How do you get rid of forced labor

The second World War

Dr. habil. Jörg Echternkamp

Dr. habil. Jörg Echternkamp

Dr. habil. Jörg Echternkamp, ​​born in 1963, is a private lecturer for modern and contemporary history at the Historical Institute of the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and project division manager at the Center for Military History and Social Sciences of the Bundeswehr (ZMSBw), formerly the Military History Research Office (MGFA), in Potsdam. He had numerous teaching posts at universities at home and abroad; In 2012/13 he held the Alfred Grosser visiting professorship at the Institut d'Études Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris. Echternkamp researches and teaches on German and European history from the 18th to the 21st century; The main focus is currently on the history of society and memory of the world wars, the Nazi era and German post-war history. His publications include: (Ed.) The German Reich and the Second World War, Vol. 9 / 1-2: The German War Society 1939-1945 (Munich 2004/2005; Oxford 2008/2014), The 101 Most Important Questions: The Second World War, Munich 2010, Military in Germany and France 1870-2010, Paderborn 2011 (ed. With S. Martens), Munich 2012; Experience and Memory. The Second World War in Europe, Oxford 2010/2013 (ed. With S. Martens); (Ed.), Ways out of the war in the 19th and 20th centuries, Freiburg 2012; The Federal Republic of Germany 1945 / 49-1969, Paderborn 2013; Commemoration of the fallen in a global comparison (ed. With M. Hettling), Munich 2013; Soldiers in the post-war 1945-1955, Munich 2014.

Until the autumn of 1944, the level of care for the people in the Third Reich remained high. The Nazi regime achieved this only through the inhuman exploitation of workers: twelve million people from almost all of Europe had to do forced labor, around two and a half million were killed in the Reich between 1939 and 1945, mainly Soviet prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates.

Forced laborers at the Daimler plant in Minsk, Belarus in September 1942. (& copy Mercedes-Benz Classic, Archive, Stuttgart)

When the Nazi regime started the war, it was geared towards a war economy. With his memorandum on the four-year plan, Hitler had already set the course in 1936. In contrast to the beginning of the war in 1914, the transition to an economic order in which one's own national economy and that of the conquered territories are optimally coordinated with the conduct of the war did not lead to a crisis in 1939. In order to avoid internal unrest, the Nazi regime took into account the standard of living of the "national comrades" in everyday war life as much as possible.

Supply and financing

So that everyone had similar consumption options, the regime directed the market for consumer goods: From September 1, 1939, meat, fat, butter, cheese, whole milk, sugar and jam were only available on grocery cards. Two weeks later, bread and eggs were also rationed. The military expansion then ensured that the supply of the "Volksgemeinschaft" was permanently secured until 1944. The fact that the Wehrmacht in the conquered Soviet Union largely fed itself "from the country", that is, the food produced there had to be given to the occupation troops or delivered to the German Reich, also had a positive effect on the Germans. Even if there were no serious problems, the supply of consumer goods temporarily deteriorated in April 1942, when the rations for bread, meat and fat, and from June also for potatoes, were significantly reduced for the first time. With the advance in Russia, however, the situation improved again.

In contrast, the supply of raw materials was dependent on imports. Because the Germans were called on to "donate metal" to the armaments factories from April 1940, members of the Hitler Youth or the NSV (National Socialist People's Welfare) kept collecting used and raw materials. The supply situation improved due to increasing imports from the south-east European countries after the start of the war. In addition, there was the import of feed grain, pulses, petroleum, cotton and ores from the USSR within the framework of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. In particular, the expansion of the economic area now secured the (own) supply of iron ore from Sweden, Norway and France, among others. The Western European suppliers were paid for by the respective state credit institutions; should only be settled after the end of the war.

Announcement of a death sentence for "looting" in Leipzig on December 13, 1943. (& copy Deutsches Historisches Museum)
The War Economy Ordinance (KWVO) of September 4, 1939 provided for a surcharge on beer, tobacco products and brandy products. It also imposed draconian penalties for war economic crimes. In the worst case, anyone who destroyed, put aside or withheld vital goods had to face the death penalty. None of this was cost-covering. The war was therefore again financed by public debt until financial policy collapsed in the summer of 1944. The debt increased tenfold: from 33 billion RM on September 1, 1939 to 393 billion RM at the beginning of 1944. Because the purchasing power of private households remained relatively stable, but the supply of goods continued to decline, the Reichsmark lost its value drastically. The result was inflation, which could only be absorbed by the currency reform of 1948 after the war.

Productivity through planning?

The Nazi regime tried to control production. In February 1942, after the accidental death of his predecessor, Todt, Hitler commissioned Albert Speer to do this. The young architect expanded the area of ​​responsibility of the Reich Ministry for Armaments and War Production, as it was called from September 1943. The "Central Planning", a macroeconomic planning committee under Hans Kehrl (1900-1984), soon controlled the distribution of raw materials, coal and energy, labor and transport capacities. In fact, between the beginning of 1942 and July 1944, the armament index rose from 100 to 322. At the peak of productivity in July 1944, five times as many tanks were produced as two and a half years earlier. Even though the Allied bombing war was most intense at the same time.

Graphics: "War economy and forced labor"


Should one therefore speak of an "armaments miracle"? Economic historians reject this myth of Speer's influence on armor. The supposed miracle that Nazi propaganda under the sign of the
At a major event in the Berlin Sports Palace on February 18, 1943, after the defeat in Stalingrad, Joseph Goebbels declared a "total war". At the height of the speech he quoted the poet Theodor Körner, who had fallen in the war of liberation against Napoleon: "Well, people, get up and the storm breaks!". With these words Goebbels appealed to the "Volksgenossen" to do their utmost to fight the enemy. Against the background of an industrial plant that signals unbroken economic power, workers and soldiers, home and front, unite to form a national community in the "total war" - Nazi propaganda brochure on the "total war", published by the Nazi party propaganda office in 1943. ( & copy German Historical Museum)
"Total war" celebrated did not happen overnight. Rather, it resulted from a longer-term development. If you take a closer look, the rationalization measures attributed to Speer were taken much sooner or later, or they fizzled out. To put it bluntly: Even without Speer, there would have been an increase in productivity. Of course, it also shows how little the potential of the empire and the occupied territories had been used up until then.

Forced labor - the basis of the war economy

One thing is certain: the high level of supply in the Third Reich up to autumn 1944 required the inhuman exploitation of workers. The war could not have been waged for so long without the twelve million people from almost all of Europe who did forced labor for the Third Reich: foreign civilian workers, prisoners of war, concentration camp inmates, inmates from Gestapo and "labor education camps", Jews, Sinti and Roma. In the summer of 1944 alone there were 7.6 million foreign workers, including more than 1.9 million prisoners of war and 5.7 million civilian workers, mostly from Poland and the Soviet Union. Around two and a half million of these "forced laborers" (as the name was later used) perished in the Reich between 1939 and 1945, mainly Soviet prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates.

In the course of the war, forced labor increased; from 1941/42 the conditions became more and more radical. Representatives of German companies looked in the occupied territories, especially in Poland and the USSR, for suitable companies that they could incorporate, set up their own branches and exploited locals as cheap labor. In Minsk, for example, Daimler-Benz AG ran a repair company for Wehrmacht vehicles. With 5000 employees, including prisoners of war, locals and people who had been abducted from Belarus, the company, which was built with the support of the Todt Organization (OT), was one of the largest in Eastern Europe.

Millions of people were deported to forced labor in the Reich by the German occupiers, some with the help of collaborators. Most came from Poland, the USSR and France. Firms that needed cheap labor reported their needs to the labor offices. In March 1942, Hitler appointed the Gauleiter of Thuringia, Fritz Sauckel, as "General Plenipotentiary for Labor Use" (GBA). He gave the labor administration and the occupation administration the respective quotas. The Soviet prisoners of war were initially out of the question for forced labor. According to the Nazi ideology, the idea of ​​bringing the "racially inferior Slavic subhumans" from Eastern and Southeastern Europe to the heartland of the German national community and jeopardizing their "purity" and security seemed downright absurd. Only at the end of 1941 did the ban become sheer economic necessity abolished.

Source text

Gestapo report on the "mood" in the Polish population of July 18, 1941

"The execution of the former Polish prisoner of war B. was subsequently made known to the population in the vicinity of the place of execution. The general opinion among the peasantry was that the sentence was harsh but fair.

Gestapo report of July 18, 1941. (& copy LAV NRW R, RW 0058 No. 23027, sheet 93.)
The employers of Polish civil workers are very cautious about providing information to the gendarmerie officers because they fear the Poles will harm their businesses. However, these fears should not be taken seriously because the execution left a deep impression on the 145 Polish civil workers present. After the execution, they hold back extremely. It became known that the Polish civil workers also recognized the verdict as fair, especially as they were aware of the threat of punishment for intercourse with German women. In the districts of Haan and Hochdahl, after the execution of the sentence, a strong desire to work among the Polish civilian workers was determined. After about 10 days, the population stopped talking about the incident.

I am handing over the photographs of the execution as an attachment. "


Source: Landesarchiv NRW - Rhineland Department - RW 0058 No. 23027, Bl. 93.

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The "foreign workers" worked in agriculture, in construction companies, in mining, in armaments factories, in handicrafts and in private households. In agriculture, the forced laborers - mainly Polish and Soviet civil workers and French prisoners of war - lived in close contact with the farmers on the farms. As of 1943, foreigners made up over half of the rural workforce. The work was particularly hard in the construction industry, where construction companies erected bunkers or worked for armaments factories. In 1944, a third of the workforce consisted of forced laborers. 12,000 toiled in Thuringia alone building an underground aircraft factory.

Source text

Report on the German economic situation in 1943/44

"For the year 1944, the German war economy is faced with the task of increasing all war-related production as much as possible while at the same time securing food and other vital supplies for the armed forces and the people.

1. In the field of the food industry, the supply is guaranteed until the new harvest. For the coming agricultural year, all precautions have been taken to maintain the supply level.

2. The implementation of the necessary increases in production in all areas of raw materials and armaments requires increased work. Even today, the labor reserves are not fully exhausted. Labor reserves are directly available in the armaments industry. Even within the Wehrmacht, reserves of work are lying idle, which will be activated in the continuation of the initiated actions through further implementations and combing out. In the consumer goods sector and within the state and commercial administration, performance increases can be achieved through implementation and more sensible use of the workforce that is still available. Further reserves can be activated by systematically and without exception using female workers who are still unemployed, combating absenteeism and stricter control of cases of illness. There is also the possibility of further increases in performance.
Finally, a further mobilization of workers in the occupied and friendly countries as well as a tighter control in the approach of the foreigners in accordance with their racial suitability lead to the expectation of an increase in performance. [...]

9. The prerequisite for the implementation of these principles is the penetration of the whole people with the conviction that the ultimate goal is at stake and that therefore no sacrifice is too great to achieve the goal of achieving a victorious peace. In doing so, neither exceptions may be requested or approved during deployment, because it is precisely for this final effort that what is the most important task of a leadership is decisive: the role model. "


Prepared by the planning office of the Reich Ministry for Armaments and War Production, Archive of the Institute for Contemporary History, PS 1946, p. 167-199, report on the German economic situation 1943/44, quoted from: Jonas Scherner, report on the German economic situation 1943/44. A balance sheet by the Reich Ministry for Armaments and War Production on the development of the German war economy up to the summer of 1944, in: Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte 55 (2007) 3, pp. 499-546.

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A hierarchy of foreigners based on racial ideological criteria soon developed in the Reich. Right at the top - below the German "Herrenmenschen" - were the North and West Europeans, further down the Poles and Soviet workers (the "Eastern Workers"), and at the end "Gypsies" and Jews. The individual national comrade definitely had some room for maneuver in dealing with forced laborers. The propaganda poster, for example, which urged the Germans not to dine at the same table with the strangers, showed both the rigid will to be excluded and the obvious need for regulation. The spectrum of possible actions ranged from active participation in crimes to open rebellion.

Only at first glance, forced labor was part of the late 19th century tradition of recruiting foreign seasonal workers. Nor was it merely a consequence or even marginal phenomenon of the war, but actually an element of the National Socialist social order. The forced labor gave an inkling of the society, which was formed according to folk-style thinking, in which the Aryan master race had recourse to millions of disenfranchised slave laborers. Forced laborers shaped the everyday life of the Germans in the war and could not be overlooked from 1942 at the latest, neither in the Reich nor in the occupied territories. The humiliation, exploitation and "annihilation" of those without rights through forced labor was a public crime.

Further reading:

  • Everyday forced labor 1938-1945. Edited by the Topography of Terror Foundation / Documentation Center for Nazi Forced Labor Berlin-Schöneweide. Documentation Center Nazi Forced Labor Schöneweide, Berlin 2013.
  • Ralf Ahrens, Norbert Frei, Jörg Osterloh, Tim Schanetzky (eds.), Flick. The group, the family, the power, Munich 2009.
  • Götz Aly, Hitler's People's State. Robbery, Race War and National Socialism, Frankfurt am Main 2007.
  • Ralf banks, precious metal shortages and large-scale robbery. The Development of the German Precious Metals Sector and Degussa AG 1933-1945, Berlin 2009.
  • Johannes Bähr, The Dresdner Bank in the Economy of the Third Reich, Munich 2006.
  • Neil Gregor, star and swastika. Daimler-Benz in the Third Reich, Berlin 1997.
  • Rüdiger Hachtmann, The Economic Empire of the German Workers' Front 1933-1945. Göttingen 2012.
  • Peter Hayes, Degussa in the Third Reich. From cooperation to complicity, 2nd edition Munich 2005.
  • Ulrich Herbert, foreign worker. Politics and practice of the "deployment of foreigners" in the war economy of the Third Reich. Berlin 1985.
  • Ludolf Herbst, Thomas Weihe (eds.), Commerzbank and the Jews 1933-1945, Munich 2004.
  • Andreas Heusler, Mark Spoerer and Helmuth Trischler (eds.), Armaments, war economy and forced labor in the "Third Reich", Munich 2010.
  • Volkhard Knigge, Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau and Jens-Christian Wagner (eds.), “Forced labor. The Germans, the Forced Laborers and the War ”(exhibition catalog), Essen 2012.
  • Stephan H. Lindner, Hoechst. Some. Farbenwerk in the Third Reich. Munich 2005
  • Rolf-Dieter Müller, the manager of the war economy. Hans Kehrl - An Entrepreneur in the Politics of the Third Reich, Essen 1999.
  • Richard Overy, War and Economy in the Third Reich, Oxford 1995.
  • Hans-Christoph Seidel, The Ruhr Mining in World War II. Collieries - miners - forced laborers. Food 2010.
  • Mark Spoerer, forced labor under the swastika. Foreign civilian workers, prisoners of war and prisoners in the Third Reich and in occupied Europe 1939-1945, Stuttgart 2001.
  • Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, traveling exhibition "Forced Labor. The Germans, the Forced Laborers and the War".
  • H.-U. Thamer, economy and society under the swastika.
  • Adam Tooze, Economics of Destruction. The history of the economy under National Socialism Siedler, Munich 2007.


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