Forced Labor: Germany

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Forced Labor

Germany 1933-1945


By 1945 there were several million foreign laborers working in slave conditions in the German economy. The emergence of forced labor was the product of three distinct factors: first, the defeat of the free-labor movement in 1933, which had profound consequences for the condition of all labor, "native" as well as "foreign"; second, the wartime capture of foreign labor, especially Slav workers, millions of whom were set to work in the maintenance of the German war effort; and third, the particular conditions of racial minorities, especially the Jews of Germany, Poland, and Russia. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced to work in slave conditions, while many others would be killed more quickly in the Holocaust.


  • 1918: The Second Battle of the Marne in July and August is the last major conflict on the Western Front. In November, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates, bringing an end to the war. Soon after the surrender, upheaval sweeps Germany, which for a few weeks in late 1918 and early 1919 seems poised on the verge of communist revolution.
  • 1921: As the Allied Reparations Commission calls for payments of 132 billion gold marks, inflation in Germany begins to climb.
  • 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.
  • 1925: Released from Landsberg Prison, Adolf Hitler is a national celebrity, widely regarded as an emerging statesman who offers genuine solutions to Germany's problems. This year, he publishes the first volume of Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which he dictated in prison to trusted confederate Rudolf Hess. The second and final volume of Hitler's opus, a mixture of autobiography, "history," and racial rant, will appear two years later.
  • 1933: Hitler becomes German chancellor, and the Nazi dictatorship begins. A month later, the Reichstag building burns, a symbol of the new regime's contempt for democracy. (Though a Dutch communist is punished for the crime, the perpetrators were almost certainly Nazis.) During this year, virtually all aspects of the coming horror are manifested: destruction of Jewish-owned shops and bans on Jewish merchants; elimination of political opposition (including the outlawing of trade unions); opening of the first concentration camps (and the sentencing of the first Jews to them); book-burning; and the establishment of the first racial purity laws.
  • 1936: Hitler uses the Summer Olympics in Berlin as an opportunity to showcase Nazi power and pageantry, but the real hero of the games is the African American track star Jesse Owens.
  • 1942: At the Wannsee Conference, Nazi leaders formulate the "final solution to the Jewish question": a systematic campaign of genocide on a massive scale. By the time the Holocaust ends, along with the war itself, the Nazis will have killed some 6 million Jews, and as many as 6 million other victims in their death camps and slave-labor camps.
  • 1945: April sees the death of three leaders: Roosevelt passes away on 12 April; the Italians execute Mussolini and his mistress on 28 April; and Hitler (along with Eva Braun, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, and Goebbels's family) commits suicide on 30 April.
  • 1946: At the Nuremberg trials, 12 Nazi leaders are sentenced to death and seven others to prison.
  • 1947: The Marshall Plan is established to assist European nations in recovering from the war.
  • 1948: War results in the formation of a Jewish state in Israel.
  • 1952: West Germany agrees to pay Israel reparations of $822 million for Nazi crimes against the Jewish people.

Event and Its Context

The Catastrophe of 1933

There was no history of forced labor in Germany. Instead, in the 50 years leading up to 1933, German workers had enjoyed some of the best working conditions in Europe. The German chancellor, Prince Otto von Bismarck, passed laws that covered accident, sickness, and old age insurance as early as the 1880s. Industrial tribunals were established in the 1890s, along with laws restricting the working day of women (11 hours) and minors (10 hours). State insurance had initially been accompanied by repressive legislation against the left, but the victory of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) in the 1890 elections sped the demise of anti-socialist laws. By the mid-1890s German workers were able to organize with relative freedom, and the labor movement progressed rapidly. By 1914 the Social Democrats claimed more than one million members and over 13,000 elected councilors. Following the 1918 revolution, the state granted the eight-hour working day. All employers of more than 50 people were compelled to recognize workers' councils. Meanwhile, Social Democrats organized libraries and walking clubs, consumer cooperatives and burial societies. By the mid-1920s one-fifth of all German families were members of a cooperative. Between 1918 and 1933 the SPD was the largest party in the Weimar parliament. The position of the workers' movement appeared to be secure.

From the 1930s onward, however, German life was transformed by the rise of Adolf Hitler's National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), better known as the Nazis. The ideology of the Nazis portrayed the threat of Bolshevism (meaning both the communists and the socialists) as the greatest obstacle to the revival of the German nation. The leaders of the German socialist parties were aware of the threat and the need for unity. In the last free elections, held in November 1932, German left-wing groups secured a combined vote of 13 million, larger than the 11.7 million of the NSDAP. What the socialist parties lacked, however, was any sort of program of joint action. In its absence, German politics witnessed a rapid succession of governing coalitions, each more right-wing than the last. The defeat of a Catholic-socialist coalition in the winter of 1930 was followed by the legal destruction of the SPD Prussian state government in spring 1932. On 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler took power. Within four months, both the left parties and the trade unions were banned.

Under Nazi rule, German workers lost the freedoms they had enjoyed. The labor press and unions were destroyed. The regime attempted to compensate for their losses through the creation of a network of organizations that claimed to protect the rights of workers. The German Labor Front (DAF) played a key role in orchestrating sports events and affordable holidays. Parks, showers, and common rooms were built in the largest factories. The DAF also administered the remnants of the workers' councils. Yet the removal of political freedoms contributed to a general worsening of working conditions. Between 1932 and 1938 wages fell by some 3 percent. Meanwhile the cost of living rose by 5 percent, food prices by 19.5 percent, and average hours of work per week by 15 percent. Managers at a power station in Baden forced their workers onto a 104-hour week. The intensity of labor also increased, with the government claiming an increased productivity of 11 percent in the same period. The profits of I. G. Farben rose from 74 million Reichmarks in 1933 to 240 million in 1939.

The condition of German labor from 1933 to 1939 has been a matter of surprising controversy among historians. The earliest trend was to emphasize the extraordinary defeat suffered by German labor; the most important task was to rescue the neglected history of those "Aryan" German workers who resisted the regime, most going on to suffer capture and death. The second wave of historians tended to rebel against this model. For example, David Schoenbaum maintains that Nazi society was a revolutionary order. The destruction of old patterns of ruling was followed by a "social revolution," in which the people were told constantly that they were the ones who governed. "Interpreted social reality … reflected a society united like no other in recent German history," notes Schoenbaum.

A different account appears in the work of the socialist historian Tim Mason. His thesis is that the regime did not successfully integrate the working class and was thus uncertain when it came to imposing economic sacrifices to secure rearmament. In this sense, the most important aspect of regime policy was the continuous fear that Germany would return to the revolutionary days of 1918. In the late 1930s, Mason argues, the economy boomed and the balance tilted yet further toward labor: "Class conflict remained endemic in Nazi Germany." Growing labor shortages slowed military preparations and may even have influenced the character of Nazi foreign policy, including Hitler's belief in a blitzkrieg. Historians have criticized Mason's account, with some, such as Ian Kershaw, suggesting that Mason's argument tends to downplay the role of the German state in formulating policy on its own terms.

Foreign Labor

One strength of Mason's account is that it connects the experience of German labor between 1933 and 1939 to the wartime conditions experienced by non-German labor. According to Mason, terror had became an indispensable means of "education" in the daily lives of workers, "the ultimate and most import guarantee of the survival of the economic and political system of dominance. … Only one further step could follow after the workers had been totally reified: the destruction of human beings in the production process for the sake of production. This fate was reserved for the foreign state laborers." It has been estimated that, by December 1941, there were 4 million foreigners working in German fields and factories. This number then rose to 7.6 million by August 1944. Meanwhile, an equivalent number of foreign workers were laboring on behalf of Germany in their own countries, in state farms, in military construction work, and in menial jobs in German military camps. The man responsible for this whole operation was Fritz Sauckel, the plenipotentiary general for labor allocation, whose staff reported to the office of the Four Year Plan.

The reasons for using vast numbers of foreign workers related both to the pre-war conditions of labor and to the nature of the war itself. The 1939-1945 war was a total conflict in which some 50 million people died. It was a contest of armies and of whole economies. The largest industrial powers battered each other into submission. Conscription was widespread. Nearly 40 percent of all German industrial workers had become soldiers by 1944. Meanwhile, the war was becoming increasingly unpopular with "ordinary Germans," notes C. R. Browning. Following the German defeat at Stalingrad in winter 1942-1943, it became obvious that Hitler was leading his nation to defeat. During the first half of 1944, roughly 2,000 German workers were arrested each month for labor discipline offences.

Outsiders were expected to do all of the dirty and unskilled jobs. According to Stefan Berger, "German workers profited from the deployment of foreign labor and often experienced it as an opportunity for upward social mobility." There is also evidence of popular racism against Jews and Slavs, as happened during the 1943 bombing raids, when "German workers abused and maltreated the foreigners as objects of their anger and revenge," writes Berger. The attitude of the regime toward foreign slave labor was complex. On the one hand, such workers were needed if Germany was going to win the war. On the other hand, their very presence seemed to upset the Nazi hierarchy of approved races, for which the war was being fought. In line with the official ideology of the regime, therefore, decrees were passed that controlled every aspect of the foreign workers' lives. The living standards of foreign workers were strictly ordered according to racial hierarchy. In one Krupp cast steel plant, "Western" male workers received 91 percent of the wages earned by German males; "Eastern" males were paid 41 percent, and "Eastern" females received just 37 percent. Miscegenation became a capital offence. Foreign slave workers were subject to routine beatings and denied medical care. They were inadequately clothed, housed, and fed.

Labor and the Holocaust

The most extreme forms of popular German racism were associated with the Jewish Holocaust. Yet once again historians have disagreed in explaining this process. The most common view has portrayed the Holocaust as the inevitable consequences of state policy. In this account, Hitler long planned the murder of the Jews and embarked on the practice of murder as soon as the world's attention was diverted by war. Such "intentionalism" was challenged in the 1970s by "structuralist," or "functionalist," accounts that emphasized long-term factors such as the monopolistic nature of the German war economy or the peculiar structures of political authority employed by the regime. In this model, Hitler was a "lazy" dictator ruling over a deliberately complex structure of bureaucratic misrule. The disorder of the political regime encouraged interdepartmental competition and eased the path to murder. The most recent trend has been for compromise, emphasizing both the extent of the regime's ideological racism and the conjuncture that made killing more likely.

We can distinguish roughly three stages in the Holocaust. In the first period, 1933 to 1939, the regime set about establishing many legal differences between the Jewish and the non-Jewish population of Germany. The outbreaks of violence took place on the initiative of the local state. The full apparatus of the regime was not yet mobilized. In the second period, 1939 to 1941, the Nazi state was radicalized by war. Nazi leaders faced the question of how to treat non-German Jews, such as the large Jewish population of occupied Poland. These men and women were rapidly separated into ghettos or sent to labor camps. In the third period, 1941 to 1944, the German state suffered military defeat. Concentration camps were rapidly converted into death camps, and the ghettos were cleared. In the bizarre logic of the Nazis, the wasting of resources on the Holocaust was seen as an extension of the military struggle against "Russian Bolshevism." Finally, as Russian troops counterattacked, it became impossible to sustain the apparatus of state murder. At this stage, the camps were closed, and many of the inmates were murdered in a final frenzy of killing.

On 26 October 1939 Governor Frank decreed compulsory labor for the "Jewish Population of the General Government" (of Poland). All Jews between the ages of 15 and 60 would be subject to compulsory daily labor. Initially, such labor consisted of digging rivers or canals, erecting dams, breaking stones, or laying roads. Later there was also some allowance for specific tasks in the ghettos, such as the maintenance of communal kitchens, health care, finance, and internal security.

By the time of the Wannsee conference on 20 January 1942, leading Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich seem to have rejected the previous policy as too moderate. The Jews of the ghettos were simply not dying quickly enough. "In pursuance of the final solution, the Jews will be conscripted for labor in the east under appropriate supervision. Large labor gangs will be formed from those fit for work, with the sexes separated, which will be sent to those areas for road construction and undoubtedly a large number of them will drop out through natural wastage. The remainder who survive—and they will certainly be those who have the greatest powers of endurance—will have to be dealt with accordingly. For, if released, they would, as a natural selection of the fittest, form a germ cell from which the Jewish race could regenerate itself."

This statement was an early sign of the shift from a policy of slave labor to one of mass killing. Yet not all authorities were willing to accept this change. In September 1942 there was a brief contest between different wings of the Nazi state over future policy. The military commanders in Poland were determined that war production continue, arguing that, of the one million workers employed on military production in Poland, roughly one-third of them were Jews, including 100,000 skilled workers. If the ghettos were destroyed, "a serious drop in production would occur in the armaments industry of between 25 and 100 percent. There would be a 25 percent reduction in the performance of the motor vehicles repair workshops," and so on. In response, Himmler agreed that some Jews could be deported to special work camps. "However, one day the Jews must disappear from there, too, in accordance with the Führer's wishes."

The ghettos were finally destroyed in spring 1943. When labor camps were established in the East, the Jews were not used there as a reserve army of skilled labor; that role fell to a minority of Poles. Daniel Goldhagen illustrates this point with reference to the Lipowa camp in Lublin. It had been founded in December 1939 as a concentration camp and later evolved to receive Jews extracted from the Lublin ghetto. In theory, Lipowa specialized in making shoes. Yet "the skills of skilled laborers went for the most part unused, meaning that the Germans squandered a great portion of the labor power of these workers, who under normal circumstances would have been highly valued and very productive," remarks Goldhagen. For two years, these workers were unused. There was a brief period of activity in spring 1943, then in November the camp population was killed. Even in huge industrial complexes like Auschwitz, the only role of Jews was to die.

It seems, therefore, that the policy of exterminating enemies through work—Vernichtung durch Arbeit—belongs to the middle stages of the Holocaust. The utility of Jewish labor declined when the leaders of the Nazi state decided that millions of people had to be killed more quickly. Different policies were then adopted, including mass shootings, the deployment of special gassing vans, and finally the use of gas chambers. Mason describes "a straight line" running "from the factory community to the factory-as-concentration-camp. The various intervening steps were a necessary consequence of the dissolution of the trade unions and a precondition for conducting a war of expansion." His point is simply that the process that began with the destruction of German labor culminated in the experience of the death camps at Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

Key Players

Eichmann, Adolf (1906-1962): An official in the Reich Central Security Office (RSHA), Eichmann took responsibility for the "Jewish Affairs" desk, which sent Jews to camps such as Auschwitz. He was captured by Israeli agents and tried in 1961.

Heydrich, Reinhard (1904-1942): Head of the Secret Police (Gestapo) and RSHA, Heydrich was charged with implementing the Holocaust. He was killed by Czech Partisans.



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—David Renton