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“Work Deployment” of Prisoners of War by the Third Reich

The successes of the Wehrmacht up to 1941 made a large number of POWs available to the German Reich; the Hague Convention Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land allowed the labor of POWs, officers excepted, to be utilized, provided the men were physically fit and the work was not connected with the operations of the war. This work was agricultural at first, but later on POWs were increasingly used in mining, in construction work, and in industrial concerns, including war plants. By late April 1941, around 1.3 million POWs were “delegated for work.”[1] Though officially provided with equal rights and entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention or at least, in the case of Soviet POWs, of the Hague Convention, prisoners of the German Wehrmacht were confronted with regulations that were against international law, and with the Nazis’ hierarchy of race: While Western Allied prisoners generally were treated decently and received such privileges as clean housing and aid parcels from the International Red Cross, the Soviet POWs in particular had a distinctly harder time of it. They had to perform hard labor in life-threatening conditions and with miserable rations, and many of them were murdered. In addition, they were excluded from the wages and performance bonuses to which other POWs were entitled.

In particular, the “work deployment” of imprisoned soldiers can be described as follows:



After the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, around 420,000 Polish soldiers fell into German hands. The Wehrmacht released most of them from war captivity, thereby causing them to lose the protection of the provisions of the Geneva Convention. Converted to civilian status in such a way, 300,000 of them were forced into employment and put to work primarly in the German agricultural sector.


France and the Benelux Countries:

In early 1940, Belgian and French POWs were deployed at labor. From France especially, around 1.6 million POWs were sent to Germany to work by September 1944; an additional 90,000 dark-skinned prisoners were forced to work in France, for example, in the automobile industry. Their treatment deviated on several points (for example, their use in war-related industries was prohibited) from the provisions of the Geneva Convention, as the Vichy government did not safeguard the interests of the prisoners of war.


Soviet Union:

Following the invasion of the Soviet Union, those prisoners of war who had not already perished in the Wehrmacht’s prison camps were sent to German firms in the fall of 1941: by February 1942, 2 million of the 3.35 million Soviet POWs in German POW camps to date had died of malnourishment, epidemics, or the miserable living conditions or had been murdered. One million POWs were released at first, though they were immediately compelled to become forced laborers. Of the total number of 7.5 million Soviet prisoners of war, 3.3 million died in German custody. In their treatment, not only were all the international agreements regarding the handling of enemy prisoners disregarded, but fundamental human rights also were ignored.



After Italy switched sides in the war, the so-called Italian military internees were deprived of their status as prisoners of war and, now regarded as “traitors,”[2] deployed at forced labor in generally very poor conditions.


Great Britain:

British POWs were also used as a labor force, but as a rule their treatment was guided by the provisions of the Geneva Convention; some of them were also deployed at I.G. Farben’s construction site in Auschwitz, working for the armaments industry in violation of international law.

(SP; transl. KL)


Eichholtz, Dietrich: “Zwangsarbeit in der deutschen Kriegswirtschaft (unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Rüstungsindustrie).” In: Ulrike Winkler, ed.: Stiften gehen. NS-Zwangsarbeit und Entschädigungsdebatte. Cologne: PapyRossa, 2000, pp. 10–40.

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. 78. (Translated by KL)

[2] Maier: Arbeitsverwaltung, p. 79.