Labor Camps, Nazi

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Labor Camps, Nazi

Most people can conjure up a particular set of images when they think of labor camps under the Third Reich; usually, they picture emaciated prisoners in striped uniforms, performing heavy manual labor and subject to frequent beatings from sadistic SS guards. There is an essential truth to those images, in that they accurately reflect the experiences of many thousands of people. At the same time, however, the term labor camp can be deceptive. On the one hand, the Germans classified a great many places of detention as forced labor camps (Zwangsarbeitslager), but the term tells us little about conditions, which often differed radically from camp to camp. On the other hand, forced labor was a central part of life in most camps and ghettos, with or without the label. In fact, by the last years of the war, forced labor was ubiquitous in Germany, and some knowledge of the system is essential to an understanding of the Third Reich.

The National Socialists used forced labor from the very start of their rule, in the so-called wild camps that local authorities and party members established throughout the country in the first months of 1933. Later the Schutzstaffel (SS) gained control of such places and established a more rigidly controlled system of concentration camps (Konzentrationslager), which they modeled on their first camp at Dachau. Here, too, labor was at the center of the prisoners' existence. The Nazis saw work as having two complementary functions: as punishment and—for those whom the Nazis deemed suitable to exist in German society, either as citizens or so-called inferior foreign laborers—as a means of instilling proper discipline and socially acceptable behavior. Eventually, the SS would establish over twenty main concentration camps at places such as Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Flossenbürg, and Mauthausen. At Auschwitz, another such site, they eventually combined a work camp with an industrialized killing center. Moreover, especially in the last two years of the war, the main camps spawned nearly one thousand subcamps (Aussenlager or Nebenlager), each of which provided labor for some local work site. By this time the SS had in mind not just punishment and socialization, but also financial gain for the organization and cheap labor for its construction and resettlement programs, as well as a simultaneous benefit for Germany's war effort in many instances.

Concentration camp prisoners were, however, usually the last choice when German labor managers sought workers. Some time before such purportedly criminal elements came into use, the Germans began importing foreign labor from territories they had occupied. In some cases, especially in western Europe and (before September 1939) in Poland, the initial drive was to recruit volunteers who would go to Germany and work under relatively normal conditions. But in other cases, especially in the east after the war began, racism and perceived military necessity eventually led the German authorities to simply round up civilians, ship them back to the homeland, and parcel them out to forced labor camps. No one has yet determined the number of such camps with any accuracy, but the best available estimate is that there were at least three thousand. They operated under the control of many different agencies, ranging from private firms and local labor boards to state work organizations such as the Deutsche Arbeitsfront, the Organisation Todt, and the General-bevollmächtigten für den Arbeitseinsatz.

Along with the prisoners in the concentration camps, their subcamps, and the forced labor camps, inmates in many other kinds of detention facilities also had to work. The German armed forces allowed prisoners of war to be used in war production, in violation of the Geneva Convention. The military also turned tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners over to the SS, which worked many of them to death. The SS ran its own forced labor facilities, outside its system of concentration camps, where it put Jews and other undesirables to work on specific projects, such as building major roads in the occupied east. The inhabitants of ghettos often found themselves called up for forced labor of one kind or another; in fact, the Germans eventually reclassified many ghettos as forced labor camps. Prisoners in civilian police detention camps, troubled German youths, and even ethnic Germans waiting for resettlement in conquered territory had to work. The numbers of all these facilities ran into the thousands. And finally, the SS even operated nearly two hundred so-called Arbeitserziehungslager, work education camps, where they sent both German and foreign laborers who had violated work rules in their regular jobs or forced labor assignments. A little hard work under SS supervision, it was thought, would teach them a lesson—and if the laborers failed in their eight-week stints there, they often went on to concentration camps.

Forced laborers' experiences varied tremendously within and between camps, because of differences in the kinds of labor they performed, in their individual status, and in the camps' administrative systems. These variables literally meant the difference between life and death for thousands of people.

The Germans employed prisoners in nearly every imaginable kind of work. Some did hard manual labor, much of it dangerous. Prisoners worked in mines and quarries, where the backbreaking nature of the work, plus factors such as stone dust, accidents, and other hardships of life in the camps quickly destroyed their health. Others worked in construction, demolition, rubble clearance, or even bomb disposal, which entailed similar hazards. Some did agricultural work, which, although hard, offered opportunities to steal (or organize, as the prisoners put it) extra food. Some worked inside at manufacturing jobs, where the work was somewhat less physically exhausting. There were also prisoners working in a wide variety of small businesses, governmental offices, and even church facilities. The fortunate ones worked in offices, laundries, laboratories, or other places requiring skilled labor, where they could conserve their strength and sometimes organize items to trade for additional food or protection.

The prisoners' experiences also differed because of their status, in at least three respects. The most important factor was the basic category to which a prisoner belonged. Prisoners of war (POWs) from the United States and Great Britain were perhaps the most fortunate, in general, partly because the Germans treated them better than most other prisoners, and partly because they often received Red Cross food parcels that kept them from starving. Soviet POWs, on the other hand, were near the bottom of the Germans' hierarchy of perceived worth. They received some of the hardest jobs, the worst shelter, and the least amount of food; millions of them died. Likewise, among the foreign forced laborers, those from western nations did better than those from the east. The concentration camp inmates were among the worst off, but even in this instance, there was a definite hierarchy, with career criminals or political prisoners at the top, often holding camp offices, and Jews at the bottom. The second factor revolved around each prisoner's skills set; someone who knew chemistry, or who could type or repair complex machinery, might be assigned a relatively easy job. And the third factor concerned connections. Prisoners of particular nationalities or common political persuasions often stuck together and helped one another. Individuals, meanwhile, especially if they were good at organizing, could curry favor with prison leaders and guards. Corruption was rampant, and it worked in favor of some prisoners and to the detriment of others.

The camp administration was important because it directly controlled the conditions under which the prisoners lived and worked. The amount and kind of food, the quality of the clothing, opportunities to bathe, the type and pace of the work, and the attitudes of individual guards could all vary significantly. In some camps one authority would control the camp itself, while another, usually a business, controlled the working conditions. There are examples of workplaces in which the civilian foremen let their charges get some extra sleep, or in which civilian coworkers would smuggle in extra food. In other places a business's overseers could be every bit as cruel as any SS guard. Similarly, prisoner accommodations could consist of anything from a hole in the ground, to a stable or workshop with straw on the floor for bedding, to (albeit rarely) a relatively clean, warm barracks with individual cots and blankets.

Whatever the degrees of difference, however, most prisoners shared some common experiences. On the most basic level they lost their freedom; to their employers they were usually a resource to be used more or less efficiently, not people whose welfare or wishes were at all important for their own sake. Work shifts typically lasted twelve hours per day, six or seven days per week. Discipline was often arbitrary and brutal. The food decreased in both quality and quantity as the war went on; many prisoners existed at or below subsistence level. Clothing was usually inadequate in cold weather, and the prisoners often lacked the wherewithal to wash either themselves or their clothes. All in all, their existence was a miserable one, until death or advancing Allied armies released them.

SEE ALSO Compensation; Gulag; Historical Injusticies; Holocaust; Stalin, Joseph


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Geoffrey P. Megargee