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The Holocaust: Forced (Slave) Labor


The term forced labor (Zwangsarbeit) is not well defined. Forced labor is commonly understood as an employment relationship of a member of a persecuted political or a specific ideological (weltanschauliche) grouping, or an ethnic group, or a people, a relationship arisen by force, and indissoluble, that did not consider the abilities, age, or sex of the forced laborer, that meant defenselessness concerning legal rights and a high rate of mortality due to bad living and working conditions as well as National Socialistic persecution. In Anglo-Saxon usage the term forced labor is distinguished from slave labor that ghetto and concentration camp prisoners and Jews in specific Forced Labor Camps (FLC) had to perform. Among other things slave labor is characterized by a considerably higher rate of mortality. In German-speaking usage the term slave labor has not become common, because slaves were without rights and they were exploited, but unlike SS and other NS organizations, the slaveholder ordinarily was interested in keeping the slave alive.

In the German Reich after January 30, 1933, at first prisoners of the early concentration camps were recruited to forced labor, for instance, politically persecuted Social Democrats or Communists. It was then already that murder was involved. From the end of 1938 on, German Jews were next and forced labor became an element of their persecution by theNS state. It was not until the outbreak of World War II, and the occupation of Poland, that forced laborers were recruited in vast numbers, when hundreds of thousands of Polish people were deported to the Reich. Also in the occupied Polish territory itself many forced laborers were deployed. From October 1939, the Jewish residents there became liable to work, later having a general duty of forced labor. Within the Reich forced laborers worked in agriculture, mining, and industry, as well as to enlarge military infrastructure.

The significant importance of forced labor for the Reichand its warfare becomes obvious regarding German agriculture. Without approximately 2 million foreign laborers, by the end of 1940, sufficient production of food to supply all the inhabitants would have become impossible. From autumn 1941 on the German wartime economy depended without other options on foreign labor. Since not enough foreigners came voluntarily, more and more forced recruitment was utilized, especially from spring 1942 on by Fritz Sauckel, general plenipotentiary for the employment of labor (Generalbevollmaechtigter fuer den Arbeitseinsatz). The largest number of foreign laborers in the area of the Reich was registered in August 1944 at 7,615,970. Among these were about 1.9 million prisoners of war and 5.7 million civilians. Of the 7.6 million, 2.8 million were from the Soviet Union, 1.7 million from Poland, and 1.3 million from France. Altogether, during World War II, up to 13.5 million men, women, and children were brought to the Reich and forced to labor.

With the expansion of the war and the successive occupation of a wider territory in Europe, forced laborers were displaced from those areas into the Reich, from 1942 onwards mainly inhabitants of the occupied Soviet Union. In addition, more and more forced labor was deployed within the occupied territories themselves. Likewise, in countries allied to the Reich, specific ethnic groups and other groupings were forced to labor. For example, in Bulgaria from 1941 onwards, there were Jewish labor battalions as well as Turkish and Greek ones. All of them worked particularly for the expansion of an infrastructure essential for the war. In Hungary, in addition to the Jews, also Serbs and Romanians were recruited for labor battalions. The importance of the Jewish labor battalions for Hungary becomes apparent, when it is observed that in October 1943 more than 112,000 Jews had to labor for the Hungarian army, and in October 1944 approximately 180,000. In Vichy-France as well, where from October 1940 there had been a special labor service for foreigners, among them many Jews who had fled from Germany and Austria and who, in the Groupements des Travailleurs Étrangers (GTE), were forced to carry out many kinds of labor. Also in Fascist Italy, in Croatia, Romania, and Slovakia, to a variable extent, people were obliged to do forced labor, among them, many Jews.

In the Reich there were considerable differences concerning the treatment of forced laborers. Subject to the most brutal conditions were the prisoners of concentration camps, including their subcamps (Aussenlager). The actual living conditions of the other forced laborers depended on the following factors:

1) Their ranking according to National Socialist race doctrine: Norwegians and Dutch were regarded as "Aryan" and "Germanic" and put on top of the hierarchy. Therefore they had to cope with less discrimination. People from the Soviet Union (but not people from the still independent Baltic States until 1940) were regarded as members of an inferior race and therefore were treated most brutally.

2) Country of origin: While people from the disintegrated states like Poland and Yugoslavia (insofar as Serbs and Slovenians were concerned) had no protection from their governments, French, Croatians, and Norwegians could at least hope for intervention by their governments, even though they were dependent on the Reich. People from allied countries, such as Bulgaria and Hungary, had conditions most similar to German workers. However, even these could not return home freely, at the earliest from 1943 onwards, and were exposed to discrimination in their German domiciles and their workplaces.

3) The work location: There were great differences depending on whether a forced laborer was deployed in rural areas or in the cities. In the country, surveillance and persecution by the NS authorities were less comprehensive and basic food was easier to come by. In the cities not only resources essential for survival like foodstuffs and clothing were hard toget, also the oppression machinery was better developed and the threat of air raids was much more serious.

4) The firm: The larger the company and the more impersonal the contact between Germans and foreigners became, the more probable were brutal living and labor conditions. In big companies, where Germans and foreigners hardly interacted at all, bad living and labor conditions were more than likely.

There were roughly three phases of forced labor:

The first phase was the prewar period. Between 1933 and 1939 forced labor was of marginal importance. It was mainly used as a way to oppress political dissidents, and, from 1938 onwards, for the persecution of German Jews.

Phase Two began with the German aggression against Poland and ended with the turn of the year 1942. At that time, forced labor became a mass phenomenon. With the occupation of a wider territory many people came under the sway of the NS leaders. Therefore, even in Libya and Tunisia, Jews had to work for the German forces (Wehrmacht). At the same time, against the European Jews, forced labor was used as an element of mass murder. A similar attitude can also be observed in countries allied to the German Reich.

With the territorial changes, the Hungarians obtained control over parts of Slovakia, Romania, and Yugoslavia, including non-Hungarian parts of the population. In addition, forced labor tasks for Hungarian Jews were gradually increased and intensified. After the occupation of Yugoslavian and Greek territories, Bulgaria acted on a similar basis. Here, besides the Jews and Turks, forced labor was directed mainly against Greeks, not the Macedonian population, as the parts of Macedonia occupied in April 1941 (Vardar-Macedonia) were seen as an integral part of the state by the Bulgarian leaders, the core, of medieval Bulgaria.

The third and last phase began in 1943 and ended with the surrender of the Reich in May 1945. With the change of the war situation also the character of forced labor changed distinctly. On the one hand, discrimination against East Europeans with regard to labor laws and social rights were de jure gradually toned down. On the other hand, the threat to existence, from the security forces of the NS state, became more and more grave. In particular the change in jurisdiction concerning offenses by forced laborers from the judiciary to the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA) resulted in considerably more brutal persecution for even the slightest infraction. The RSHA sent many Poles and Soviet citizens (Ostarbeiter) to concentration camps, where most of them were murdered. During the last months of the war, arbitrary measures increased and grew to real mass murder; mainly East Europeans were the victims.

Jews and Forced Labor

The situation of Jewish forced laborers under German rule was different from all other cases. For them, in the occupied territories, there was special jurisdiction. At the latest from summer 1941 onwards, the National Socialist leaders had only one aim: the murder of all Jews. Accordingly, the phases of forced labor that involved Jews differ from the general kind of forced labor. For example, judicial reforms, especially for the East Europeans, did not concern Jews. Furthermore, certain factors did not affect their living conditions: within the Reich Jews were not designated to work in agriculture. Some of the allied countries, like Bulgaria and Croatia, were not interested in saving their Jewish citizens who were living in the German sphere of influence, and therefore they exposed them to death.

The German and Austrian Jews were the first to be systematically used for forced labor. From December 1938, all unemployed Jews and those on welfare were subjected to "locked-up labor" (geschlossener Arbeitseinsatz), organized by the employment offices. Their employees were instructed to put them in separate platoons or camps. All Jews, regardless of their educational background, were employed and remunerated as unskilled workers. In July 1939, already 20,000 Jews were in labor service working in road construction and underground engineering, in the construction of canals, and in dam projects, as well as on waste deposit sites.

After the war had begun, also more and more Jewish women were seized for forced labor. From autumn 1940 onwards, all Jewish men and women fit for work were conscripted and forced to work at various jobs, mostly in industry. In summer 1941, over 51,000 people were working as forced laborers, which represented about 30 per cent of the approximately 167,000 Jews still living in the territory of the Reich. These had to wear a special armband for identification. By January 1943, because of the deportation of many to the exterminations camps, their number was reduced to around 20,000. After the end of the so-called Fabrikaktion, in February 1943, another 12,000 were deported, and the remaining Jews (mostly "protected" by their intermarriage status) were forced to work until the end of the war. In autumn 1944, also so-called half-Jews (Mischlinge) had to work in "locked-up labor" for the Organisation Todt (OT), and were deployed in the Reich or in France.

In occupied Poland, the so-called Generalgouvernement, from October 1939 on, male Jews were on labor duty between the age 14 and 60, and later also women. This labor duty, however, did not yet lead to universal confinement of Jews in labor camps. There were numerous free de facto working relationships. Unlike the situation in the Reich, ghettos for the Jewish population were installed in many Polish cities. Some of the Jews detained there had to work outside, others were deployedin ghetto workshops. They worked for municipal institutions, for the ghetto administration, and for private firms based in and around the ghettos.

Besides the ghettos, a system of FLCS was developed. In summer 1942 up to 1.5 million Jews were in detention, and about half of them were in forced labor. The FLC were expanded especially from July 1942 on, after Heinrich *Himmler ordered the annihilation of all Polish Jews by the end of the year. Only those who performed forced labor in the arms industry were to be kept alive. These FLCS were run by the SS, and therefore the living and internment conditions were comparable to those in concentration camps. But even Jews from the FLCS and from the ghettos performing essential war labor were deported to the exterminations camps and murdered, or brought to concentration camps and forced to work there. The conditions were so bad that many Jews died of exhaustion after only a few weeks or months, if not selected out as "unfit for work" (arbeitsunfaehig) and murdered.

In the occupied territories of the Soviet Union, after the mass shootings in 1941, similar conditions existed. The Jews there were put into labor platoons and facilities, forced to work, e.g., for the Wehrmacht, and they, as well, were detained in ghettos and FLCS. Also the majority of these Jews, even if engaged in essential war work, were murdered, and only a few were deported to concentration camps to further exploit their productive capacity.

The conditions of the Jews doing forced labor in countries allied to the Reich varied greatly. The Hungarian Jewish labor battalions, especially the ones deployed on the eastern front or at mines in Bor, Serbia, as well as the Romanian labor battalions doing road and railway construction work and the Bulgarian labor battalions that were used for the expansion of the infrastructure, some of them also working for the OT, had to suffer from horrendous living and internment conditions similar to those in the concentrations camps of the SS. However, the circumstances of Italian Jews, in forced labor from 1942 on, were better. In Italy; probably none of the Jews died there, whereas in the Hungarian labor battalions tens of thousands were killed.

In spring 1944 the Nazis again changed their policy toward the Jewish forced laborers. Even though, until then, there was no provision made for the deployment of Jewish KZprisoners in the Reich outside the concentration camp complex of Auschwitz, now, because of lack of workers, up to 100,000 Hungarian Jews were selected in Auschwitz for labor service in the territory of the Reich. Those Jews had to labor almost exclusively in the arms industry and for the construction of production facilities underground. Due to the disastrous conditions there and the very hard labor, the death rate was enormous.

After the end of World War II forced labor was not taken into account by the compensation laws decreed by the Federal Republic of Germany between 1953 and 1965. Only the imprisonment in ghettos, FLCS, and concentration camps was compensated, but only for a select circle of survivors. Most of the surviving forced laborers originated from Eastern Europe and returned to their home countries after the war. They did not receive any compensation because West Germany refused to made payments into Eastern Bloc countries.

The German Democratic Republic refused, on principle, to pay former East European forced laborers any benefits for the crimes of the National Socialists. The New York-based*Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against the German Nation, between the 1950s and the 1960s, succeeded in getting payments for former forced laborers in a handful of West German firms, such as I.G. Farbenindustrie, AEG/Telefunken, and Siemens. However, the majority of the forced laborers could not receive any compensation payments until the creation of the "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" Foundation in 2000. From the year 2001 on approximately 1.6 million people received up to DM15,000 from the Foundation.


HISTORY: E.L. Homze, Foreign Labor in Nazi Germany (1967); U. Herbert (ed.), Europa und der "Reichseinsatz." Auslaendische Zivilarbeiter, Kriegsgefangene und KZ-Haeftlinge in Deutschland 1938–1945 (1991); H. Mommsen and M. Krieger, Das Volkswagenwerk und seine Arbeiter im Dritten Reich (1996); W. Gruner, Der geschlossene Arbeitseinsatz deutscher Juden. Zur Zwangsarbeit als Element der Verfolgung 1938–1943 (1997); U. Herbert, Fremdarbeiter. Politik und Praxis des "Auslaender-Einsatzes" in der Kriegswirtschaft des Dritten Reiches (1999); A. Schaefer, Zwangsarbeiter und NS-Rassenpolitik. Russische und polnische Arbeitskraefte in Wuerttemberg 1939–1945 (2000); W. Gruner, Zwangsarbeit und Verfolgung. Oesterreichische Juden im NS-Staat 1938–45 (2000); M Spoerer, Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz. Auslaendische Zivilarbeiter, Kriegsgefangene und Haeftlinge im Deutschen Reich und im besetzten Europa 1939–1945 (2001); M. Spoerer and J. Fleischhacker, "Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany: Categories, Numbers and Survivors," in: Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33 (2002), 169–204. BELGIUM: F. Selleslagh,L'emploi de la main d'oeuvre belge sous l'occupation (1972). BULGARIA: J. Hoppe, "Zwangsarbeit von Juden in Bulgarien waehrend des Zweiten Weltkriegs. Die juedischen Arbeitsbataillone 1941–1944," in: Suedost-Forschungen 64 (2006). FRANCE: J. Evrard, La déportation des travailleurs français dans le IIIe Reich (1972). HUNGARY: R. Braham, The Wartime System of Labor Service in Hungary. Varieties of Experiences (1995). NETHERLANDS: B.A. Sijes, De Arbeidsinzet. De gedwongen arbeid van Nederlanders in Duitsland, 1940–1945 (1990). ROMANIA: R. Ioanid, The Holocaust in Romania. The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies under the Antonescu Regime, 1940–1944 (2000). INDEMNIFICATION: B.B. Ferencz, Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced labor and the Quest for Compensation (1979); C. Pross, Wiedergutmachung. Der Kleinkrieg gegen die Opfer (1988); C. Goschler, Wiedergutmachung. Westdeutschland und die Verfolgten des Nationalsozialismus, 1945–1954 (1992); P. Zumbansen (ed.), NS-Forced labor: Remembrance and Responsibility. Legal and Historical Observations (2002); S.E. Eizenstat, Imperfect Justice. Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II (2003); S.S. Spiliotis, Verantwortung und Rechtsfrieden. Die Stiftungsinitiative der deutschen Wirtschaft (2003); H.G. Hockerts (ed.), Nach der Verfolgung. Wiedergutmachung nationalsozialistischen Unrechts in Deutschland? (2003).

[Jens Hoppe (2nd ed.)]



Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.