The Army of Millions of the Modern Slave State: 

Deported, used, forgotten: Who were the forced workers of the Third Reich, and what fate awaited them? 

Ulrich Herbert
Universitaet Freiburg

[Published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 16 March 1999.  This is an extract from Ulrich Herbert Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich, Cambridge University Press 1997."]

The discussion about compensation for the former forced workers of the Third Reich and the jurisdiction of the presumptive fund of German firms has involved wide circles.  It engages American legal firms as well as German historians and politicians, who are attempting to find a negotiated settlement.  In this process, one often encounters a significant confusion of terms: Foreign civil workers are confused with prisoners of war, inmates of concentration camps are equated with persecuted Jews.  Ulrich Herbert, Professor for Contemporary History at the University Freiburg, has studied the problems of forced labor intensively.  He provides in the following article a precise differentiation of the various groups of forced workers, their respective legal and social position and their fate.  In addition, he describes the changes, which modified the system of forced labor during the course of the war:  When the retreating front lines caused a slow-down in the civil and military recruitment of labor, the National Socialists were forced to slow the annihilation machinery of the camps.   F.A.Z. [editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung] 

The recruitment of millions of workers for forced labor during the Second World War was a cornerstone of the National Socialist labor policies -- within Germany proper as well as within the whole of Europe occupied by the Germans.  It is true that the term „Zwangsarbeiter [forced worker]“ includes a variety of groups of people with, in some instances, widely varying work status.  One can differentiate four main and very different groups, in terms of status, means and execution of their recruitment, social standing, legal basis for the employment, as well as length and circumstances of the employment relationship:


· the foreign civilian workers, who were brought into Germany between 1939 and 1945 for „Arbeitseinsatz [labor use]“ and who were colloquially called „Fremdarbeiter [foreign workers]“; they were by far the largest of the groups listed here;

· the foreign prisoners of war, primarily from Poland, the Soviet Union and France, who were used as workers in Germany.  However, considerable numbers of Polish prisoners were reclassified as „Zivilarbeiter [civilian workers]“.  This group also includes the roughly 600,000 „Militärinternierte [military internees]“ - Italian soldiers, who were detained by the Wehrmacht after Italy seceded from the „Achse [Axis]“ and who were brought to Germany as forced workers;

· the inmates of the concentration camps of the SS within the territory of the Reich;

· the European Jews, who were forced into labor for short or longer periods in their home countries, but significantly also after their deportation -- initially in Poland - in Ghettos, forced labor camps or branch camps of the concentration camps -- but after 1944 increasingly also within the territory of the Reich.

 This study does not cover, other than for the case of the Jewish forced workers, the recruitment of residents of countries occupied by the Wehrmacht for forced labor within those countries outside the concentration camps.  The current research is particularly unclear on this issue, and the various countries use rather different definitions of „Zwangsarbeit [forced labor]“, which range from forced labor in camps similar to concentration camps to a requirement that welfare recipients were obligated to accept a job through the local employment office.

The National Socialist „Ausländereinsatz [use of foreigners]“ between 1939 and 1945 represents the most sizable case of the massive and forced use of foreign workers in history since the end of slavery in the nineteenth century.  The official records for the late summer of 1944 listed 7.6 million foreign civilian workers and prisoners of war in the territory of the „Greater German Reich“, who for the most part had been brought there for employment by force.  Thus, they represent roughly a quarter of all registered workers in the entire economy of the German Reich at that time.

 As early as the very beginning of the war in September 1939, the roughly 300,000 Polish prisoners of war in German hands had been put to work very quickly, primarily in agricultural enterprises.  At the same time, a campaign of recruitment of Polish workers was started, which initially continued the long tradition of employing Polish farm laborers in Germany, but which soon was modified into increasingly harsh recruitment methods and which turned after the spring of 1940 into a veritable hunt for humans in what was called the „Generalgouvernement“, where workers were landed with labor contracts for entire age cohorts, collective repression, raids, surrounding of movie theaters, schools or churches.  In this way, more than a million Polish workers had been brought into the Reich by May 1940.

 At the same time, the political leadership continued to view the „Poleneinsatz [use of Poles]“ as a violation of the „race“ principles of National Socialism; Himmler used the phrase during February 1940 that the resulting „political dangers for the Volk [= the German people]“ were to be counteracted with correspondingly harsh methods.  Consequently, a large system of repressive measures was developed vis-à-vis the Poles:  they had to live in barrack camps - however, this soon proved to be practically impossible in the rural setting -, they received lower wages, could not use public conveniences - from express trains to swimming pools -, could not attend a German church service; they had to work longer hours than Germans and were required to wear a sign - the „Polish-P“ - attached to their clothing.  Contact with Germans other than at work was prohibited; sexual relations with German women were punished by the public execution of the Pole involved.  In order to „safeguard the German blood“, it was further decreed that at least half of the civilian Polish workers had to be female.

 The German authorities viewed the trial „use of Poles“ as a success: It achieved the transfer of a large number of Polish workers to Germany against their will as well the introduction of a two class society on the basis of „race“ criteria.

But by May 1940 it had become apparent that even the recruitment of the Poles could not satisfy the labor needs of the German economy.  Consequently, even during and immediately after the „Frankreichfeldzug [expedition in France]“ a little over one million French prisoners of war were brought into the Reich as workers.  In addition, a more intensive advertising campaign for workers was started in the allied countries and the occupied areas in the West and North.  Each of these groups received its own rules for treatment, wages and lodging, which were, however, considerably more favorable than those for the Poles, such that a multi-layered system of national hierarchies developed, a ladder, on which what was even then already called „Gastarbeitnehmer [guest workers]“ from the allied Italy and the workers from Northern and Western Europe ranked at the top and the Poles at the bottom.  Until 1941/42, the proportion of „voluntary“ workers from Northern and Western Europe was relatively high, until even here the declining numbers of workers led to various systems from forced recruitment for employment in Germany.

The fall of 1941 and the first military reverses for the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union led to a fundamental change of the situation.  One could no longer talk of a „Blitzkrieg“; the German armament industry had to adjust instead to a longer war of attrition and had to increase its capacity substantially.  It was likewise no longer feasible to count on returning veterans - quite the contrary:  the employees in the armament industry, who heretofore had been protected from the draft, were now drafted in massive numbers.  But the intensive attempts at recruiting workers from Western Europe by themselves were no longer able to close these gaps.  Only the use of workers from the Soviet Union could bring further and effective relief.

In a similar fashion to the development of the „Poleneinsatz“, the employment of Russian forced workers in the „Reich“ was governed by a system of comprehensive repression and discrimination of the Soviet civil workers, which, however, were considerably more extreme than the regulations for the Poles.  The Soviet civil workers, now called „Ostarbeiter [Eastern workers]“, were marked with a sign („East“), had to live in camps that were fenced with barbed wire and under guard, and were particularly exposed to the arbitrariness of the Gestapo and the industrial plant guards.

By now, a veritable camp universe had developed within the Reich; there were camps for foreigners on every street corner in the larger cities as well as in rural areas.  A city such as Berlin had several hundred camps by itself; for the Reich as a total, the number may have been 30,000, and roughly four or five hundred thousand Germans were attached in some function in the management of the „Ausländereinsatz“, from camp director to „Ausländerbeauftragter [person in charge of foreigners]“ of a plant.

The living conditions of the various groups of foreigners were differentiated by a detailed national hierarchy, which determined minute details.  Whereas the workers from the occupied Western territories and the so-called friendly countries did have to live in camps for the most part, but received the same wages and food rations as Germans in similar positions and were also subjected to the same working conditions, the workers from the East, particularly the Russians, were considerably worse off.  The rations for the Soviet civil workers, officially called „Ostarbeiter“, were so small, that they were often completely undernourished and incapable of work within a few weeks of their arrival, particularly so during 1942/43.  Numerous firms reported as early as the early summer of 1942 that the „Russeneinsatz [use of Russians]“ was totally unprofitable, because an effective use of the forced workers required not only a better ration and sufficient rest periods, but also a training regimen appropriate to the work at hand.  In the case of the French prisoners of war, such measures had brought their work output almost up to the level of German workers within a relatively short period.  The situation of the Soviet forced workers varied widely from plant to plant, from camp to camp;  generally, they fared better in agriculture than in industry, and even there the differences in treatment and rations were astounding, particularly after the end of 1942.  But this points out just how much scope for actions and decisions was left to the individual firm.  There can be no question that the poor working and living conditions of the workers from the East did not derive exclusively from the binding regulations of the authorities.

There was a four-level system for wages, roughly speaking.  The civil workers from all countries except for the formerly Polish and Soviet areas received the same wages as the German workers in similar functions - at least nominally.  Polish workers were supposed to receive the same wages, however, they had to pay a specific tax of 15%, the „Polen-Abgabe [Polish payment]“, which had been introduced by German labor authorities with the remarkable justification that this was compensation because Poles, unlike Germans, were not subject to the military draft.  However, the Soviet workers received specifically determined wages, which were substantially lower than those of German and other foreign workers -- nominally about 40%, but practically in most cases even lower.  However, the labor authorities complained that many firms paid no wages at all to the Soviet civilian workers and that they viewed them as „civilian prisoners“ and treated them accordingly.

There were 7.6 million foreign workers in jobs in the Reich during September 1944: 5.7 million civil workers and just under two million prisoners of war.  2.8 million of them came from the Soviet Union, 1.7 million from Poland, 1.3 million from France;  overall, almost twenty European countries were represented among the workers employed in the Reich at this time.  More than half of the Polish and Soviet civil workers were women, on the average less than twenty years of age - the most common type of forced laborer in Germany in 1943 was an eighteen year old female student from Kiev.  About 23 percent of all employed workers in the Reich during September 1944 were foreign civil workers or prisoners of war.  It is shown in studies of the use of forced labor in specific firms, such as Daimler-Benz or the Volkswagenwerk, that the ratio was more than forty or fifty percent in the armament industry; in many production units it reached seventy and eighty percent, which meant that the German workers, aside from administration, were primarily used as trainers and supervisors.  In addition to the direct armament industry, the construction sector and agriculture had particularly high proportions of foreign forced workers.

But the use of foreign forced workers was not restricted just to the industry giants, but extended throughout the whole economy, apart from administration - from the small farm to the plumber with six employees to the Reichsbahn [State Railway System], to the local City Hall and the large armament firms.

By the beginning of 1944 it had become apparent that even these truly impressive numbers could not satisfy the labor needs of particularly the large armament projects of the Reich, particularly since the military developments  reduced the potential labor recruitment, particularly in the Soviet Union, and that the increased manpower shortage caused by increased military drafts could no longer be filled.  Consequently, the attention turned increasingly to the only organization, which still retained a substantial potential labor supply: the SS and the concentration camps under its control.

  The use of concentration camp inmates was not of economic significance to the war effort in the first years of the war.  Even though the establishment of SS-owned firms, such as the „Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke“ and the „Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke“, gave some visible expression to the desire of the SS to use the concentration camps increasingly also as an economic enterprise, but the reality was that the economic function of the forced labor of the inmates remained secondary to the political aims of the detention in the camps for several years into the war.

It was not until September 1942 that Hitler decreed, based on a proposal by Rüstungsminister [Minister of Armaments] Speer, that the SS would henceforth make its concentration camp inmates available on loan to industry and that industry in turn should integrate the inmates into the existing production process.  This set the pattern of loaning concentration camp inmates to private industry, which was to govern the labor use of concentration camp inmates henceforth.  To achieve this end, the inmates were transferred to an „Außenlager [branch camp]“ of the concentration camp, which was usually erected immediately adjacent to the work site.  The fees for the loan of the inmates, which the firms had to pay to the SS, amounted to six Reichsmark (RM) per day for skilled workers and four RM for unskilled workers and women.

For Jews, the change to systematic forced labor was discernible from the beginning of 1939.  At that time, those Jews within Germany, who applied for unemployment benefits, were put to work as unskilled workers in a „Geschlossenen Arbeitseinsatz [unified labor use]“, based on a decree of the German labor authorities; by the summer of 1939, the number of these primarily male Jewish forced workers rose to about 20,000, who were used primarily in road construction, land improvement, canal building and dam construction projects, as well as in garbage dumps, and after the beginning of the war also in short-term snow removal or harvesting operations.  During 1940, the requirement for forced labor was extended to all German Jews who could work - male and female - regardless of whether they received unemployment benefits.  After that time, they were used primarily in industry.

But by the spring of 1941, the endeavors to use German Jews in the armament industry within the territory of the Reich conflicted with the goal of the German leadership to deport the Jews from Germany.  For the Jewish forced workers, who were employed in armament firms - about 50,000 by the summer of 1941 - even their jobs, many of which were classified as „important for the military effort“, provided no protection from deportation, but only a delay determined by the military significance of their job.  In this connection, it is noteworthy that the deportation of Jews employed in firms important to the military effort was rationalized on the basis that there were sufficient Poles or Ukrainians available as replacements; this was the most important reason in the final analysis for the decision to deport the previously protected „Rüstungsjuden [armament Jews]“ after all.  With very few exceptions, there were no Jews left within Germany in the summer of 1943, and thus also no Jewish forced workers.

The forced labor use of Jews in the countries occupied by Germany, particularly in Eastern Europe, developed along similar lines, even if on a different timetable in some instances.

In the so-called „Generalgouvernement“, the requirement for forced labor for Jews was imposed as early as October 1939.  From that point on, all male Jews between the ages of fourteen and sixty were required to work in specifically set-up forced labor camps.  It was the duty of the „Judenräte [Jewish councils]“ to register and assign these workers.  The work requirement was extended also to all Jewish women between fourteen and sixty some weeks later.

From the beginning of 1942, with the increased emphasis towards work, the contradictions mounted:  After March 1942, the Ghettos in the „Generalgouvernement“ were dissolved and the Polish Jews were transported into the extermination camps.  The differentiation of the production plants into important and less important for the armament effort turned increasingly into a life and death decision for the Jewish forced workers.

Himmler ordered on July 19, 1942, that all Polish Jews were to be murdered by the end of 1942.  This led to the evacuation of Ghetto after Ghetto and the closing of the established production sites with tens of thousands of Jewish workers; the forced workers were deported to the extermination camps and were killed there.

It was only after the beginning of 1944, when the political main objective of National Socialism towards the Jews had been accomplished, that the dramatic deterioration in the labor supply during the final phase of the war led to a change, when Jewish inmates were also used on the territory of the Reich as workers in SS-owned plants, in subterranean plant relocations and in private firms, particularly in large industrial firms.  As early as August 1943, the leadership of the system had made the decision that the production of the rocket weapon A 4, one of the so-called V Weapons, should be carried out in subterranean production sites with the help of concentration camp inmates.  Consequently, from late 1943/early 1944, production of important armaments was moved to subterranean plants - usually caves or mining shafts - where it was protected from bombings.  These projects, which were expedited under enormous time pressure, had terrible impacts on the concentration camp inmates employed there.  It was particularly the initial construction phase during the fall and winter of 1943/44 that led to immense mortality rates.  The ease of replacing inmates combined with labor that was technically primarily simple but physically hard, the high time pressure, insufficient rations and poor living conditions were the reasons for the high death rates, which only started to fall when the living camp was completed and the production had been started.  However, by then the inmates had been „depreciated“ within several weeks after their arrival.

Projects of this type, which required tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of workers in three daily shifts, could only be carried out with concentration camp inmates, because only the SS retained work force reserves in such dimensions.  But even they proved insufficient for the fulfillment of the imposed tasks, so that the work deployment of Jews was discussed in the spring of 1944.  Until then, the employment of Jews within the Reich was explicitly forbidden; after all, it was interpreted to be a major success for the Reichssicherheitshauptamt [Reich Security Main Office] of the SS that the Reich was „free of Jews“.  But this now changed.  Of the roughly 485,000 Hungarian Jews, who were deported to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944, roughly 350,000 persons were gassed immediately, but about 100,000 persons, who appeared to be particularly able to work, were selected for labor use in the „Reich“.  After the influx of „Fremdarbeitern [foreign workers]“ had by now almost completely stopped, an increasing number of firms in the Reich had requested inmates from the Arbeitsämter [Labor Offices], and some even directly from the concentration camps, and they were now content to use Jewish forced workers from the „Ungarnaktion [action in Hungary]“.  The inmates arriving from Auschwitz, among them very many women, were now formally assigned to the concentration camps in the „Reich“ and were distributed to the firms which had requested concentration camp workers.

The number of work groups of the KZ-Stammlager [main base concentration camps] grew rapidly after the spring of 1944, by the end of the war there were some 660 Außenlager [branch camps]; the list of German firms, which installed such camps and which used concentration camp inmates, grew longer and longer and included several hundred well-known firms.

If one finally attempts to summarize the total numbers of human beings pressed into forced labor by the authorities and firms of National Socialist Germany, one can provide precise numbers based on the records of the labor authorities only for the use of foreign civilian workers and prisoners of war:  The maximum number of „Fremdarbeiter [foreign workers]“ employed at any given time was reached at 7.6 million during the summer of 1944.  In view of the enormous fluctuation, however, it is realistic to talk of about 9.5 to 10 million foreign civilian workers and prisoners of war, who were used for a longer or shorter period in Germany in forced labor.  The number of concentration camp inmates, which were used for forced labor either in Stammlager or Außenlager of concentration camps overall, can hardly be estimated with any reliability.  Between 1939 and 1945, a total of about 2.5 million inmates were sent to the concentration camps of what later turned into the Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt [Economy and Administration Main Office] of the SS; of that number, about fifteen percent were German and 85% foreigners; a conservative estimate of the number who died in these camps ranges between 836,000 and 995,000 dead; this does not include the camps Majdanek and Auschwitz, where in total about 1.1 million persons died, of which the vast majority were Jews.

One should assume that practically every concentration inmate was used for forced labor for short or long periods during the imprisonment, however in very different and changing ways.  It is probable that less than half of the 200,000 inmates in April 1943 were used in the armament industry.  At year-end 1944, the number of concentration inmates was about 600,000, of which 480,000 were actually designated as „able to work“.  According to the estimates of the Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungshauptamt of the SS, about 240,000 were used in the subterranean plants and the construction sites of Organisation Todt and about 230,000 were used in private industry.

The number of Jews, who were pressed into forced labor before or after their deportation, cannot be estimated with sufficient precision; particularly since this varied widely among the various European countries.  During the summer of 1942, the number of Polish Jews squeezed into the Ghettos and the forced labor camps was about 1.5 million; it is certainly not an overstatement to assume that at least half of them were pressed into forced labor for a longer or shorter time period.  The proportion of those who were selected out as „able to work“ after they had been deported from the various European countries into the camps of the East was considerably smaller.  Likewise, the numbers available for the territory of the Soviet Union give us only an approximate number.

During 1944, the foreign forced workers - civilian workers, prisoners of war, concentration camp inmates and Jewish workers - represented about a quarter of the total employment level within the Reich.  This includes the use of forced labor by concentration camp inmates and Jews after 1942/43.  Within this number, a significant contribution derived from the construction of subterranean production sites, particularly for the assembly of planes, during the final phase of the war.

To date it has been impossible to find a single large firm in the production sector which did not use foreign forced labor during the war.  This applies fully to the civilian workers and the prisoners of war, whereas the concentration camp inmates and the Jewish forced workers were primarily requested by larger firms.  The initiative for the use of forced workers of all categories always derived from the firm; if they did not ask for forced workers, they received none.  Presumptions that the firms had been forced by the regime into using forced workers are groundless and fail to recognize the character of the cooperative structure in the German labor administration during the war.

In summary, this short overview points out that the German economy had no alternative to the use of foreign forced workers, certainly not after the reverses in the war during the winter of 1941/42.  Without them, neither would it have been possible to maintain armament production and thus continue the war, nor could the German population have been fed on a level which until 1944 was comparatively high.  The use of forced workers in the German war economy was thus no regime-induced side effect, but formed one of the essential preconditions for the war that Germany continued for almost 6 years.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 29/11/99
©S D Stein

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