Nazi Germany establishes one of the largest systems of forced labor in history: between 1939 and 1945, around 26 million people in the German Reich as well as the occupied territories are pressed into compulsory labor. Alongside prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates, the largest segment of these laborers was comprised of around 8.4 million civilian men, women and children–deported into the Reich.
Compulsory labor was already being used by the Nazis in 1933 as a means of persecution and marginalization. In these early years it was above all political opponents of the regime who were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned in camps, where they were forced to work. In the years leading up to 1939, this system was continuously broadened and imposed upon people who did not correspond to the National Socialist, racist vision of the “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) (See also: Nuremberg Race Laws). This included Jews (See also: Sinti and Roma, See also:, Black people under National Socialism), homeless people, homosexuals, sex workers, drug addicts, people with psychological difficulties and people with disabilities. Initially, forced labor served a punitive and “educative” function and was of little significance to the German economy. This would change with the German invasion of Poland and the beginning of the Second World War. More and more men were conscripted while arms production was continuously intensified. Because, according to National Socialist ideology, “Aryan” women were meant to prioritize their function as mothers and refrain from work, a massive labor shortage quickly arose. At first, workers from countries allied with Nazi Germany, such as Bulgaria, Croatia, Denmark, and Hungary, could be persuaded to migrate to the Reich independently and for economic reasons. Many of them nonetheless quickly left Germany, owing to the harsh work and living conditions. In response, the National Socialist regime attempted to recruit voluntary laborers from the occupied territories in Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, Italy and the USSR. As this proved only minimally successful, prisoners of war were deported to Germany to perform the harshest manual labor, particularly in the mining and armaments industry, despite this violating the Geneva Conventions. Additionally, local officials in occupied regions were ordered to forcefully recruit a given number of laborers. In many cases, people were simply abducted. The manner in which this took place is made clear by the following excerpt from an interview with a female forced laborer from Yugoslavia: “The Germans had imposed a curfew. When I found myself on the street once after 7:00 p.m., they caught me. I was forced to sign: ‘I am willing to work in Germany’. Then they loaded me into a truck.”
These civilian forced laborers–from 20 separate European countries–who were involuntarily recruited or abducted to work in Germany were mostly between 16 and 40 years of age, sometimes significantly younger. Thus, in some cases, children as young as nine were pressed into forced labor. Laborers from western European countries were mostly men; from the Soviet Union and Poland half were women and girls. They worked in industry, for small- and medium-sized businesses, for private households, in administration, in workshops, and even for the church. There was virtually no area of German economy and society that did not profit from civilian forced labor. The vast majority of these laborers were housed in purpose-built camps. Their pay, the tasks to which they were assigned, and the organization of their work days was determined by National Socialist “racial”-ideological criteria. The salaries, rights, and rations to which northern and western European laborers generally had access were substantially worse than those enjoyed by “Arian” workers, but much better than those to which Soviet and Polish workers were subjected. For this latter group, the National Socialist regime issued special directives, the so-called “Polish and Eastern laborer decrees”. As a result, these workers were forced to wear the label “Ost” or “P” sewn as a patch on to their clothes, received insufficient rations, were often subject to harsh mistreatment by their German supervisors, and were forbidden from moving freely in public space. Interactions with Germans were generally proscribed, while intimate relations with German women were punishable by death. Pregnant women were made to work until immediately before, and again shortly after birth. Their children were often abducted and placed in so-called “foreigner child care centers” (Ausländerkinderpflegestätten). Many died of hunger or disease. Various forms of resistance developed in response to these indignities, ranging from refusal to wear the identifying patch, “loafing on the job” or feigning illness, to escape and sabotage (See also: Resistance against National Socialism, 1937).
In the concentration and extermination camps set up throughout Europe, it was primarily Jews, Roma and Sinti who performed crushing labor under inhuman conditions, according to the concept of “extermination through work”.
After the war, most forced laborers either returned to their countries of origin or were forcefully resettled. Once home, they were often received with indifference or reservation; it was imputed to them that they had worked willingly for the enemy. Especially tragic was the fate of many Soviet civilian forced laborers and prisoners of war. Accused of “collaboration with the enemy”, they were arrested following their return and pressed into several additional years of labor, only now in Soviet camps.
Forced labor was an injustice perpetrated publicly and ubiquitously, from which many profited. Without the additional involuntary labor input of millions of people, the continuation of the war by the German Reich beyond 1942 at the latest would have been impossible. And only in this way could the German population maintain a relatively high standard of living even during the war. For decades, both the state and German industry denied compensation to former forced laborers. Only in the 1980s, prompted mainly by lawsuits brought by survivors seeking compensation, did the German public begin to seriously discuss this issue. Individual compensatory payouts commenced in the year 2000, by which point many survivors had already died. Former Soviet and Italian prisoners of war have to this day not been compensated.