The history of the Reichsarbeitsdienst (RAD) began in 1931 when Chancellor Heinrich Brüning on 5 June 1931 authorized the formation of state-sponsored labor camps to help against the unemployment, the Freiwilliger Arbeitsdienst (FAD). These camps were not meant to be political in any way, but as they were controlled by the individual states, their use varied greatly across the country, some where even used for military training by the Freikorps (a clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles).
Following the establishment of the FAD, other similar organisations was founded by various organisations such as the Stahlhelm and the NSDAP.

When Hitler was made Chancellor 1933 he soon appointed Konstantin Hierl as Secretary of State for the Labor Service, the control of which at this time were transferred from the states to the central government. There was considerable confusion in regard to the name of the labor service at this time, it was sometimes referred to as the FAD, sometimes as the Nationalsozialistischer Arbeitsdienst (NSAD) and sometimes as the Arbeitsdienst.
Service in the FAD was still voluntary but it was soon made a requirement for those wishing to study at a university or make a career in the NSDAP and its various organisations.

Minister of Labor Franz Seldte agreed with the SA leader Ernst Röhm in June 1934 to merge with FAD with the SA, but this never occured as the Night of the Long Knives destroyed much of the power of the SA. Hierl was promoted to Reichskommissar für den Freiwilligen Arbeitsdienst 11 July 1934 and made his independent of the Ministry of Labor.

The RAD was formally founded on 26 June 1935 when the Reichsarbeitsdienstgesetz was passed making service in the RAD compulsory. A similar organisation existed during the First World War when the Vaterländischer Hilfsdienst was formed.
The Reichsarbeitsdienst der weiblichen Jugend (RADwJ), the female branch of the RAD (the male branch was technically known as the RAD/M but it was always referred to simply as the RAD), was formed Apr 1936 when the Freiwilliger Frauenarbeitsdienst (also known as the Deutscher Frauenarbeitsdienst and Weiblicher Freiwilliger Arbeitsdienst) was made a part of the RAD.
The RAD was used for various tasks, mainly for reclaiming land for farming, helping with the harvests and construction roads, but also for various emergency relief projects.

When the broke out in 1939 the RAD lost over half of its men to the armed forces and it was suggested that the RAD should be disbanded until the war was over. However Hierl wanted the RAD to serve as an auxiliary to the Wehrmacht and work with the engineers of the Heer, and to a smaller extent the Luftwaffe.
After the campaign in Poland the RAD was removed from Wehrmacht control and resumed its prewar work, but following the invasion of Denmark it was once again placed under military control.
During the final years of the war the men were increasingly used in combat roles, such as in the anti-aircraft defences in Germany and even a few infantry divisions made up of RAD man, the Reichsarbeitsdienst-Divisionen, were formed.

It should be noted that the RAD never was a part of the NSDAP, though of course it was loyal to the Nazi ideology.