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Living and Working Conditions of Forced Laborers

The conditions under which the foreign men and women who were forced laborers in the German Reich and the occupied countries had to live and work were marked by great differences with respect to pay, housing, and food supplies. Skilled workers in industry or agricultural workers in family businesses were better situated in most cases than workers in forced labor camps or concentration camps.


In the first years of the war, foreign workers often were awarded the same food rations as Germans; edicts of the Reich Labor Ministry governed the rights and duties of the workers and also guaranteed, for example, the time limitation of the employment contracts and the return of the “foreign laborers,” or Fremdarbeiter. Nonetheless, the penalties assessed for legal offenses, for example, were higher for foreigners than for Germans, and foreigners were more likely to be sent to a concentration camp. The situation of the foreign workforce deteriorated as the labor shortage worsened: Special decrees (for Polish workers in March 1940, for “Eastern workers” in February 1942) plainly showed the special position of these workers. These decrees primarily limited the workers’ freedom of movement, for example, by forbidding them to use public transportation or imposing a “general ban on vacation,”[1] and by requiring them to wear distinguishing marks on their clothing. In addition, responsibility for Fremdarbeiter was transferred from the police to the Gestapo. From this time on, contracts were concluded for an indefinite period.


Until 1942, workers—especially those from allied countries—had an opportunity to make private arrangements for accommodations. The others were quartered in barracks camps or gyms. The rapid growth in the number of foreign workers after mid-1942, in combination with the increasing numbers of airstrikes on German cities, resulted in a housing shortage. The men and women coming to Germany from the “East” in growing numbers, whose accommodations were made available to bombed-out Germans, were housed in camps. To an increasing extent, the treatment of the foreign workforce was tailored to conform to the Nazi ideology of race. The daily rations for “Eastern workers,” Jews, Sinti, and Roma contained clearly smaller weekly portions of meat, bread, and fat than the rations for Germans or other workers, though the former groups frequently did harder work. In October 1942, I.G. Farben was one of the first firms to introduce “performance-based feeding” for “Eastern workers” in its plants: Those who accomplished more could receive extra allowances of food, though at the expense of those who accomplished less. This method was introduced only two years later, in 1944, as an officially decreed means of exerting pressure on Italian military internees, Soviet prisoners of war, and “Eastern workers.” In the final months of the war, food rations for all workers were reduced repeatedly. The housing allocations followed the same racist “logic”: Soviet POWs, for example, were awarded only half as much space as other prisoners of war.


The medical care provided to the foreign workers was generally poor. In principle, the directive that was in force called for foreigners—with the exception of Polish workers and “Eastern workers”—to receive the same medical treatment as Germans. If recovery took more than three weeks, however, the health insurance funds refused treatment in many cases. In early July 1944, the General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment, Fritz Sauckel, decided to admit forced laborers who were permanently disabled to sanatoriums, where they were murdered.


Every friendly contact between forced laborers and “Aryans was made a punishable offense, which was exacerbated by the willingness of many Germans to engage in denunciation. Women often were subject to discrimination of two kinds, racial and sexual.


The pay of foreign workers also depended on their origin, in addition to their work performance. The pay scale ranged from Germans at the top through workers from Western countries, Ukrainians, and Poles down to the “Eastern workers,” Western POWs, and Soviet POWs at the very bottom. For working in one of the coal mines of the Ruhr Valley, a German was paid, for example, 8.72 reichsmark per day in 1944, while a Soviet POW received only 0.40 reichsmark.


Many foreign laborers tried to escape from the bad conditions. After fall 1943, there were about 45,000 attempted escapes by foreign workers every month, and among the prisoners of war, too, the number of breakouts rose steadily. Despite the difficult conditions—undernourishment, a hostile environment, and the length of the journey back home—about half of the fugitives made a successful getaway.


The prisoners of concentration camps occupied a special, sad position among the forced laborers. Many of them not only lived in constant fear for life and limb, but also lacked the most basic essentials: they had to get along without any sanitary facilities and real sleeping accommodations; they lacked everything, from a change of clothing to bedding to a bar of soap. In addition, they generally were used for the most arduous jobs. Concentration camp prisoners who worked in factory buildings usually could expect slightly better conditions than their comrades in the concentration camp construction detachments: they were trained to do their tasks, and that very fact made them of greater “value.” In some cases, this fact was also used by businessmen such as Oskar Schindler or Berthold Beitz as an argument to safeguard the lives of “their” prisoners. Such prisoners still could not be sure of their survival, however: Diseases and epidemics were rampant in many concentration camps, and in the extermination camps, the sick and weak were murdered in large numbers.

(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. 75. (Translated by KL)