Archive photos of prisoners of war digging up streetcar tracks with shovels.

French prisoners of war working on the Munich streetcar tracks, 1945 | © Francé/Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo

Nazi-era forced labor: a commonplace mass crime

Between 1939 and 1945, 13.5 million men, women, and children from all over Europe were deployed as forced laborers in the “German Reich”. If one adds to that the number of forced laborers in all the Nazi-occupied territories, the total comes to an estimated 25 million. Without the mass deportation and exploitation of forced laborers, the Nazi regime could not have gone on waging war for as long as it did.  

Different living and working conditions

Forced labor was ubiquitous—in all areas of work and life and not just in the arms industries so crucial for the war effort. In 1944, one employee in four in the German Reich was a forced laborer. 43% of all foreign forced laborers were employed in industry, 36% in agriculture, 12% in services, 6% in construction (6%), and 3% in mining.

More than 200,000 young women from Eastern Europe were forcibly employed as nursemaids and servants. Most forced laborers were housed in the middle of German cities and villages in specially built barrack camps, and in converted schools, gymnasiums, and guest houses. Companies that wished to be allocated forced laborers had to provide accommodation for them. There were more than 30,000 units of such collective accommodation in the “German Reich”—that is equivalent to the number of supermarkets and other food stores in Germany today.

Of the forced laborers in the German Reich, about 8.5 million were civilian forced laborers, 4.6 million were prisoners of war, and 1.7 million were concentration camp prisoners. Sometimes the forced laborers’ status changed: many Italian and Soviet prisoners of war, for example, were given civilian status in order for them to be employed in the arms industry even though this contravened international conventions. There were also major differences in the living and working conditions of the different groups. These differences concerned not only their status, but also the kind of work they had to do, their accommodation, their food situation, and their treatment by their bosses.

Deportation of laborers

Women with heavy luggage boarding a cattle train at Kiev main station.

People being deported to the German Reich in goods and cattle trains, 1942. | © Bundesarchiv

The civilian forced laborers came mainly from the Soviet Union and Poland. Large groups also came from France, Italy, and the Netherlands. Initially, propaganda was used to try to persuade people to come to Germany to work. A small number were taken in by the Nazi regime’s false promises and signed up voluntarily

As the war continued, an increasing number of people were employed as forced laborers and whole cohorts were deported. As well as men, young women, families, children, adolescents, and the elderly were deported, above all from Eastern Europe.

A racist hierarchy

A square yellow badge edged in purple with a purple “P” in the middle.

From 1940 Polish forced laborers had to wear a badge bearing the letter “P” visible on their clothing. | © Wikimedia Commons, Sjam2004

The Nazis drew categorical distinctions between different nationalities, political convictions, and religious and ethnic affiliation. Their racist view of humanity was reflected in the hierarchy of forced laborers. The degree of freedom, food rations, and wages all varied depending on which group laborers were assigned to.   

Prisoners of war were generally treated worse than civilian forced laborers, and Eastern Europeans worse than Western Europeans. Soviet forced laborers were denigrated as “Ostarbeiter,” and Italian prisoners of war as “Italian military internees” (IMIs). Political prisoners, Sinti and Roma, and Jews were at the very bottom of the Nazi hierarchy.

What happened to the forced laborers after the war?

An estimated 2.7 million people died or were murdered while working as forced laborers: these included 1.1 million concentration camp prisoners and so-called “Arbeitsjuden” (working Jews), 1.1 million Soviet prisoners of war, and 500,000 civilian forced laborers.  

After the end of World War II, millions of people found themselves outside their native countries. Although the Allies had already decided in 1944 that foreign forced laborers, prisoners of war, and concentration camp prisoners should be repatriated, this was a lengthy bureaucratic process. Many of them had to go on living in the camp accommodation as “Displaced Persons” (DPs) for weeks after their liberation in spring 1945.

There were special arrangements for Soviet citizens, who after being handed over to the responsible authorities were subject to extensive interrogations in examination and transit camps. Many of them were suspected of being collaborators or deserters.  
 

Forced labor – a forgotten crime, or not?

After returning to their native countries, many former forced laborers were confronted with mistrust and prejudices. Some of them were accused of having collaborated with the Nazis. Their experience of Nazi forced labor also had an impact on their family life as well as on their health, their economic situation, and their social relationships. 

In Germany it took a long time for forced laborers to be recognized as victims, and even then, only some of them were. Whereas in the immediate postwar period deportation and exploitation were among the central charges in the Nuremberg trials, a short time later these crimes became trivialized and were played down as a collateral effect of war.

The struggle for financial compensation

A newspaper advertisement titled “Mercedes-Benz. Design. Performance. Slave Labor.”

Various survivors’ organizations sought to press German companies for compensation payments by publishing newspaper advertisements like this one, New York Times 1999 | © picture alliance / REUTERS / Molly Riley

The road to obtaining compensation payments was a long one for former forced laborers. In the 1950s, West Germany paid compensation only to particular countries, and these did not include the countries of the former Soviet Union, from which by far the largest number of forced laborers had come. Some major German companies paid certain sums to the Jewish Claims Conference (JCC). This money went mainly to forced laborers who had been imprisoned in concentration camps.  

The GDR generally refused to pay compensation to the foreign victims of the Nazi regime. In the wake of German reunification, agreements on compensation were reached with Poland, Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

In the late 1990s the issue of compensation payments to former forced laborers became the subject of a major societal debate in Germany—triggered not least by threats to boycott German companies abroad and by class action lawsuits brought against them. This led to the founding of the Stiftung Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft (Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility, and Future – EVZ) in order to press the compensation claims made by former forced laborers in their home countries. The foundation was financed by the German government and the Stiftungsinitiative der Deutschen Wirtschaft (German Industry Foundation Initiative).

 

Soviet prisoners of war are compensated seventy years later

Many victims of Nazi forced labor were never compensated, however, either because they had died before they could receive the money or because their claim was not granted. Former West European forced laborers were not recognized, for example, while prisoners of war were for a long time excluded completely.  

It was not until 2015 that the German parliament decided to pay compensation to the few Soviet prisoners of war still alive. Italian prisoners of war have to this day received only symbolic recognition.