Robert Ley (German: [ˈlaɪ]; 15 February 1890 – 25 October 1945)
was a German politician during the
Nazi era who headed the German
Labour Front from 1933 to 1945. He committed suicide while awaiting
Nuremberg for war crimes.
1 Early life
2 Labour Front head
3 Strength Through Joy
4 Wartime role
6 See also
9 External links
Ley was born in Niederbreidenbach (now a part of Nümbrecht) in the
Rhine Province, the seventh of 11 children of a heavily indebted
farmer, Friedrich Ley, and his wife Emilie (née Wald). He studied
chemistry at the universities of Jena, Bonn, and Münster. He
volunteered for the army on the outbreak of
World War I
World War I in 1914 and
spent two years in the artillery before training as an aerial
artillery spotter with Field Artillery Detachment 202. In July 1917
his aircraft was shot down over
France and he was taken prisoner. It
has been suggested that he suffered a traumatic brain injury in the
crash; for the rest of his life he spoke with a stammer and suffered
bouts of erratic behaviour, aggravated by heavy drinking.
After the war Ley returned to university, gaining a doctorate in 1920.
He was employed as a food chemist by a branch of the giant IG Farben
company, based in
Leverkusen in the Ruhr. Enraged by the French
occupation of the
Ruhr in 1924, Ley became an ultra-nationalist and
Nazi Party soon after reading Adolf Hitler's speech at his
trial following the
Beer Hall Putsch
Beer Hall Putsch in Munich. By 1925 he was
Gauleiter of the Southern Rhineland district and editor of a
virulently anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper, the Westdeutsche Beobachter.
Ley proved unswervingly loyal to Hitler, which led the party leader to
ignore complaints about his arrogance, incompetence and
Labour Front head
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In 1931, Ley was brought to the Nazi Party's
Munich headquarters to
take over as head of the party organisation
(Reichsorganisationsleiter) following Hitler's dismissal of Gregor
Strasser in an internal dispute. Ley's impoverished upbringing and
his experience as head of the largely working-class
Ruhr party region
meant that he was sympathetic to those elements in the party who were
open to socialism, which Hitler opposed, but he always sided with
Hitler in inner party disputes. This helped him survive the hostility
of other party officials such as the party treasurer, Franz Xaver
Schwarz, who regarded him as a drunken incompetent. When Hitler became
Chancellor in January 1933, Ley accompanied him to Berlin. In April,
when the trade union movement was taken over by the state, Hitler
appointed him head of the
German Labour Front
German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront,
The DAF took over the existing Nazi trade union formation, the
National Socialist Factory Cell Organisation (Nationalsozialistische
Betriebszellenorganisation, NSBO) as well as the main trade union
federation. But Ley's lack of administrative ability meant that the
NSBO leader, Reinhold Muchow, a member of the socialist wing of the
Nazi Party, soon became the dominant figure in the DAF, overshadowing
Ley. Muchow began a purge of the DAF administration, rooting out
ex-Social Democrats and ex-Communists and placing his own militants in
The NSBO cells continued to agitate in the factories on issues of
wages and conditions, annoying the employers, who soon complained to
Hitler and other Nazi leaders that the DAF was as bad as the
Communists had been.
(from left) Philipp Bouhler, Karl Freiherr Michel von Tüßling, and
Robert Ley with his wife Inge; Munich, July 1939
Hitler had no sympathy with the syndicalist tendencies of the NSBO,
and in January 1934 a new Law for the Ordering of National Labour
effectively suppressed independent working-class factory
organisations, even Nazi ones, and put questions of wages and
conditions in the hands of the Trustees of Labour (Treuhänder der
Arbeit), dominated by the employers. At the same time Muchow was
purged and Ley's control over the DAF re-established. The NSBO was
completely suppressed and the DAF became little more than an arm of
the state for the more efficient deployment and disciplining of labour
to serve the needs of the regime, particularly its massive expansion
of the arms industry.
Once his power was established, Ley began to abuse it in a way that
was conspicuous even by the standards of the Nazi regime. On top of
his generous salaries as DAF head, Reichsorganisationsleiter, and
Reichstag deputy, he pocketed the large profits of the Westdeutsche
Beobachter, and freely embezzled DAF funds for his personal use. By
1938 he owned a luxurious estate near Cologne, a string of villas in
other cities, a fleet of cars, a private railway carriage and a large
art collection. He increasingly devoted his time to "womanising and
heavy drinking, both of which often led to embarrassing scenes in
public." On 29 December 1942 his second wife Inge (1916–1942)
shot herself after a drunken brawl. Ley's subordinates took their
lead from him, and the DAF became a notorious centre of corruption,
all paid for with the compulsory dues paid by German workers. One
historian says: "The DAF quickly began to gain a reputation as perhaps
the most corrupt of all the major institutions of the Third Reich. For
this, Ley himself had to shoulder a large part of the blame."
Strength Through Joy
The KDF-Schiff Robert Ley, March 1939
The KDF-Schiff Wilhelm Gustloff, 23 Sept 1939
Hitler and Ley were aware that the suppression of the trade unions and
the prevention of wage increases by the Trustees of Labour system,
when coupled with their relentless demands for increased productivity
to hasten German rearmament, created a real risk of working-class
discontent. In November 1933, as a means of preventing labour
disaffection, the DAF established
Strength Through Joy
Strength Through Joy (Kraft durch
Freude, KdF), to provide a range of benefits and amenities to the
German working class and their families. These included subsidised
holidays both at resorts across Germany and in "safe" countries abroad
(particularly Italy). Some of the world's first purpose built
cruise-liners, the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Robert Ley, were built to
take KdF members on Mediterranean cruises.
Other KdF programs included concerts, opera and other forms of
entertainment in factories and other workplaces, free physical
education and gymnastics training and coaching in sports such as
football, tennis and sailing. All this was paid for by the DAF, at a
cost of 29 million Reichsmarks a year by 1937, and ultimately by the
workers themselves through their dues, although the employers also
contributed. KdF was one of the Nazi regime's most popular programs,
and played a large part in reconciling the working class to the
regime, at least before 1939.
The DAF and KdF's most ambitious program was the "people's car," the
Volkswagen, originally a project undertaken at Hitler's request by the
car-maker Ferdinand Porsche. When the German car industry was unable
to meet Hitler's demand that the
Volkswagen be sold at 1,000
Reichsmarks or less, the project was taken over by the DAF. This
brought Ley's old socialist tendencies back into prominence. The
party, he said, had taken over where private industry had failed,
because of the "short-sightedness, malevolence, profiteering and
stupidity" of the business class. Now working for the DAF, Porsche
built a new
Volkswagen factory at Fallersleben, at a huge cost which
was partly met by raiding the DAF's accumulated assets and
misappropriating the dues paid by DAF members. The
Volkswagen was sold
to German workers on an installment plan, and the first models
appeared in February 1939. The outbreak of war, however, meant that
none of the 340,000 workers who paid for a car ever received one. The
entire project was financially unsound, and only the corruption and
lack of accountability of the Nazi regime made it possible.[a]
Ley said in a speech in 1939: "We National Socialists have monopolized
all resources and all our energies during the past seven years so as
to be able to be equipped for the supreme effort of battle." With
the outbreak of
World War II
World War II in September 1939, Ley's importance
declined. The militarisation of the workforce and the diversion of
resources to the war greatly reduced the role of the DAF, and the KdF
was largely curtailed. Ley's drunkenness and erratic behaviour were
less tolerated in wartime, and he was supplanted by Armaments Minister
Fritz Todt and his successor
Albert Speer as the czar of the German
workforce (the head of the
Organisation Todt (OT)). As German workers
were increasingly conscripted, foreign workers, first "guest workers"
France and later slave labourers from Poland, Ukraine and other
eastern countries, were brought in to replace them. Ley played some
role in this program, but was overshadowed by Fritz Sauckel, General
Plenipotentiary for the Distribution of Labour
(Generalbevollmächtigter für den Arbeitseinsatz), in 1942.
Nevertheless, Ley was deeply implicated in the mistreatment of foreign
slave workers. In October 1942 he attended a meeting in
Paul Plieger (head of the giant
Hermann Göring Works industrial
combine) and leaders of the German coal industry. A verbatim account
of the meeting was kept by one of the managers. A recent historian
The key item on the agenda was the question of 'how to treat the
Russians.'... Robert Ley, as usual, was drunk. And when Ley got drunk
he was prone to speak his mind. With so much at stake, there was no
room for compassion or civility. No degree of coercion was too much,
and Ley expected the mine managers to back up their foremen in meting
out the necessary discipline. As Ley put it: 'When a Russian pig has
to be beaten, it would be the ordinary German worker who would have to
Despite his failings, Ley retained Hitler's favour; until the last
months of the war he was part of Hitler's inner circle along with
Martin Bormann and Joseph Goebbels. In November 1941 he was given
a new role, as Reich Commissioner for Social House-Building
(Reichskommissar für den sozialen Wohnungsbau), later shortened to
Reich Housing Commissioner (Reichswohnungskommissar). Here his job was
to prepare for the effects on German housing of the expected Allied
air attacks on German cities, which began to increase in intensity
from 1941 onwards. In this role he became a key ally of Armaments
Minister Albert Speer, who recognised that German workers must be
adequately housed if productivity was to be maintained. As the air war
against Germany increased from 1943, "dehousing" German workers became
an objective of the Allied area bombing campaign, and Ley's
organisation was increasingly unable to cope with the resulting
He was aware in general terms of the Nazi regime's programme of
extermination of the Jews of Europe. Ley encouraged it through the
virulent anti-Semitism of his publications and speeches. In February
1941 he was present at a meeting along with Speer, Bormann and Field
Wilhelm Keitel at which Hitler had set out his views on the
"Jewish question" at some length, making it clear that he intended the
"disappearance" of the Jews one way or another.
In May 1944, Ley addressed a nationwide gathering of merchants in
Ley is arrested in his pyjamas by US paratroopers in May 1945.
The cell where
Robert Ley hanged himself
As Nazi Germany collapsed in early 1945, Ley was among the government
figures who remained fanatically loyal to Hitler. He last saw
Hitler on 20 April 1945, Hitler's birthday, in the
central Berlin. The next day he left for southern Bavaria, in the
expectation that Hitler would make his last stand in the "National
Redoubt" in the alpine areas. When Hitler refused to leave Berlin, Ley
was effectively unemployed. On 16 May he was captured by American
paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division in a shoemaker's house in
the village of Schleching. Ley told them he was "Dr. Ernst
Distelmeyer," but he was identified by Franz Xaver Schwarz, the
treasurer of the
Nazi Party and a long-time enemy.
Nuremberg Trials, Ley was indicted under Count One ("The Common
Plan or Conspiracy to wage an aggressive war in violation of
international law or treaties"), Count Three (War Crimes, including
among other things "mistreatment of prisoners of war or civilian
populations") and Count Four ("Crimes Against Humanity – murder,
extermination, enslavement of civilian populations; persecution on the
basis of racial, religions or political grounds"). Ley was
apparently indignant at being regarded as a war criminal, telling the
American psychiatrist Douglas Kelley and psychologist Gustave
Gilbert who had seen and tested him in prison: "Stand us against a
wall and shoot us, well and good, you are victors. But why should I be
brought before a Tribunal like a c-c-c- ... I can't even get the word
On 24 October, three days after receiving the indictment, Ley
strangled himself in his prison cell using a noose made by tearing a
towel into strips, fastened to the toilet pipe in his cell.
Glossary of Nazi Germany
Nazi Party leaders and officials
^ Tooze notes: "Even if the war had not intervened, developments up to
1939 made clear that the entire conception of the 'people's car' was a
disastrous flop." Tooze 2006, p. 156.
^ "Dr. Ley's Brain: Study by Army Doctors Show Nazi Suicide was
Medically Degenerate". LIFE: 45. February 4, 1946.
^ Smelser 1988, p. 15.
^ Evans 2005, p. 458.
^ Evans 2005, p. 459.
^ Orlow 1973, p. 22.
^ Evans 2005, p. 460.
^ a b c Evans 2005, p. 463.
^ Tooze 2006, p. 154.
^ Jackson 1946.
^ Tooze 2006, p. 529.
^ Sereny 1995, p. 477.
^ Kershaw 2000, p. 350.
Anna Rosmus Hitlers Nibelungen, Samples Grafenau 2015, pp. 283f
^ Kershaw 2000, p. 774.
^ Rapport, Northwood & Marshall 1948, pp. 741–744.
^ Jack El-Hai : The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring,
Dr. Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of
WWII, Publisher: PublicAffairs, 2013, ISBN 161039156X
^ a b Sereny 1995, p. 573.
Evans, Richard J. (2005). The
Third Reich in Power. London: Allen
Lane. ISBN 978-0-7139-9649-4.
Jackson, Robert (July 26, 1946). "Summation of Robert Jackson in the
Nuremberg Major War Figures Trial". law2.umkc.edu. Retrieved 10
Kershaw, Ian (2000). Hitler, 1936–45: Nemesis. New York: W.W.
Norton. ISBN 978-0-393-04994-7.
"The Avalon Project: Indictment of the International Military
Tribunal". avalon.law.yale.edu. Retrieved 10 February 2012.
Orlow, Dietrich (1973). The History of the Nazi Party: 1933–1945.
Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Rapport, Leonard; Northwood, Arthur Jr; Marshall, Samuel Lyman Atwood
(1948). Rendezvous With Destiny: A History of The 101st Airborne
Division. Washington: Infantry Journal Press. OCLC 4166870.
Sereny, Gitta (1995). Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. London:
Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-333-64519-2.
Smelser, Ronald (1988). Robert Ley: Hitler's Labor Front Leader.
Oxford: Berg. ISBN 978-0-85496-161-0.
Tooze, Adam (2006). The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking
of the Nazi Economy. London: Allen Lane.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Robert Ley.
Ley's 1936 speech to
Nazi Party factory activists
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Robert Ley
Final occupants of the
Führerbunker by date of departure (1945)
Karl-Jesko von Puttkamer
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Robert Ritter von Greim
Bernd Freytag von Loringhoven
Nicolaus von Below
Armin D. Lehmann
Theodor von Dufving
Still present on 2 May
Eva Hitler (Eva Braun)
Blondi (Hitler's dog)
Major defendants at the
Sentenced to death
Joachim von Ribbentrop
Karl Dönitz (10 years)
Walther Funk (life)
Rudolf Hess (life)
Konstantin von Neurath
Konstantin von Neurath (15 years)
Erich Raeder (life)
Baldur von Schirach
Baldur von Schirach (20 years)
Albert Speer (20 years)
Franz von Papen
Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach3
1 In absentia. Remains discovered in
Berlin in 1972 and
conclusively identified in 1998; confirmed to have committed suicide
on 2 May 1945
2 Committed suicide on 15 October 1946 before sentence could be
3 Found unfit to stand trial
4 Committed suicide on 25 October 1945
ISNI: 0000 0001 0955 7794
BNF: cb121910461 (data)