Forced Labor

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As defined by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1930, forced labor is "all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty, and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily." In historiography a clear delineation of forced labor is rather difficult. It has to be distinguished from specific forms of unfree labor that have been commonly accepted, especially work obligations during war and catastrophes, and work by prisoners of war; by persons in penitentiary institutions or workhouses; and by persons in debt bondage on the one side and in slavery on the other, discussions of which include questions of individual property rights related to the laborers.

Unfree labor is not a new phenomenon of the twentieth century. It has existed since ancient times in different forms, especially the work obligations of peasants in feudal societies and slavery in Africa, America, and Asia. Twentieth-century forced labor was a mass phenomenon organized by modern states, predominantly in dictatorships. Its characteristics were imprisonment, often deportation to other places, inhumane living and working conditions, and little or no payment.

According to the fourth Hague Convention (1907) on the rules of law in ground warfare, services forced on a population by an occupier had to be restricted to the actual necessities of the occupying army and in relation to the resources available. The International Labour Organization, after a convention on slavery in 1926, brought forward a convention on forced labor in 1930.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, most European states allowed forced labor in their colonies. Russia since the eighteenth century had located its penal exile and forced labor system (katorga) in Siberia. Among the first cases of mass recruitment for forced labor in Europe were German deportations from occupied Belgium and Poland during World War I. The German government in 1915 ordered that civilians in these occupied areas be forcibly recruited and transported to the Reich for work in the armament industry. These deportations were stopped in 1917. After the war they constituted a major war crimes allegation against German officials.


The first modern dictatorship to organize forced labor on a mass scale was Bolshevik Soviet Russia. Already in mid-1918 the government of Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) introduced compulsory labor service in the constitution of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (SFSR) and installed camps for alleged political or class enemies. In 1921, more than one hundred thousand citizens were imprisoned in the different camp systems. The precursor of the gulag, the Northern Camps of Special Tasks at the Solovetsky Islands was installed in 1922–1923 by the political police (then OGPU).

The expansion of imprisonment was connected to the collectivization drive under the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) from 1929 to 1930. New camp systems, now explicitly called labor correction camps (ispravitelno-trudovye lageri) and networks of so-called labor colonies were installed, most of them in Siberia. In October 1934, after the reorganization of the camp system into the Main Administration for Camps (Glavnoe Upravlenie Lagerei, or GULag) of the NKVD (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs), more than a million persons lived in these camps, most of them farmers and their families. Forced labor now became integrated in the economic planning of the state, which prevailed from the first Five-Year-Plan of 1928. The camps were subordinated to specific economic People's Commissariats, or ministries, especially for construction or forestry works.

Connected to the terror waves especially in 1937–1938, hundreds of thousands of alleged "enemies of the people" were arrested and detained in camps or colonies. Already before the war 1.6 million persons had been imprisoned; after the annexation of Polish and Baltic territories in the west, this figure rose to 1.9 million persons. During the war, the death rate reached its high point at 25 percent of prisoners a year, which means that from 1941 to 1945 almost one million gulag prisoners died in camps and labor colonies. More than three hundred thousand ethnic Germans were forcibly recruited into the labor army (trudarmiya) beginning in late 1941. The majority of the three million Axis prisoners of war (POWs) in the Soviet Union were put under a hard labor regime from 1944 on, especially in order to reconstruct the devastated western areas. The gulag system reached its culmination during the years 1948–1952, with approximately 2.5 million prisoners. In 1943 an extreme category of special camps was introduced (katorga camps), with the hardest working conditions and low food rates. According to Soviet statistics, which present rather minimal figures, at least two million persons died in the gulag, more than one million in the labor colonies, and another million in the POW and internment camps. During the course of early destalinization, from 1954 on, a large number of the surviving prisoners were released, but the gulag remained in action until 1960. Other forms of forced labor, as in prison, continued to exist until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

Under the control of the Soviet Union, the regimes of Eastern European states operated forced labor camps immediately after the war, from 1945 for German minorities or alleged collaborators, and from 1947–1948 on for persons considered as enemies of the new communist regimes. Some of these prisoners were exploited for forced labor, sometimes under very hard conditions. Most of the camps remained in operation until the mid-1950s.


Another type of forced labor system was installed by Nazi Germany and, to a certain extent, by its Axis allies. Beginning in 1933, the regime of Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) installed concentration camps, intended to detain first alleged political enemies, later groups considered as "racial" enemies. The concentration camp system was in decline until 1937, when new types of big camps were introduced, and the number of inmates rose considerably from 1938 on. From 1938 on, four types of forced labor can be distinguished under Nazi rule: (a) forced labor inside the expanding concentration camp system, (b) forced labor in the occupied territories, (c) the recruitment of foreign laborers for the Reich, and (d) forced labor of Jews.

The number of concentration camp inmates rose with each military expansion. But their workforce until 1941–1942 was predominantly used for SS-owned firms. The SS (Schutzstaffel) failed in their efforts to introduce work for German enterprises inside the big concentration camps. Instead in 1942 the installation of concentration camp branches in or near the enterprises started and expanded massively in 1943–1944. In the beginning of 1945, more than seven hundred thousand persons were imprisoned in the camps, the majority of whom worked in subcamps either for the armament industry or for SS purposes. Death rates among concentration camp inmates were very high. Out of the estimated 1.5–2 million concentration camp prisoners, approximately eight hundred thousand did not survive the war.

Forced labor recruitment inside the occupied territories especially affected Jews and other criminalized groups and was used for defense works. People suspected of working for the Resistance were interned and forced to work for German purposes, as were farmers who did not fulfill the German grain quota. The latter were put into specific labor camps. In the occupied Soviet territories, work columns were introduced in several regions. During the German retreats, from 1943–1944 on, tens of thousands of eastern Europeans were recruited to build fortifications.

The major part of the foreign workforce during World War II was civilians deported to the Reich. Until early 1942 direct force was not much used in recruitment, this changed with the establishment of the General Plenipotentiary for Labor (Generalbevollmächtigter für den Arbeitseinsatz), which organized manhunts especially in Poland and the Soviet Union. Working and living conditions were generally hard, but varied according to workplace, less dangerous in agriculture, more in coal mining. Approximately eight million civilians were thus forcibly employed in the Reich, the majority from Poland ("P-Arbeiter") and the Soviet Union ("Ostarbeiter"). The latter groups suffered the most, approximately 150,000 to 300,000 persons died. In general, forced labor of POWs has to be distinguished as a separate issue, but during the war there were overlapping cases: Polish and (from 1943) Italian POWs were stripped of their legal POW status and used as civilian forced laborers. Soviet POWs who survived the mass starvation of 1941–1942 were put under an extreme labor regime, with high rates of mortality especially in mining.

German and Austrian Jews were recruited for forced labor beginning in 1938, Polish Jews from 1939. Beginning in 1941, the murder of Jews in the Soviet Union paralleled the exploitation of Jews as forced laborers. The majority of eastern European Jews had been killed by the end of 1942, but approximately 10 percent of them had been kept alive in order to use them as a workforce in ghettos, in specific labor camps for Jews, and finally in concentration camps. For Jews, forced labor often turned out to be important for individual survival. Nevertheless the majority of Jewish forced laborers were killed like all other Jews by the end of the war.

The other Axis states also kept forced labor facilities, especially for Jews. Adult Jewish men were recruited for work battalions in Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. In the Hungarian case, Jews were required to support the Hungarian army inside the occupied Soviet territories. The camps installed by the Croatian Ustaše (a fascist group) for Serbs, Jews, and Roma served predominantly for internment and extermination, less for forced labor. Even fascist Italy established labor camps for Jewish foreigners in the country, and for "suspects" in the occupied regions of southeastern Europe. Other authoritarian dictatorships introduced forced labor for political prisoners. Francisco Franco's Spain during World War II forced Republican prisoners in camps to set up the "Valley of the Fallen" (Valle de los Caídos), with high mortality rates among the laborers.


In Western Europe, unlike in dictatorships in Asia, South America, and Africa, conventional forced labor lost its significance after the war. The ILO issued another convention against forced labor in 1957. Specific forms of unfree labor still exist in Europe, especially in southeast European countries. The ILO twice, in 1973 and 1999, organized conventions against child labor. In 2001 the ILO created the Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour. It is a question of definition whether prostitution under coercion can be counted as forced labor. In general, since the 1970s, forced and slave labor have been a phenomenon of the non-European world.

Usually, forced labor is defined according to legal patterns, but is considered first a moral problem. On the other hand, there is a constant discussion among forced-labor administrations (and among researchers) concerning the economic efficency of forced labor. In most cases, labor regimes try to reduce their costs by fully exploiting their victims, but productivity is low since the laborers are put under extreme physical conditions and receive few incentives. The endemic violence in detention centers further reduces productivity. It is still under debate whether totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union intentionally applied programs of "annihilation through labor," that is, totally exhausting the laborers within weeks and killing them right afterward. This effect was visible especially regarding some Nazi concentration camps and labor camps for Jews, and to a certain extent even in the katorga camps of the gulag. But evidence for such a specific intention exists only in a limited number of cases of Nazi policy, especially regarding Jews doing construction work in the east, and so-called asocials in 1942–1943. But there is no doubt that labor administrations anticipated the death of hundreds of thousands by forced labor under specific circumstances. For most survivors, forced labor led to severe physical damage for the rest of their lives, especially if they had worked under extreme environmental circumstances or in construction works, mining, or heavy industry.

Already during the 1950s the issue of indemnification for forced labor came up, first during the German "Wiedergutmachung" for victims of National Socialism, then from the 1960s in negotiations with individual German firms that had used forced labor during the war and now wanted to enter the U.S. market. But a systematic approach only came into being with the new discussion on compensation during the 1990s. In 2000 the German Stiftung "Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft" (Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future) was established in order to support the forced laborers who are still alive. Almost simultaneously the issue of compensation for forced labor under communist regimes was being addressed, but by the mid 2000s the issue had not yet been resolved.

See alsoConcentration Camps; Germany; Gulag; Jews; Political Prisoners; Soviet Union; World War II.


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Dieter Pohl