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Use of forced labour in Nazi Germany during World War II occurred on a large scale. It was an important part of the German economic exploitation of conquered territories; it also contributed to the extermination of populations of German–occupied Europe. The Germans abducted about 12 million people from almost twenty European countries; about two thirds of whom came from Eastern Europe. Many workers died as a result of their living conditions, mistreatment or were civilian casualties of the war. They received little or no compensation during or after the war.

Forced workers

Hitler's policy of Lebensraum strongly emphasized the conquest of new lands in the East, known as Generalplan Ost, and the exploitation of these lands to provide cheap goods and labour to Germany. Even before the war, Nazi Germany maintained a supply of slave labour. This practice started from the early days of labour camps of "undesirables" ( ), such as the homeless, homosexual, criminals, political dissidents, communists, Jews, and anyone whom the regime wanted out of the way. During World War II the Nazis operated several categories of Arbeitslager (labour camps) for different categories of inmates. Prisoners in Nazi labour camps were worked to death on short rations and in bad conditions, or killed if they became unable to work. Many died as a direct result of forced labour under the Nazis.

"Obligations of a worker during his or her stay in Germany" (in German and Polish)
The largest number of labour camps held civilians forcibly abducted in the occupied countries (see Łapanka) to provide labour in the German war industry, repair bombed railroads and bridges or work on farms. As the war progressed, the use of slave labour experienced massive growth. Prisoners of war and civilian "undesirables" were brought in from occupied territories. Millions of Jews, Slavs and other conquered peoples were used as slave labourers by German corporations such as Thyssen, Krupp, IG Farben and even Fordwerke - a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company. About 12 million forced labourers, most of whom were Eastern Europeans, were employed in the German war economy inside Nazi Germany throughout the war. More than 2000 German companies profited from slave labour during the Nazi era, including Deutsche Bank and Siemens.

A class system was created amongst Fremdarbeiter (foreign workers) brought to Germany to work for the Reich. The system was based on layers of increasingly less privileged workers, starting with well paid workers from Germany's allies or neutral countries to slave labourers from conquered untermensch (Nazi German term for what they saw as subhuman) populations.

  1. Gastarbeitnehmer (guest workers) - Workers from Germanic, Scandinavian countries, Italy or other German allies (Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary). This was a very small group, only about 1% of foreign workers in Germany came from countries that were neutral or allied to Germany.
  2. Zwangsarbeiter (forced workers)
    • Militärinternierte (military internees) For example, almost all Polish non-officer prisoners of war (c. 300,000) were forced to work in Germany. In 1944 there were almost two million prisoners of war employed as forced labourers in Germany.
    • Zivilarbeiter (civilian workers). Primarily Polish prisoners from the "General Government. They were regulated by strict Polish decrees: they received lower wages and could not use public conveniences (such as public transport) or visit many public spaces and businesses (for example they could not attend a German church service, swimming pools or restaurant); they had to work longer hours than Germans; they received smaller food rations; they were subject to a curfew; they often were denied holidays and had to work seven days a week; could not enter a marriage without permission; possession of money or objects of value, bicycles, cameras or lighters was forbidden; and they were required to wear a sign - the "Polish P" - attached to their clothing. In 1939 there were about 300,000 of them in Germany; In 1944 there were about 2,8 m Polish Zivilarbeiter in Germany (approximately 10% of Generalgouvernement workforce) and a similar number of workers in this category from other countries.
    • Ostarbeiter (Eastern workers) Soviet civil workers primarily from Ukraine. They were marked with a sign OST ("East"), had to live in camps that were fenced with barbed wire and under guard, and were particularly exposed to the arbitrariness of the Gestapo and the industrial plant guards. Estimates put the number of OST Arbeiters between 3 million and 5.5 million.

In general, foreign labourers from Western Europe had similar gross earnings and were subject to similar taxation as German workers. In contrast, the central and eastern European forced labourers received at most about one-half the gross earnings paid to German workers and much fewer social benefits. Forced labourers who were prisoners of labour or concentration camps received little if any wage and benefits. The deficiency in net earnings of central and eastern European forced labourers (versus forced labourers from western countries) is illustrated by the wage savings forced labourers were able to transfer to their families at home or abroad (see table).

The official German records for the late summer of 1944 listed 7.6 million foreign civilian workers and prisoners of war in the territory of the "Greater German Reich", who for the most part had been brought there for employment by force. By 1944, slave labour made up one quarter of Germany's entire work force, and the majority of German factories had a contingent of prisoners. The Nazis also had plans for the deportation and enslavement of Britain's adult male population in the event of a successful invasion.

Polish-forced-workers' badge
OST-Arbeiter badge
Foreign civilian forced labourers in Nazi Germany by country of origin, January 1944 Source: Beyer & Schneider
Countries Number % of total Transfers per labourer

in Reichsmarks
Occupied Eastern Europe 4,183,000 64.8 c. 15
Czechoslovakia 248,000 5.4
Poland 1,400,000 21.7 33.5
Yugoslavia 270,000 4.2
USSR 2,165,000 33.6 4
Occupied Western Europe 2,175,000 33.7 c. 700
France (except Alsace-Lorraine) 1,100,000 17.1 487
Norway 2,000 0.0
Denmark 23,000 0.4
Netherlands 350,000 5.4
Belgium 500,000 7.8 913
Greece 20,000 0.3
Italy 180,000 2.8 1,471
German allies and neutral countries 82,000 1.4
Hungary 25,000 0.4
Bulgaria 35,000 0.5
Romania 6,000 0.1
Spain 8,000 0.1
Switzerland 18,000 0.3

Organisation Todt

The Organisation Todt was a Third Reich civil and military engineering group in Germany eponymously named for its founder, Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi figure. The organization was responsible for a huge range of engineering projects both in pre-World War II Germanymarker, and in Germany itself and occupied territories from Francemarker to Russiamarker during the war, and became notorious for using forced labour. Most of the so-called "volunteer" Soviet POW workers were consumed by the Organisation Todt. The history of the organization falls fairly neatly into three phases:

  • A pre-war period from 1933–1938 during which the predecessor of Organisation Todt, the office of General Inspector of German Roadways (Generalinspektor für das deutsche Straßenwesen), was primarily responsibility for the construction of the German Autobahn network. The organisation was able to draw on "conscripted" - i.e., compulsory - labour, from within Germany, through the Reich Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst, RAD).
  • The period from 1938, when the Organisation Todt proper was founded until 1942, when the huge increase in the demand for labour created by the various military and paramilitary projects was met by a series of expansions of the laws on compulsory service, which ultimately obligated all Germans to arbitrarily determined (i.e. effectively unlimited) compulsory labour for the state: Zwangsarbeit. From 1938-40, Over 1.75 million Germans were conscripted into labour service. From 1940-42, Organization Todt began its reliance on Gastarbeitnehmer (guest workers), Militärinternierte (military internees), Zivilarbeiter (civilian workers), Ostarbeiter (Eastern workers) and Hilfswillige ("volunteer") POW workers.
  • The period from 1942 until the end of the war, with approximately 1.4 million labourers in the service of the Organisation Todt. Overall, 1% were Germans rejected from military service and 1.5% were concentration camp prisoners; the rest were prisoners of war and compulsory labourers from occupied countries. All were effectively treated as slaves and existed in the complete and arbitrary service of a ruthless totalitarian state. Many did not survive the work or the war.

Extreme cases: extermination through labour

Millions of Jews were forced labourers in ghettos, before they were shipped off to extermination camps. The Nazis also operated concentration camps, some of which provided free forced labour for industrial and other jobs while others existed purely for the extermination of their inmates. Ironically, at the entrances to a number of camps a German phrase meaning "work brings freedom" (Arbeit macht frei) was placed. A notable example of labour-concentration camp is the Mittelbau-Doramarker labour camp complex that serviced the production of the V-2 rocket. Extermination through labour was a Nazi German World War II principle that regulated the aims and purposes of most of their labour and concentration camps. The rule demanded that the inmates of German WWII camps be forced to work for the German war industry with only basic tools and minimal food rations until totally exhausted.

Controversy over compensation

To facilitate the rebuilding of German economy after the war, certain groups of Nazi victims were excluded from direct compensation through the German Government; those were the groups with the least amount of political pressure they could have brought to bear, and many forced labourers from the Eastern Europe fall into that category. Since the end of the war, there has been little initiative on the part of the German government or German industry to compensate the forced labourers under the Third Reich.

As stated in the London Debt Agreement of 1953:
Consideration of claims arising out of the Second World War by countries which were at war with or were occupied by Germany during that war, and by nationals of such countries, against the Reich and agencies of the Reich, including costs of German occupation, credits acquired during occupation on clearing accounts and claims against the Reichskreditkassen shall be deferred until the final settlement of the problem of reparations.

To this date, there are arguments that such settlement has never been fully completed and that Germany post-war development has been greatly aided, while the development of victim countries stalled.

A prominent example of a group which received almost no compensation for their time as forced labourer in Nazi Germany are the Polish forced labourers. According to the Potsdam Agreements of 1945, the Poles were to receive reparations not from Germany itself, but from the Soviet Unionmarker share of those repatriations; due to the Soviet pressure on the Polish communist government, the Poles agreed to a system of repayment that de facto meant that few Polish victims received any sort of adequate compensation (comparable to the victims in Western Europe or Soviet Union itself). Most of the Polish share of repatriations was "given" to Poland by Soviet Union under the Comecon framework, which was not only highly inefficient, but benefited Soviet Union much more than Poland. Under further Soviet pressure (related to the London Agreement on German External Debts), in 1953 the People's Republic of Poland announced its waiver of further claims of reparations from the successor states of the German Reich. Only after the fall of communism in Poland in 1989/1990 did the Polish government try to renegotiate the issue of repatriations, but found little support in this from the German side and none from the Soviet (later, Russian) side.

The total number of forced labourers under the Third Reich who were still alive as of August 1999 was 2.3 million. The German Forced Labour Compensation Programme was established in 2000; a forced labour fund paid out more than 4.37 billion euros to close to 1.7 million of then-living victims around the world (one-off payments of between 2,500 to 7,500 euros). Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel stated in 2007 that "Many former forced labourers have finally received the promised humanitarian aid"; she also conceded that before the fund was established nothing had gone directly to the forced labourers. German president Horst Koehler stated
It was an initiative that was urgently needed along the journey to peace and reconciliation... At least, with these symbolic payments, the suffering of the victims has been publicly acknowledged after decades of being forgotten.

See also


a. By January 1944, Italy has switched sides and is included in Occupied Western Europe. Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania would not switch sides till summer 1944 and are included in German allies section.


Further reading

  • German historian who has conducted a lot of research into the issue of Nazi forced labour.

External links

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