Forced labour under German rule during World War II

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Use of forced labour by Nazi Germany
Street round-up (Polish łapanka [waˈpanka]) of random civilians to be deported to Germany for forced labour; Warsaw's Żoliborz district, 1941

The use of forced labour in Nazi Germany and throughout German-occupied Europe during World War II took place on an unprecedented scale.[2] It was a vital part of the German economic exploitation of conquered territories. It also contributed to the mass extermination of populations in German-occupied Europe. The Nazi Germans abducted approximately 12 million people from almost twenty European countries; about two thirds of whom came from Eastern Europe.[1] Many workers died as a result of their living conditions - mistreatment, malnutrition, and torture were the main causes of death. They became civilian casualties of shelling.[3] At its peak the forced labourers comprised 20% of the German work force. Counting deaths and turnover, about 15 million men and women were forced labourers at one point or another during the war.[4]

The liberation of Germany in 1945 freed 11 million foreigners, called "displaced persons" – chiefly forced labourers and POWs. In addition to POWs, the Germans had seized 2.8 million Soviet workers to labour in factories in Germany. Returning them home was a high priority for the Allies. However, in the case of Russians and Ukrainians, returning often meant suspicion, prison, or death. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), Red Cross, and military operations provided food, clothing, shelter, and assistance in returning home. In all, 5.2 million foreign workers and POWs were repatriated to the Soviet Union, 1.6 million to Poland, 1.5 million to France, and 900,000 to Italy, along with 300,000 to 400,000 each to Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Belgium.[5]

Forced workers

German propaganda poster in Polish language: "Let's do agricultural work in Germany. Report immediately to your Vogt"

Hitler's policy of Lebensraum strongly emphasized the conquest of new lands in the East, known as Generalplan Ost, and the exploitation of these lands to provide cheap goods and labour to Germany. Even before the war, Nazi Germany maintained a supply of slave labour. This practice started from the early days of labour camps of "undesirables" (German: unzuverlässige Elemente), such as the homeless, homosexual, criminals, political dissidents, communists, Jews, and anyone whom the regime wanted out of the way. During World War II the Nazis operated several categories of Arbeitslager (labour camps) for different categories of inmates. Prisoners in Nazi labour camps were worked to death on short rations and in bad conditions, or killed if they became unable to work. Many died as a direct result of forced labour under the Nazis.[1]

After the invasion of Poland, Jews over the age of 12 and Poles over the age of 14 living in the General Government were subject to forced labor.[6] In 1942, all non-Germans living in the General Government were subject to forced labor.[7]

"Obligations of a worker during his or her stay in Germany" (in German and Polish)

The largest number of labour camps held civilians forcibly abducted in the occupied countries (see Łapanka) to provide labour in the German war industry, repair bombed railroads and bridges, or work on farms. Manual labour was a resource in high demand, as much of the work that today would be done with machines was still a manual affair in the 1930s and 1940s – shoveling, material handling, machining, and many others. As the war progressed, the use of slave labour increased massively. Prisoners of war and civilian "undesirables" were brought in from occupied territories. Millions of Jews, Slavs and other conquered peoples were used as slave labourers by German corporations, such as Thyssen, Krupp, IG Farben, Bosch, Daimler-Benz, Demag, Henschel, Junkers, Messerschmitt, Philips, Siemens, and even Volkswagen,[8] not to mention the German subsidiaries of foreign firms, such as Fordwerke (a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company) and Adam Opel AG (a subsidiary of General Motors) among others.[9] Once the war had begun, the foreign subsidiaries were seized and nationalized by the Nazi-controlled German state, and work conditions there deteriorated as they did throughout German industry. About 12 million forced labourers, most of whom were Eastern Europeans, were employed in the German war economy inside Nazi Germany throughout the war.[10] The German need for slave labour grew to the point that even children were kidnapped to work in an operation called the Heu-Aktion. More than 2,000 German companies profited from slave labour during the Nazi era, including Deutsche Bank and Siemens.[11]


A class system was created amongst Fremdarbeiter ("foreign workers") brought to Germany to work for the Reich. The system was based on layers of increasingly less privileged workers, starting with well paid workers from Germany's allies or neutral countries to forced labourers from conquered Untermenschen ("sub-humans") populations.

Arbeitsbuch Für Ausländer (Workbook for Foreigner) identity document issued to a Polish Forced Labourer in 1942 by the Germans together with a letter "P" patch that Poles were required to wear to distinguish them from the German population.
Young Polish girl wearing Letter "P" patch.
  • Gastarbeitnehmer ("guest workers") – Workers from Germanic and Scandinavian countries, France, Italy,[12] other German allies (Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary), and friendly neutrals (e.g. Spain and Switzerland). This was a very small group, only about 1% of foreign workers in Germany came from countries that were neutral or allied to Germany.[1]
  • Zwangsarbeiter (forced workers) – Forced labourers from countries not allied with Germany. This class of workers was broken down into the following designations:
  1. Militärinternierte ("military internees") – Prisoners of war. Geneva Conventions allowed captor nations to force non-officer prisoners of war to work within certain restrictions. For example, almost all Polish non-officer prisoners of war (c. 300,000) were forced to work in Nazi Germany. In 1944, there were almost 2 million prisoners of war employed as forced labourers in Germany.[12] Compared to other foreign workers, the prisoners of war were relatively well-off, especially if they came from western countries that were still at war like United States or Britain, as the minimum standards of their treatment were mandated by the Geneva Conventions (Soviet prisoners of war, however, were treated with utter brutality as Nazis did not consider them subject to protection under the Geneva Conventions, which had not been ratified nor implemented by the Soviet Union). Their working conditions and well-being were subject to supervision by the International Red Cross and, in cases of mistreatment, retaliation against German prisoners held in US and Britain (and likewise performing forced labor) was almost certain. However, the treatment of these workers varied greatly depending on their country of origin, the period, and the specific workplace.
  2. Zivilarbeiter ("civilian workers") – ethnic Poles from the General Government.[12] They were regulated by strict Polish decrees: they received much lower wages and could not use conveniences such as public transport, or visit many public spaces and businesses (for example they could not attend German-church services, swimming pools, or restaurants); they had to work longer hours and were assigned smaller food rations; they were subject to a curfew. Poles were routinely denied holidays and had to work seven days a week; they could not enter marriage between themselves without a permit; they could not possess money or objects of value: bicycles, cameras, or even lighters. They were required to wear a sign: the "Polish P", on their clothing. In 1939 there were about 300,000 Polish Zivilarbeiter in Germany.[1][12] By 1944, their number skyrocketted to about 1.7 million,[12] or 2.8 million by different accounts (approximately 10% of occupied Poland's prisoner workforce).[13] In 1944, there were about 7.6 m foreign so-called civilian workers employed in Germany in total, including POWs from Generalgouvernement and the expanded USSR,[12] with and a similar number of workers in this category from other countries.[1]
  3. Ostarbeiter ("Eastern workers") – Former Soviet civil workers, primarily from Ukraine. They were marked with a sign OST ("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. Estimates put the number of OST Arbeiters between 3 million and 5.5 million.[14]

In general, foreign labourers from Western Europe had similar gross earnings and were subject to similar taxation as German workers. In contrast, the central and eastern European forced labourers received at most about one-half the gross earnings paid to German workers and much fewer social benefits.[1] Forced labourers who were prisoners of labour or concentration camps received little if any wage and benefits.[1] The deficiency in net earnings of central and eastern European forced labourers (versus forced labourers from western countries) is illustrated by the wage savings forced labourers were able to transfer to their families at home or abroad (see table).

The Nazis issued a ban on sexual relations between Germans and foreign workers.[15] Repeated efforts were made to propagate Volkstum ("racial consciousness"), to prevent such relations.[16] Pamphlets, for instance, instructed all German women to avoid physical contact with all foreign workers brought to Germany as a danger to their blood.[17] Women who disobeyed were imprisoned.[18] Even fraternization with the workers was regarded as dangerous, and targeted with pamphlet campaigns in 1940–1942.[19] The soldiers in the Wehrmacht and SS officers were exempt from any such restrictions. It is estimated that at least 34,140 Eastern European women apprehended in Łapankas (military kidnapping raids), were forced to serve them as "sex slaves" in German military brothels and camp brothels during the Third Reich.[20][21] In Warsaw alone, there were five such establishments set up under military guard in September 1942, with over 20 rooms each. Alcohol was not allowed in there, unlike on the western front, and the victims underwent genital checkup once a week.[22]


In the late summer of 1944, German records listed 7.6 million foreign civilian workers and prisoners of war in the German territory, most of whom had been brought there by coercion.[12] By 1944, slave labour made up one quarter of Germany's entire work force, and the majority of German factories had a contingent of prisoners.[12][23] The Nazis also had plans for the deportation and enslavement of Britain's adult male population in the event of a successful invasion.[24]

Polish-forced-workers' Zivilarbeiter badge
OST-Arbeiter badge
Foreign civilian forced labourers in Nazi Germany by country of origin, January 1944 with transfer payment to the Reich per labourer Source: Beyer & Schneider [1]
Countries Number  % of total RM
Total 6,450,000 100.0%
Occupied Eastern Europe 4,208,000 65.2% median 15 RM
Czechoslovakia 348,000 5.4%
Poland 1,400,000 21.7% 33.5 RM
Yugoslavia 270,000 4.2%
USSR including annexed lands 2,165,000 33.6% 4 RM
Hungary 25,000 0.4%
Occupied Western Europe 2,155,000 33.4 median 700 RM
France (except Alsace-Lorraine) 1,100,000 17.1% 487 RM
Norway 2,000
Denmark 23,000 0.4%
Netherlands 350,000 5.4%
Belgium 500,000 7.8% 913 RM
Italy [a] 180,000 2.8% 1,471 RM
Greece 20,000 0.3%
German allies and neutral countries 87,000 1.3%
Bulgaria 35,000 0.5%
Romania 6,000 0.1%
Spain 8,000 0.1%
Switzerland 18,000 0.3%

Organisation Todt

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The Organisation Todt was a Nazi era civil and military engineering group in Nazi Germany, eponymously named for its founder Fritz Todt, an engineer and senior Nazi figure. The organization was responsible for a huge range of engineering projects both in pre-World War II Germany, and in all of occupied Europe from France to Russia. Todt became notorious for using forced labour. Most of the so-called "volunteer" Soviet POW workers were assigned to the Organisation Todt.[25] The history of the organization falls into three main phases.[26]

  1. A pre-war period between 1933 and 1938, during which the predecessor of Organisation Todt, the office of General Inspector of German Roadways (Generalinspektor für das deutsche Straßenwesen), was primarily responsible for the construction of the German Autobahn network. The organisation was able to draw on "conscripted" (i.e. compulsory) labour from within Germany through the Reich Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst, RAD).
  2. The period from 1938 until 1942 after Operation Barbarossa, when the Organisation Todt proper was founded and utilized on the Eastern front. The huge increase in the demand for labour created by the various military and paramilitary projects was met by a series of expansions of the laws on compulsory service, which ultimately obligated all Germans to arbitrarily determined (i.e. effectively unlimited) compulsory labour for the state: Zwangsarbeit.[27] From 1938-40, Over 1.75 million Germans were conscripted into labour service. From 1940-42, Organization Todt began its reliance on Gastarbeitnehmer (guest workers), Militärinternierte (military internees), Zivilarbeiter (civilian workers), Ostarbeiter (Eastern workers) and Hilfswillige ("volunteer") POW workers.
  3. The period from 1942 until the end of the war, with approximately 1.4 million labourers in the service of the Organisation Todt. Overall, 1% were Germans rejected from military service and 1.5% were concentration camp prisoners; the rest were prisoners of war and compulsory labourers from occupied countries. All were effectively treated as slaves and existed in the complete and arbitrary service of a ruthless totalitarian state. Many did not survive the work or the war.[26]

Extermination through labour

Arbeit Macht Frei ("work will set you free") gate at KZ Sachsenhausen
Forced concentration camp labour at U-boat pens in Bremen, 1944

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Millions of Jews were forced labourers in ghettos, before they were shipped off to extermination camps. The Nazis also operated concentration camps, some of which provided free forced labour for industrial and other jobs while others existed purely for the extermination of their inmates. To mislead the victims, at the entrances to a number of camps the lie "work brings freedom" ("arbeit macht frei") was placed, to encourage the false impression that cooperation would earn release. A notable example of labour-concentration camp is the Mittelbau-Dora labour camp complex that serviced the production of the V-2 rocket. Extermination through labour was a Nazi German World War II principle that regulated the aims and purposes of most of their labour and concentration camps.[28][29] The rule demanded that the inmates of German World War II camps be forced to work for the German war industry with only basic tools and minimal food rations until totally exhausted.[28][30]

Controversy over compensation

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To facilitate the economy after the war, certain categories of the victims of Nazism were excluded from compensation from the German Government; those were the groups with the least amount of political pressure they could have brought to bear, and many forced labourers from the Eastern Europe fall into that category.[31] There has been little initiative on the part of the German government or business to compensate the forced labourers from the war period.[1]

As stated in the London Debt Agreement of 1953:

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Consideration of claims arising out of the Second World War by countries which were at war with or were occupied by Germany during that war, and by nationals of such countries, against the Reich and agencies of the Reich, including costs of German occupation, credits acquired during occupation on clearing accounts and claims against the Reichskreditkassen shall be deferred until the final settlement of the problem of reparations.

To this date, there are arguments that such settlement has never been fully carried out and that Germany post-war development has been greatly aided, while the development of victim countries stalled.[1]

A prominent example of a group which received almost no compensation for their time as forced labourer in Nazi Germany are the Polish forced labourers. According to the Potsdam Agreements of 1945, the Poles were to receive reparations not from Germany itself, but from the Soviet Union share of those reparations; due to the Soviet pressure on the Polish communist government, the Poles agreed to a system of repayment that de facto meant that few Polish victims received any sort of adequate compensation (comparable to the victims in Western Europe or Soviet Union itself). Most of the Polish share of reparations was "given" to Poland by Soviet Union under the Comecon framework, which was not only highly inefficient, but benefited Soviet Union much more than Poland. Under further Soviet pressure (related to the London Agreement on German External Debts), in 1953 the People's Republic of Poland renounced its right to further claims of reparations from the successor states of Nazi Germany. Only after the fall of communism in Poland in 1989/1990 did the Polish government try to renegotiate the issue of reparations, but found little support in this from the German side and none from the Soviet (later, Russian) side.[31]

The total number of forced labourers under Nazi rule who were still alive as of August 1999 was 2.3 million.[1] The German Forced Labour Compensation Programme was established in 2000; a forced labour fund paid out more than 4.37 billion euros to close to 1.7 million of then-living victims around the world (one-off payments of between 2,500 and 7,500 euros).[32] Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel stated in 2007 that "Many former forced labourers have finally received the promised humanitarian aid"; she also conceded that before the fund was established nothing had gone directly to the forced labourers.[32] German president Horst Koehler stated

It was an initiative that was urgently needed along the journey to peace and reconciliation... At least, with these symbolic payments, the suffering of the victims has been publicly acknowledged after decades of being forgotten.[32]

See also


a. ^ By January 1944, Italy had switched sides and is included in Occupied Western Europe. Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania would not switch sides till summer 1944 and are included in German allies section.


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  2. Ulrich Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labour in Germany under the Third Reich (1997)
  3. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  4. Panikos Panayi, "Exploitation, Criminality, Resistance. The Everyday Life of Foreign Workers and Prisoners of War in the German Town of Osnabrück, 1939-49," Journal of Contemporary History Vol. 40, No. 3 (Jul., 2005), pp. 483-502 in JSTOR
  5. William I. Hitchcock, The Bitter Road to Freedom: The Human Cost of Allied Victory in World War II Europe (2008), pp 250-56
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  7. Majer, 2003, p.303
  8. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  9. Sohn-Rethel, Alfred Economy and Class Structure of German Fascism, CSE Books, 1978 ISBN 0-906336-01-5
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  13. A. Paczkowski, Historia Powszechna/Historia Polski, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa 2008, tom 16, p. 28
  14. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  15. Special treatment is done by train (Sonderbehandlung)
  16. Robert Edwin Hertzstein, The War That Hitler Won p139 ISBN 0-399-11845-4
  17. Leila J. Rupp, Mobilizing Women for War, p 124-5, ISBN 0-691-04649-2, OCLC 3379930
  18. Robert Edwin Hertzstein, The War That Hitler Won p212 ISBN 0-399-11845-4
  19. Robert Edwin Hertzstein, The War That Hitler Won p211-2 ISBN 0-399-11845-4
  20. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.  
  21. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.  ISBN 1-57181-775-1.
  22. Joanna Ostrowska, Marcin Zaremba, "Do burdelu, marsz!" (March in, to the brothel!), Polityka, No 22 (2707), May 30, 2009; pp. 70-72 (Polish)
  23. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. See also: Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  24. Shirer, William. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Arrow books 1991.
  25. Christian Streit: Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmacht und die Sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen, 1941-1945, Bonn: Dietz (3. Aufl., 1. Aufl. 1978), ISBN 3-8012-5016-4 - "Between 22 June 1941 and the end of the war, roughly 5.7 million members of the Red Army fell into German hands. In January 1945, 930,000 were still in German camps. A million at most had been released, most of whom were so-called "volunteer" (Hilfswillige) for (often compulsory) auxiliary service in the Wehrmacht. Another 500,000, as estimated by the Army High Command, had either fled or been liberated. The remaining 3,300,000 (57.5 percent of the total) had perished."
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  27. Verordnung zur Sicherstellung des Kräftebedarfs für Aufgaben von besonderer staatspolitischer Bedeutung of October 15, 1938 (Notdienstverordnung), RGBl. 1938 I, Nr. 170, S. 1441–1443; Verordnung zur Sicherstellung des Kräftebedarfs für Aufgaben von besonderer staatspolitischer Bedeutung of February 13, 1939, RGBl. 1939 I, Nr. 25, S. 206f.; Gesetz über Sachleistungen für Reichsaufgaben (Reichsleistungsgesetz) of September 1, 1939, RGBl. 1939 I, Nr. 166, S. 1645–1654. [ RGBl = Reichsgesetzblatt, the official organ for he publication of laws.] For further background, see Die Ausweitung von Dienstpflichten im Nationalsozialismus(German), a working paper of the Forschungsprojekt Gemeinschaften, Humboldt University, Berlin, 1996–1999.
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Further reading

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  • Homze, Edward L. Foreign Labor in Nazi Germany (Princeton UP 1967)
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  • Mazower, Mark. Hitler's Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe (2009) ch 10
  • Ruhs, Florian. "Foreign Workers in the Second World War. The Ordeal of Slovenians in Germany", aventinus nova # 32 (2011).
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External links