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What was forced labor under Nazi rule?

During World War II, more than 20 million people were coerced into performing forced labor for Germany in occupied Europe and in the German Reich. The Germans profited from this exploitation, which by no means took place in secret but out in the open. After the war, this slave labor was not recognized as a mass crime. Not until sixty years after the war were surviving victims given minimal payments as a nominal compensation.

The picture shows a line of female Soviet forced labourers walking in front of a barrack towards the photographer. Their faces look dejectedly into the camera. They are carrying little luggage.
Soviet forced laborers arriving in Berlin, December 1942.

Germany’s aim of World War II was the subjugation and exploitation of Europe. Extending the Atlantic to the Caucasus and from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean, the countries that they occupied were plundered, and millions of men, women, and children were abducted and forced to work for the German Reich. A total of more than 20 million people from almost all parts of Europe performed forced labor—as civil foreign workers, prisoners of war, or prisoners in the camps of the SS, the Gestapo, or the justice system: over 13 million within Germany and some 7 million in German-occupied areas. The work extracted from people was essential to the German war apparatus, and it also contributed to securing the living standards of the German people during the war.

Forced laborers were used everywhere: in the arms industry, on construction sites, in agriculture, in the skilled crafts, in public institutions, and in private households. Whether as a soldier occupying Poland or as a farmer in Thuringia—the entire German populace came face to face with forced laborers. The use of this slave workforce was no secret. It was a predominantly public crime.  

The picture shows a man in uniform shouting at another man in civilian clothes. The man in civilian clothes is standing in a pit with a spade, which is why the uniformed man is leaning forward. In the background, you can see some children standing at the edge of the pit and watching with amusement.
A uniformed German (presumedly a member of the SS) is harassing a Jew in occupied Poland, autumn 1939.
The picture shows 18 young women standing in a row in a field, surpervied by a man. They are each holding wooden agricultural tools. Some of the girls are smiling at the camera.
Female forced laborers in East Prussia, undated. „We worked for the Germans from daybreak until late into the night, from early spring almost to the end of the year“, wrote Władysława Ossowska, née Kowalewska. Born in 1918, she worked on several private agricultural estates in East Prussia and Brandenburg after 1939.
The picture shows several forced labourers cutting stones out of the rock in the high mountains and transporting them away.
Construction Site in the Highlands, 1944. Starting in May 1942, prisoners of war and forced laborers had to construct a mine in the Zillertal Alps (Tyrol) for the extraction of molybdenum, a substance used – and urgently needed – for the refinement of steel in the armament industry.
The picture shows a Ukranian family consisting of a man, three women, five children, and a small child in their mother's arms. They are mainly holding agricultural hoes in their hands. Sewn onto their clothing is a patch with the incription "East".
Ukrainian family, 1943. The entire familiy was deported for forced labor in Volzum (Lower Saxony) in May 1943. As shown here, increasingly children also had to perform forced labor all over the German Reich.

Forced laborers were subject to unequal treatment on the basis of race. Workers from Poland faced worse circumstances that those from France or the Netherlands. Jews and Soviet prisoners of war were at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy. The kind of work performed, housing, and food determined laborers’ living conditions. Ultimately, a worker’s chance of survival depended on the behavior of the Germans, who certainly had choices in terms of their actions.

Some 2.5 million people, largely Soviet prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates from throughout Europe did not survive forced labor in the German Reich. Those who did survive attempted to return home as soon as possible. However, they were received very differently in their homelands. Only in a few postwar societies were they considered victims. They were often treated with indifference, and particularly in the Soviet Union they were seen as traitors who had worked for the enemy.

Most Germans kept silent about the crime of forced labor or completely denied it. Maybe it was their conscious and a sense of complicit guilt that led to denial and decades of silence. The demands of former forced laborers for compensation went unheard. When in the 1990s Jewish victim organizations initiated a class-action lawsuit against German companies, the federal government and companies, facing pressure, paid into a common fund, which made one-time payments to living former forced laborers in the amount of several hundred or at most several thousand dollars. The payments were coupled with having to sign a waiver giving up the right to any further legal action. Since most former forced laborers had already died, the German state and industry got off the hook for a relatively small sum. Only 1.7 million former slave laborers received any financial support from Germany.

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