Why a fearless Welsh journalist praised German work camps in 1933

Gareth Jones was a fearless investigative journalist, famous for his reports on the horrific famine that followed enforced collectivization in the Ukraine. He is the subject of a biography published by the Welsh Academic Press, but is now becoming familiar to a wider audience thanks to the newly-released Mr Jones, a major film directed by the wonderful Agnieszka Holland, starring James Norton as Jones (and featuring part of Fife as his home town of Barry).

James Norton


I first came across Jones in a rather different context, while researching for my study of British work camps. In a series of articles in spring 1933 for the Western Mail and South Wales News, Jones reported on his visits to German labour camps in February 1933, an experience that ‘impressed me deeply’.

Jones’ impressions of the German camps he visited were overwhelmingly positive. He compared the large scale of the German Arbeitsdienst camps with the handful of voluntary and government camps in Wales, concluding that the latter had lessons to learn.

If Wales had done as much as Germany for the unemployed there would now be 300 camps here, and about 10,000 young Welshmen between 18 and 25 years of age would be engaged at useful work, repairing boots, singing, doing physical exercise, playing football or cricket and discussing everything under the sun. . . .Germany is years ahead of Wales in tackling unemployment. Thus Wales has a chance of catching up its brother nation and perhaps of beating Germany in the quality of work done. The opportunity is a magnificent one, especially for the Churches (Western Mail & South Wales News, 27 April 1933).

This cheery picture might seem odd, given how we now view the German labour camps. But when Jones visited Germany, the Nazi Party was just consolidating its hold on power, participation in labour service was still voluntary, and the camps were still organised by a wide variety of voluntary organisations.

Jones visited at least one camp run by the Stahlhelm, a nationalist and conservative paramilitary grouping founded in 1918 as a veterans’ movement; after the Nazi seizure of power, it was integrated into the Nazi structures in 1934. Jones noted that the unemployed trainees wore uniforms and helmets, concluding that the Stahlhelm camp ‘had done excellent work in making orchards and building roads, but their outlook was nationalistic and military’.

Jones also visited other types of camp, including one organised by a Christian group. But he worried that ‘Now, however, the whole system is in the melting-pot, for Hitler is in power, and it is feared that he may destroy its voluntary basis and make it compulsory and narrowly nationalistic’. As indeed was the case when the Nazis replaced the voluntary system with their universal male Reichsarbeitsdienst.

Jones was far from alone in admiring the voluntary labour service of pre-Nazi Germany. In my book I quoted Jones alongside the example of a Workers’ Educational Association study tour which was particularly taken with the ‘democratic way of living’ in a German camp. The fact is that many if not most of these camps were very different animals from the universal labour service enforced by the Nazis.

Entirely consistently, Jones also admired Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, another large scale work camp initiative which trained young unemployed men on public works, in what Jones described as ‘a labour army’. Jones valued such camps because they ‘rescue’ unemployed men from ‘the apathy of worklessness’; what he despised was indifference to their plight.

Did this make him a Nazi sympathiser? Not at all, but Jones certainly has good contacts with the Nazi leaders, and he was denounced by some Western anti-fascists for ‘smearing’ the Soviet Union, of which the Ukraine was a part.

Jones died young, murdered in China in 1935 shortly before his 30th birthday. I very much welcome the film’s celebration of a journalist who uncovered uncomfortable truths about things most readers preferred to ignore. Meanwhile, if you want to read more on 1930s work camps in Britain (and to a lesser extent Ireland), hunt down a copy of my book.

Celebrating work camps as national treasures – the case of the Civilian Conservation Corps

Some Australian friends recently sent me some photographs they’d taken while vacationing in the USA. Among other places they visited Colorado, sending me photos of Mesa Verde, where the the Ancestral Pueblo peoples built their cliff dwellings and farms; and the Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where you can watch the moon rising over Denver as you listen to your favourite performer.

tb ccc3

Statue at Red Rocks

TB ccc1

Information panel at Mesa Verde

What both sites have in common was that during the 1930s, they housed work camps for unemployed young men. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a product of Roosevelt’s New Deal; it opened in 1933, placing over a quarter of a million single men in 1,300 camps, employing them on public works that were chosen partly for their public value. In contrast to Britain, the programme became so popular that politicians lobbied to have the CCC open camps in their electoral districts. I’ve met elderly American socialists who will brook no contradiction with their view that the CCC was a force for good.

tb ccc2

This enduring popularity might seem inexplicable, particularly as the camps were segregated, women were excluded, and the men wore uniforms and came under military control. But the USA had no welfare system, in contrast to the unemployment benefit available in Britain and elsewhere, and the CCC made it possible for the federal government to pay unemployed single men. It also benefited from its association with the wider New Deal programme.

tb ccc4

And Roosevelt was not shy of mobilising public opinion. On the contrary, he was one of the first major democratic politicians to make use of new mass media (wireless in his case) to publicise his administration’s work, and the CCC was equally adept at promoting a positive image, helped by the nature of the work it undertook. While the British Government reached an agreement with the trade unions limiting the work to be done in its work camps, the CCC proudly presented itself as building the modern facilities needed for a nation of pioneers.

Hence my interest in Tony and Janet Brown’s photos. I find it fascinating to see how the memory of the CCC is kept alive and celebrated today, and while I love Rachel Whiteread’s Nissen Hut sculpture in North Yorkshire, it is understated and rather remote. If not exactly secret, most of the British work camps are largely forgotten, along with the unemployed young men who laid the basis for so many of our great forests.

Check out my book if you want to find out more about the British experience of labour camps..



Christmas Day in the work camp

I was trying to explain ‘It Was Christmas Day in the Workhouse’ to a friend the other day. I told her about the tradition of dramatic monologues (brilliantly kept alive by Stanley Accrington and other hardy souls) as well as the harshness of the Poor Law that the poem critiques. It’s a sentimental piece, and was much parodied later on, with a particularly bawdy version passing down from the trenches of 1914-18 to the rugby teams of my youth.

The discussion made me wonder how Christmas was marked in the various work camp systems that permeated British social policy between the 1880s and 1930s. No archival material is dedicated to this topic, and I forgot to ask anyone I interviewed. But I can piece together a sketchy picture from a hint here and an aside there.  

Many early labour colonies were founded either by churches or by Christian charities. Both saw Christmas as an ideal time for fund-raising. Routinely, officials would write to the press, reminding readers that unfortunate fellow-citizens relied on the public to finance their labours. Some charities arranged seasonal entertainment: the good Presbyterians of Bridge of Allan, for instance, serenaded the unemployed inmates at Cornton Vale Labour Colony.

Most of the inebriate colonies – largely run for women, but that’s another story – demanded daily prayer, as did the colonies for unemployed men run by Nonconformists in England and Presbyterians in Scotland. On Christmas Day itself, as the managers and officers were Christians, work was forbidden and religious services were compulsory. 

We know next to nothing about how the inmates responded to this combination of religion with a day off work. However, there is a clue in the discipline register of Dunton Farm Colony, which was run by Poplar Board of Guardians. John Clark, the superintendent, recorded in December 1907 that nineteen men were sentenced to one meal of bread and water for returning after hours and under the influence of drink on Christmas Day and Boxing Day (a larger number who merely came in after hours were reprimanded).

Some of the labour colonies continued to function after 1918, usually with some sort of government support. At Belmont Labour Colony, near Sutton, London County Council allowed the unemployed inmates to take five days holiday at Christmas, provoking the men in 1931 to elect a deputation to demand an extra day’s rest.

During the 1930s, the Ministry of Labour developed a much larger and more systematic programme. Its main aim was to ‘recondition’ young unemployed young men, taking them to live in huts or tents in a camp of around 200 men, usually located in areas being prepared for forestry. The tented camps were seasonal, and held in the summer months, so Christmas was not an issue for them. In the hutted camps, the Ministry of Labour allocated seven days for Christmas, with an extra day for travel for any men who wished to visit their home.

What the men were expected to do for seven days is unknown, and I imagine that most chose to return to their families. Each camp had a welfare officer who organised games, film shows and other entertainments; there was usually a nearby village pub; and while the Ministry did not organise religious services, the local clergy could visit, and the men could borrow the camp lorry to visit church.

Did the men see seven days with no work, other than whatever was required to prepare meals and keep the camp in order, as an attractive prospect? Several of the trainees told me that their life in the Ministry’s camps was often tedious at the best of times, so we can probably guess how they felt about the idea of seven days of ‘leisure’.