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“Recruitment” for Forced Labor

 a  Stefania Gut, born 1924, a Polish villager, describes the “recruitment”: “I lived in the country, in the village of Slubica in eastern Poland. One day, I don’t recall exactly when, I got a written summons to report for work during the next labor deployment. I was only 16 then and simply ignored this appeal, like most of the rest of us. But only a short time later, the Germans suddenly appeared and set fire to our village. I swear, they set every other house on fire. They threatened anyone who didn’t voluntarily report for work that they would kill the whole family to set an example.”

(Cited by Dieter G. Maier: “Arbeitsverwaltung und NS-Zwangsarbeit.” In: Ulrike Winkler, ed.: Stiften gehen. NS-Zwangsarbeit und Entschädigungsdebatte (Köln: PapyRossa, 2000), pp. 67–84, here pp. 74–75. (Transl. KL))

Starting in 1935, the German Reich experienced a shortage of labor in certain occupations, and this situation was exacerbated in the following years by the Nazi regime’s push to prepare for war. Therefore, efforts to recruit workers from outside Germany were intensified. Until 1940 such recruitment was conducted in parallel by the state and the private sector, and after that time the state work deployment agencies exercised a monopoly on these programs. The recruitment took place in states that were allied with the German Reich. At first the German Reich, starting in 1938, concluded agreements with several European states regarding the “employment of agricultural workers”[1] and made advertising efforts in several countries. Four different recruitment procedures can be identified, depending on the target countries’ connections with the German Reich: mere recruitment; recruitment with substantial influencing of the conditions of existence; conscription of entire age groups with the assistance of the indigenous administration; and forcible deportation.


The German Reich had concluded agreements with friendly and neutral states, and consequently their subjects generally came to Germany voluntarily and on terms providing relatively good legal safeguards; if circumstances changed, however, the workers were certain to suffer as a result, as in the case of Italy. This type of workforce recruitment, however, did not yield the number of foreign workers desired by the Germans. Citizens of occupied or annexed states[2] were recruited in a less friendly manner: many came to work in Germany because they allowed themselves to be swayed by promises of fat paychecks, and at first a considerable number of interested parties responded to the recruitment programs for industry and agriculture on a voluntary basis. Soon, however, rumors of the poor conditions for the workers (atrocious treatment, nonfulfillment of contracts) in Germany got around, and there was a “drastic decline”[3] in the number of volunteers. Therefore the German recruiters resorted to “measures of influence.” That is, they made sure that wages in the occupied regions dropped, firms closed their doors, and unemployment continued to rise. In addition, people who were jobless had an obligation to register. Anyone who failed to register risked cuts in public assistance benefits for his or her entire family.


But even these measures failed to boost the number of those “volunteering their services.” Starting in 1942, compulsory recruitment of entire age groups was carried out in some countries, including France (Service Travail Obligatoire, STO). As early as 1940, 14-year-olds in Poland were subject to a requirement to work in Germany. A mandatory quota of laborers was imposed on the occupied areas. This entailed instructing the local administration to commandeer workers, which kept the protests of the population in check. Especially powerful forms of pressure were employed in Poland.  a  If anyone failed to go along “voluntarily,” there was a strong possibility that his family would be arrested or that he himself would be sent to a concentration camp.


In Poland, the German authorities began in late 1939 to force the Jewish population into ghettos, where they were required to perform forced labor. From there, the Jews were deported to extermination camps, and most of them were murdered.


In the Soviet Union, the German occupation authority issued an order on December 19, 1941, making work compulsory for all residents who were fit for work. Any resistance to the German labor authorities would result in the burning of houses or entire villages. So-called “manhunts” or “slave-hunts” were conducted in many places: People were seized on the street in broad daylight and taken to deportation centers. The deportation always followed the same pattern: The people were herded together at train stations and deported to Germany. With luck, family members could still slip the deportee some food supplies or clothing. Polish and Soviet workers usually were transported in closed freight cars. More often than not, the forced laborers were housed in transit camps until they could be taken on to their deployment sites. Under the leadership of Fritz Sauckel, who was named General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment in March 1942, millions of people were forcibly recruited from all over Europe.

(BG; transl. KL)


Herbert, Ulrich: Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Maier, Dieter G.: “Arbeitsverwaltung und NS-Zwangsarbeit.” In: Ulrike Winkler, ed.: Stiften gehen. NS-Zwangsarbeit und Entschädigungsdebatte. Cologne: PapyRossa, 2000, pp. 67–84.

Spoerer, Mark: Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz. Stuttgart/Munich: DVA, 2001.

[1] Dieter G. Maier: “Arbeitsverwaltung und NS-Zwangsarbeit.” In: Ulrike Winkler, ed.: Stiften gehen. NS-Zwangsarbeit und Entschädigungsdebatte (Cologne: PapyRossa, 2000), pp. 67–84, here p. 71. (Translated by KL)

[2] That is, the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” Poland (Generalgouvernement), France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark, Serbia, and the Soviet Union, see Maier: Arbeitsverwaltung, p. 72.

[3] Maier: Arbeitsverwaltung, p. 74.