.

        Most of the buildings are too far gone to be rebuilt, much less rehabbed, and are not only an eyesore and a magnet for vandals and other unsavory elements, but a black eye for the city, as an unfair example of the city’s “fall from grace”, so to speak . A couple of the buildings in the best condition, and the Packard headquarters building, should have been preserved as architectural examples, and the rest razed for ample parking.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Yes the buildings are far beyond the point of restoration just google Packard Factory ruins and you’ll find hundreds of pictures documenting it’s state.

      • 0 avatar
        madcynic

        Beyond restoration is of course a term that is only defined by economic considerations. I believe that while it may be possible to restore them, this may not be economically feasible, especially given the fact that you need to use them afterwards to avoid starting the decay process all over again.

  • avatar
    Joss

    Stupid sign.

    Others were targeted:

    After Barborossa began Soviet POWS were shipped to Auschwitz. The commissar were executed on capture by Einsatzgruppen. In Poland non-German Poles were shipped to the General Government under Hans Frank and starved. Similarly in the Ukraine under Rosenberg/Koch civilians were left to starve.

    Within Nazi Germany conscientious objectors got das fallbeil.

    In Motown don’t cops just show to investigate in the 3 wealthy suburbs? They show [eventually] elsewhere to take bodies away. Never mind stupid signs.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Hope the Packard plant survives long enough for me to see that icon of America’s automotive history. I’d love to watch a documentary that shows how the flow of work moved through the complex back in the 20’s and 30’s.

    As for the sign, I’d apply Occam’s Razor: easiest explanation is that some Occupy moron posted the slogan as an anti-capialist rant.

  • avatar
    oldyak

    after reading ‘Unbroken’ I came to the realization that evil exists in certain cultures.
    It made clear to me why we dropped the ‘bomb’.
    We in America have our gun culture…. but also freedom of speech and religion…So that some ‘bath salt’ intellectual can express his/her opinions without fear of going to a ‘camp’.
    I really don’t think Detroit is the expression of ‘our times’
    any more than Chicago or Philadelphia.There are just more ruins to post your graffiti on…..


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