Portrait of Robert Ley
Oil painting on canvas, stretchers removed
91 cm wide, 151 cm high
- Collection No.:
One of the less well-known members of the National Socialist leadership was Robert Ley. Though he had been a party member since 1923, and thus a Nazi from the very first, and had held important leadership positions in both the party and the government, Ley was never really a member of the highest circle of power around Adolf Hitler. One of his chief positions was as head of the German Labor Front (the DAF) – the National Socialists' biggest mass organization, with 25 million members, established to replace labor unions in the National Socialist state. Ley was also an initiator of the "Strength through Joy" vacation program; one of the program's ships was named after him, and he was in charge of major construction projects like the program's gigantic Prora beach resort on the island of Rügen. Robert Ley was the party's national organizational head as well, and thus was officially in charge of organizing the Nazi Party Rallies. Yet his powers remained limited. For instance, it was Rudolf Hess, not Ley, that Hitler assigned to lead the Nazi Party itself.
Ley especially lost influence during the war. The most important decisions relating to labor were made not by him, as head of the DAF, but by Armaments Minister Albert Speer. Ley was left with only a position as "Reich Commissioner for Social Housing Construction," newly created in 1940.
Although Ley was not among the top leadership of the National Socialist state, he was nonetheless among the main culprits in National Socialism's criminal policies. He played a major role in the rise of National Socialism and its consolidation of power after 1933. Through the DAF and his "Strength through Joy" leisure organization, Ley attempted to take total control over the lives of the population – as he put it himself, people should have a private life only when they were asleep. From the very start, he was one of the most barbarous antisemitic agitators in the Nazi movement. Though he had a doctorate in chemistry, he had lost his job at IG Farben as early as 1928, not only because of his alcohol problem, but also because of his attacks on a Jewish banker. Constantly, and especially during the war, he openly called for the annihilation of the "Jewish race."
A further reason why Ley is less well known than other members of the Nazi elite is that he was not a defendant in the Nuremberg Trials. Arrested by the Americans as a leading Nazi, he hanged himself in his cell in Nuremberg on October 25, 1945, before the trials began. Thus he and his crimes were never brought to trial, and Ley's role in National Socialism also attracted relatively little scholarly attention in later years.
From the USA to Nuremberg – A 1944 oil painting of Ley
In the summer of 2020, the Documentation Center received an email originating from the state of New York, asking whether there was any interest in an oil painting of Robert Ley. An American soldier had taken the painting back to the USA after the war. His son had no interest in keeping the large item, which was historically meaningful, even though it was artistically undistinguished. He thus asked a friend to find a place for it in a museum. It is a sign of Nuremberg's reputation that the Memorium Nuremberg Trials and the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds are known internationally as institutions that might serve as places to conserve such a picture. It is not yet clear exactly how the picture came to be in the USA, and where it originally hung. (We will report back here if new information becomes available.) However, it was by no means unusual for U.S. soldiers to take souvenirs with National Socialist contents back home with them. A swastika flag from the USA was returned to Nuremberg in a similar way.
In the Internet age, making contact is easy. And once problems with packaging, shipping costs and customs had been solved, a large cardboard tube containing the picture of Robert Ley arrived at the Documentation Center in September 2020.Many thanks for the generous donation!
The painting, by an obscure artist named Wilhelm Damian, shows Ley in the uniform of a Reich political leader of the highest rank. In the left background a thick book lies open, perhaps intended to signal the sitter's intellectual pretentions. The painting dates from 1944, and was made in Munich. It is significant that even in the next to last year of the war, Ley felt the need to have himself immortalized in the prestigious format of a large oil painting. By that time it must have been clear even to him that the war was lost. Like many, however, he tried to ignore the painful facts. We can thus also view this painting as part of a veneer of normality that was maintained even though many German cities were already in ruins.
Robert Ley in the Documentation Center collection
We encounter various traces of Robert Ley in the Documentation Center's collection. Some of the photos in the Center's holdings show Ley – but mostly as part of a group with others, and not as the main figure. He also appears in many National Socialist publications among the Center's literature holdings, such as the guidebooks and souvenir books for the Nazi Party Rallies, since he was in charge as the national organization head in Nuremberg. Ley also published some books himself that portray the purported or actual successes of his work ("Germany has become more beautiful"). Two brochures by Ley in the Documentation Center's holdings clearly display his misanthropic, antisemitic malice. Here Ley attacks an alleged "international potpourri of peoples" and the American President Roosevelt, but most of all the supposed parasite and archenemy of the German people – "the Jew." The brochures from 1941 and 1942 are illustrated with numerous antisemitic photomontages and caricatures that resemble the illustrations in Julius Streicher's antisemitic weekly "Der Stürmer."
Thus the collection of the Documentation Center at the Nazi Party Rally Grounds also documents that even though Robert Ley was among the less-known National Socialists, his activity was by no means harmless. In both ideology and propaganda, Ley shares responsibility for the National Socialists' persecution of the Jews, including the murder of a vast portion of Europe's Jewish population.
For further reading:
Ronald Smelser: Robert Ley. Hitlers Mann an der "Arbeitsfront". Eine Biografie, Paderborn 1989
Text and research: Alexander Schmidt
Text license: CC BY SA 4.0
© Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds
Images may be used only with the prior consent of the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rally Grounds.