Woman with Ostarbeiter badge at the Auschwitz subsidiary IG-Farbenwerke factory
German notice from 30 September 1939 in occupied Poland with warning of death penalty for refusal to work during harvest
|Period||1939 – 1945|
|Total||At least 7.6 million foreign civilians in 1944 |
Ostarbeiter (meaning "Eastern worker") was a Nazi German designation for foreign slave workers gathered from occupied Central and Eastern Europe to perform forced labor in Germany during World War II in support of the war machine. Deportations of civilians conducted since the beginning of war, reached unprecedented levels following Operation Barbarossa of 1941. The Ostarbeiters were apprehended from the newly formed districts of Reichskommissariat Ukraine, General Government Distrikt Galizien, and Reichskommissariat Ostland which comprised the territories of German occupied Poland, Soviet occupied Poland, and the Soviet Union itself. Ukrainians made up the largest percentage of Ostarbeiters although many Belarusians, Russians, and Tatars were also present. Some estimates put the number of Eastern workers between 3 million and 5.5 million. After World War II the International Military Tribunal estimated the number of liberated Ostarbeiters from the USSR at 2.5 million, and from Poland at almost one million among slave laborers of 14 different nationalities.
Most were very young, under the age of 16, as those older than 16 were usually conscripted; 30% were as young as 12–14 years of age when they were taken to Germany. By November 1943 the age limit was dropped to 10. 50% of those taken from Ukraine were girls and women.
Ostarbeiter from the Reichskommissariat Ukraine were forced to wear a dark blue and white badge with "OST" written on it, the German word for east in upper-case letters.
The official German 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.
A class system was created amongst the Fremdarbeiter (foreign workers) brought to Germany to work for the Third Reich. The multi-layered system was based on layers of national hierarchies. The Gastarbeitnehmer were the so-called guest workers, Germanic, Scandinavian and Italian. The Zwangsarbeiter, or forced workers included Militärinternierte (military internees), POWs, Zivilarbeiter (civilian workers); and primarily Polish prisoners from the General Government. They received reduced wages and food rations and had to work longer hours than the former, could not use public conveniences (such as public transportation, restaurants, or churches), were forbidden to possess certain items and some were required to wear a sign - the "Polish P" - attached to their clothing. The Ostarbeiter were the Eastern workers, primarily from "Reichskommissariat Ukraine". They were marked with a badge reading "OST" (East, similar to Poles from Kresy) and were subject to even harsher conditions than the civilian workers. They were forced to live in special camps that were fenced with barbed wire and under guard, and were particularly exposed to the arbitrariness of the Gestapo and the commercial industrial plant guards. At the end of the war 5.5 million Ostarbeiter were returned to the USSR.
Nazi Germany faced a crisis at the end of 1941 because after it had mobilized its massive armies, a shortage of workers developed in Germany to support the war industry. To help overcome this shortage of labour Göring decided to bring in people from the recently seized territories of Central and Eastern Europe, primarily Ukraine, to work in German war industries. These workers from "Reichskommisariat Ukraine" were called Ostarbeiter.
Initially a recruiting campaign was launched in January 1942 by Fritz Sauckel for workers to go to Germany. "On January 28 the first special train will leave for Germany with hot meals in Kiev, Zdolbunov and Przemyśl", offered an announcement. The first train was full when it departed from Kiev on January 22.
The advertising continued in the following months. "Germany calls you! Go to Beautiful Germany! 100,000 Ukrainians are already working in free Germany. What about you?" ran a Kiev newspaper ad on March 3, 1942. Word got back however, of the sub-human slave conditions that Ukrainians met in Germany and the campaign failed to attract sufficient volunteers. Forced recruitment and forced labor were implemented, although propaganda still depicted them as volunteers.
With the news about the terrible conditions many Ostarbeiter faced in the Third Reich the pool of volunteers soon dried up. As a result, the Germans were forced to resort to mass round-ups, often using the ploy of targeting large gatherings such as church congregations and crowds at sporting events, with entire groups simply marched off at gunpoint to waiting cattle trucks and deported to Germany.
Reichskommissar Erich Koch was ordered to provide 450,000 workers a year from Ukraine for German industry by "ruthless" means. German documents stated that the Ukrainian Ostarbeiter would be "worked to death". Although 40,000 Ukrainians a month were being sent to Germany as Ostarbeiter, armaments minister Albert Speer complained that his work force was dwindling. (This could be understood to indicate that more than 40,000 were dying every month.)
In one memorandum from Fritz Sauckel to Alfred Rosenberg there was a demand for one million men and women in four months, at the rate of 10,000 a day, and more than two-thirds were to come from Ukraine. In all the major Ukrainian cities the German army kidnapped young adults off the streets and shipped them to Germany as virtual slave laborers to work in the worst and most dangerous conditions. On the orders of the German administration Ukrainian cities were to be permanently depopulated by starvation and deportation.
One special category was that of young women recruited to act as nannies; Hitler argued that many women would like to have children, and many of them were restricted by the lack of domestic help. (This was one of many efforts made to promote the birth rate.) Since the nannies would be in close company with German children as well as in a position where they might be sexually exploited, they were required to be suitable for Germanization. Himmler spoke of thus winning back German blood and benefiting the women, too, who would have a social rise through working in Germany and even the chance to marry there. They could be assigned only to families with many children who would properly train the nannies as well. These assignments were carried out by the NS-Frauenschaft.
Originally, this recruitment was carried out only in the annexed territories of Poland, but the lack of women who passed screening extended it to all of Poland, and also to occupied territories in USSR.
On September 3, 1942, Hitler demanded that half a million Ukrainian women be brought to Germany to free German women from housekeeping. These women were recruited in consequence of Hitler's belief that there was a Germanic strain in Ukraine because the Ostrogoths and Visigoths had lived in southern Ukraine 1,800 years earlier and the "chaste peasant virtues of Ukrainian women" appealed to him. About 15,000 girls were taken to Germany to work as domestics.
Within Germany Ostarbeiter lived either in private camps owned and managed by the large companies, or in special camps guarded by privately paid police services known as the Werkschutz. They worked an average of 12 hours a day, six days a week.
The pay was approximately 30% of German workers' wages; however, most of the money went toward food, clothing and board. The labor authorities[which?] complained that many firms viewed these former Soviet civilian workers as "civilian prisoners", treated them accordingly, and paid no wages at all to them. Those who received pay got specially printed paper money and savings stamps, which they could use only for the purchase of a limited number of items in special camp stores. By law they were given worse food rations than other forced labor groups. Starvation rations and primitive accommodation were given to these unfortunates in Germany.
The Ostarbeiter were restricted to their place of residence (in some cases labor camps) and forbidden to have children with Germans. Being mostly Slavic, they were classified by German authorities as Untermenschen ("sub-humans"), who could be kicked, beaten, terrorized, and killed for their least transgression. Those who tried to escape were hanged where other workers could see their bodies. Leave without authorization or escape was punished by death. The Nazis issued a ban on sexual relations between Germans and foreign workers. On 7 December 1942 Himmler called for any "unauthorized sexual intercourse" to be punishable by death. In accordance with these new racial laws; all sexual relations, even those that did not result in pregnancy, were severely punished as Rassenschande (racial pollution). During the war, hundreds of Polish and Russian men were executed for their relations with German women.
Many died when Allied bombing raids targeted the factories where they worked. Many also perished because the German authorities ordered that "they should be worked to death".
Nazi authorities attempted to reproduce such conditions on farms, ordering farmers to integrate the workers into their workforce while enforcing total social separation, including not permitting them to eat at the same table, but this proved far more difficult to enforce. Sexual relationships in particular were able to take place despite efforts to raise German women's "racial consciousness". When Germany's military situation worsened, these workers' conditions often improved as the farmers tried to protect themselves against a defeat.
Native German workers served as foremen and supervisors over the forced labour in factories, and therefore no solidarity developed between foreigners and German nationals. The German workers became accustomed to inequalities raised by racism against the workers and became indifferent to their plight.
During the German occupation of Central and Eastern Europe in World War II (1941–44) over 3 million people were taken to Germany as Ostarbeiter. Some estimates put the number up to 5.5 million. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the over 3,000,000 Ostarbeiter were Ukrainians. Prof. Kondufor's statistic is that 2,244,000 Ukrainians were forced into slave labor in Germany during World War II. Another statistic puts the total at 2,196,166 for Ukrainian Ostarbeiter slaves in Germany (Dallin, p. 452). Both of these statistics probably exclude the several hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians from Halychyna, so a final total could be about 2.5 million.
There were slightly more female than male Ostarbeiter. They were employed in agriculture, mining, manufacturing armaments, metal production, and railroads. Ostarbeiter were initially sent to intermediate camps, where laborers were picked out for their assignments directly by representatives of labor-starved companies. Ford-Werke in Cologne and Opel in Russelsheim and Brandenburg each employed thousands of such Ostarbeiter at their plants.
Some Ostarbeiter worked for private firms, although many were employed in the factories making armaments. These factories were prime targets for Allied bombing. The Ostarbeiter were considered to be quite productive and efficient. Males were thought to be the equivalent of 60-80% of a German worker, and women — 90-100%. Two million Ukrainians worked mostly in the armaments factories including the V-2 rocket factory at Peenemünde.
To prevent Rassenschande (violation of German racial laws by the native Gemans), the farmers were given propaganda leaflets about miscegenation, which were completely ineffective. The rampant sexual abuse of Polish and Soviet female Ostarbeiters at the hands of their overseers led to tens of thousands of unwanted births. A staggering 80 percent of rapes occurred on the farms where the Polish girls worked. The newborns were secretly euthanized in Nazi birthing centres. At Arbeitslagers the infants were killed on site. The Western factory workers had brothels. Easterners did not. They were supposed to be recruited in equal numbers of men and women, so brothels would not be needed. Female labourers were always housed in separate barracks. Nevertheless, they were suspected by the SS of "cheating their way out of work" by conceiving. The earlier policy of sending them home to give birth, was replaced by the Reichsführer-SS in 1943 with a special abortion decree. Contrary to the Nazi law against German abortions, the Ostarbeiter women were usually forced to abort.
Occasionally, when the female worker and the baby's father were "of good blood" (for example, Norwegian), the child might prove "racially valuable." In such cases, the parentage was investigated and both parents tested. If they passed, the woman would be permitted to give birth, and the child was removed for Germanization. If the woman was found particularly suitable, she might be placed at a Lebensborn institution. However, when the born children did not pass, they were put in the Ausländerkinder-Pflegestätte facilities, where up to 90 percent of them would die a torturous death due to calculated abandonment.
In some rural areas, the authorities found that the German farm-wives were inclined to care for children born to their workers, along with their own children. Attempts were made to segregate these children and use ruthless propaganda to establish that if a worker of "alien blood" gave birth in Germany, it meant immediate and total separation from the child. Repeated efforts were made to propagate Volkstum (racial consciousness) in order to prevent Rassenschande between Germans and foreign workers, nevertheless, the arrival of trains with Polish girls in German towns and villages usually turned into medieval sex slave markets.
Ostarbeiter and medical experiments
On September 6, 1944 the Reichsminister of the Interior ordered the establishment of special units for Ostarbeiter in several psychiatric hospitals in the Reich. The reason given was: "With the considerable number of Ostarbeiter who have been brought to the German Reich as a labour force, their admission into German psychiatric hospitals as mentally ill patients has become more frequent ... With the shortage of space in German hospitals, it is irresponsible to treat these ill people, who in the foreseeable future will not be fit for work, for a prolonged period in German institutions."
The exact number of Ostarbeiter killed in these psychiatric institutions is as yet not known. 189 Ostarbeiter were admitted to the Ostarbeiter unit of the Heil- und Pflegeanstalt Kaufbeuren; 49 died as a result of the starvation diet, or from deadly injections.
After the war many of the Ostarbeiter were initially placed in DP (displaced person) camps from which they were then moved to Kempten for processing and returned to their country of origin, primarily the USSR. The Soviets also used special Agit brigades to convince many Ostarbeiter to return.
Many Ostarbeiter were still children or young teenagers when they were taken away and wanted to return home to their parents. Others who became aware of or understood the postwar political reality declined to return. Those in the Soviet occupational zones were returned automatically. Those in the French and British zones of occupation were forced to return under the terms of the Yalta Agreement, which stated that "Citizens of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia were to be handed over to their respective countries, regardless of their consent".
In October 1945, General Eisenhower banned the use of force in repatriation in the American Zone. As a result, many Ostarbeiter began to escape to the American Zone. Some, when faced with return to Soviet reality, chose to commit suicide.
Upon return to the Soviet Union Ostarbeiter were often treated as traitors. Many were transported to remote locations in the Soviet Union and were denied basic rights and the chance to get further education. Nearly 80 percent of [Russian workers and prisoners of war returning from Germany] were sent to forced labour, some were given fifteen to twenty-five years of "corrective labour", and others sent off to hard labour; all were categorized as "socially dangerous".
Those who returned home were also physically and spiritually broken. Moreover, they were considered by the authorities to have "questionable loyalty", and were therefore discriminated against and deprived of many of their citizenship rights.
Ostarbeiter suffered from state-sanctioned stigmatisation, with special references in their passports (and the passports of their children and relatives) mentioning their time in Germany during the war. As a result, many jobs were off-limits to anyone unlucky enough to carry such a status, and during periods of repression former slave labourers would often be ostracised by the wider Soviet community. Many victims have testified that since the war they have suffered a lifetime of abuse and suspicion from their fellow countrymen, many of whom have accused them of being traitors who helped the Germans and lived comfortably in the Third Reich while Ukraine burned.
When applying for jobs, travel abroad or for certain other, politically sensitive activities which needed sanction by the Party authorities or the KGB, people had to fill out questionnaires (ankety). If a person was deemed to be of the "wrong" nationality or "past", their chances of travel or work (and certain areas of study) were restricted.
In extreme cases, some workers, when returned to the Soviet Union after the war, were incarcerated in Gulags and some were executed as collaborators.
Pensions and retribution
In 2000 the Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future", a project of the German Federal Government and 6,500 companies of the German Industry Foundation Initiative, was established, which disbursed 10 billion Deutsche Mark (5.1 billion €) to the former forced laborers. This is roughly one-off payment of €2,000 per worker, much less than the inflation-adjusted value of their work. Of the over 2 million Ostarbeiter in Ukraine, 467,000 received a total amount of €867 million, with each worker being assigned a one-time payment of 4,300 marks. The last payments were made in 2007.
Published eyewitness accounts of the Ukrainian Ostarbeiter experience are virtually non-existent in Ukraine although there were 2,244,000 of them from Ukraine, according to Ukrainian historian Yuri Kondufor. The State Archival Service of Ukraine now has a collection of documents online showing official notices published by the German government of occupation in Ukraine. A total of 3,000,000 Ostarbeiter were taken to Germany, and it is estimated that Ukrainians constituted about 75% of the total. Ukraine, according to some sources, lost about 10 million people in World War II, which was one of the greatest losses of any country in the war.
Some Ostarbeiter survived the war and emigrated to the countries outside Europe, primarily to the United States, although a handful also made it to Australia, Canada, and Brazil. Ostarbeiter who found themselves in the British or French zones were automatically repatriated. Only those who were in the American zone were not forced to return to their countries of origin. In comparison, Ukrainians from western Ukraine and the Baltic region were not forced to return to the Soviet Union, because the UK did not recognize those territories as part of the USSR.
In 1998, only two Ostarbeiter had been located in Canada for interviews for the audio and video archives of the Ukrainian Canadian Research & Documentation Centre in Toronto.
Recently a film was made by Ukrainian television focusing on the plight of the Ukrainian Ostarbeiter who returned to the Soviet Union, demonstrating the harsh and inhumane treatment that they continued to receive after their repatriation.
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