Jamie McCarthy answers:
I am one of the volunteers who answers questions for The Holocaust History Project.
The Arbeitsdienst ("labor service" or "labor battalion") was compulsory for men in Nazi Germany upon reaching the age of 18. Freedom truly to decide one's own fate was rare in Hitler's society. Hitler took what had been a volunteer organization and made it, like many other Nazi organizations, mandatory. As William Shirer writes in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 1960, p. 253:
At fourteen the boy entered the Hitler Youth proper and remained there until he was eighteen, when he passed into the Labor Service and the Army.
Shirer later comments (p. 256):
In most cases it did no harm to a city boy and girl to spend six months in the compulsory Labor Service, where they lived outdoors and learned the value of manual labor and of getting along with those of different backgrounds. No one who traveled up and down Germany in those days and talked with the young in their camps and watched them work and play and sing could fail to see that, however sinister the teaching, here was an incredibly dynamic youth movement.
It is true that, like other such organizations, the principles of Nazism would have been taught to members of the Arbeitsdienst. This indoctrination was also part of the Hitler Youth, and indeed the entire educational process from a young age, in Hitler's Germany.
But I believe the Arbeitsdienst was essentially the only alternative to the army, for an 18-year-old man in Germany in the 1930s, and so I would caution against reading too much into mere membership in that group.
Thank you for writing.
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Last modified: February 4, 2002