Tag Archives: Arbeit macht frei

“The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (from Songs of Innocence)

ChimneySweeperI’ve read this poem before and it never bothered me. I’d always viewed it as a social commentary against the horrific child labor practices in London. But having gone to the Holocaust Memorial in Washington DC this past week while on vacation, something about this poem struck me the wrong way, and while I am sure it is just my interpretation as seen through the lens of what I recently experienced, I still need to point out my issue with this poem.

Click here to read the poem online.

Most of the poem is pretty straight-forward. Innocent children are being exploited and one has a vision of an angel telling him that a better life awaits in the next realm. This vision provides hope for the child to continue with his life. It is the ending of the poem, though, that is problematic for me.

Tho’ the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm.
So if all do their duty, they need fear no harm.

This struck me as the same mentality that allowed the holocaust to occur, that quiet acquiescence in the face of abuse and human rights violations. On one hand, this is the same as the lie that “Arbeit macht frei” (Work makes you free) which appeared above the gates to Auschwitz. It is also likely that this is the same belief that caused many Germans to go along with the atrocities, the belief that they were only doing their duty. If you think about it, how many human rights violations are committed today as a result of “doing one’s duty.” Sometimes, doing what is right means refusing to do one’s duty.

I know that Blake was progressive and supported human rights, but we must be careful when we read and interpret literature. Ideas can be twisted and reinterpreted to express the exact opposite of what was originally intended. Just think about how many atrocities have been justified by an individual’s interpretation of a religious text. Words are powerful; therefore, we must be careful when we use them.

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