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Nazi Forced Labor: History, Legal Framework, and Structures

The Reich Institution for Job Placement and Unemployment Insurance (Reichsanstalt für Arbeitsvermittlung und Arbeitslosenversicherung) was founded in the Weimar Republic in 1927. This government agency sought to battle unemployment with several measures: As early as 1932, for example, the so-called Voluntary Labor Service (FAD, Freiwilliger Arbeitsdienst) was introduced and put under the control of the head of the Reich Institution, Dr. Friedrich Syrup. By the end of October 1932, 254,000 volunteers had been put to work in the FAD.


In addition, there existed forms of compulsory contract work: Pflichtarbeit, Arbeitsdienst, Landhilfe, Dienstverpflichtung (“obligatory labor,” “labor service,” “rural aid,” “labor conscription”), which did not allow free choice of occupation or position and likewise were managed by the job centers. The structures and measures created in such a way were made use of by the Nazi regime, starting in 1933: With the passage of the Permanent Employment Record Law (Arbeitsbuchgesetz) in 1935, not only job seekers but also all jobholders were systematically included in a data bank, and after March of that year all high school graduates were required to get in touch with the occupational counseling service “for registration and career guidance.”[1] The Reich Institution was gradually deprived of its independence and finally, in 1939, completely integrated into the Reich Ministry of Labor. Now known as the Labor Deployment Agency (Arbeitseinsatzbehörde), from this time on it governed the “placing of manpower according to the needs of the economy, especially of the arms industry.”[2]


By 1936, the Nazis’ race policy had created a situation in which foreign seasonal workers stayed away and full employment for “Aryan” Germans became a reality. Particularly in agriculture, however, that led to an acute shortage of manpower. Initial attempts to remedy that shortage involved the reintroduction of “female labor.” This ran counter to the image of women in Nazi ideology, however, and it was vehemently rejected by Hitler as late as 1942. Not until 1943, following the defeat at Stalingrad, were German women between the ages of 17 and 45 subject to labor conscription.


Jewish Germans and foreign workers were viewed by the Reich Institution as a potential labor force from 1938 on, if not earlier: After German men began to be drafted in greater numbers in 1938, the “annexation” of Austria and the Sudetenland made it possible to recruit or “conscript” qualified civilian personnel from these regions, especially for Germany’s agricultural sector.


As of early 1940, the districts and towns of the occupied areas were required to provide a mandatory quota of workers. If the quota was not met, the occupation authorities resorted to the use of ruses, false promises, and force in their recruitment efforts. Thus the well-publicized “voluntary status” of admissions to the workforce must be put into perspective in many cases.


The classification of the population in racial categories, along with the accelerated preparations of the National Socialist state for war, created the preconditions for the decree calling for the “work deployment in segregated groups” (geschlossener Arbeitseinsatz) of German Jews in 1938. This was the first sweeping compulsory measure for organized exploitation of Jewish manpower. One year later, with the onset of war in September 1939, the War Economy Decree (Kriegswirtschaftsordnung) was passed, restricting freedom of movement for German workers as well and making labor service compulsory. In addition, so-called work education camps under Gestapo supervision were introduced in 1939 as a compulsory measure for workers, both men and women, who shirked their obligation to work or otherwise failed to comply with the regulations.


While a “unique employment category” (Beschäftigungsverhältnis eigener Art) was created for Jewish workers in October 1941, placing them outside the protection of the customary legal standards for labor, occupational safety, and social assistance, the services of foreign workers also were forcibly enlisted to an increasing extent. Here again, the nature and difficulty of the work varied, depending on the category to which the “races”  in question were assigned by Nazi ideology. Classification in one of these groups determined the working conditions, food rations, and wage payments. The wages of the “Eastern workers” (Ostarbeiter, or workers from Eastern Europe), Poles, Balts, Jews, Sinti, and Roma were considerably less than the wages of other foreigners or of the Germans. Besides, Poles, Eastern workers, and Jews had to pay a Social Equalization Tax (Sozialausgleichsabgabe) that further reduced their net wages. Issuance of individual employment contracts for Polish and Eastern workers was discontinued in 1940. They were required to keep a permanent employment record, and this made it even easier to keep tabs on them and discriminate against them. In early 1942, the Eastern workers were also included in the “unique employment category.” Furthermore, Polish and Eastern workers were subject to the regulations ensuing from the “special decrees for Poles” (after March 8, 1940) and “special decrees for Eastern workers”  (after February 20, 1942). The clearest expression of these provisions was the regulations requiring the wearing of distinguishing patches or badges: on their clothing, Polish workers had to wear a purple “P” on a yellow ground, while Eastern workers wore the letters “OST” (EAST) on a blue ground. Women were subject to additional repressive measures: For example, they had to relinquish custody of their children or were forced to have an abortion if they became pregnant.


As of October 1942, “labor conscription” could be declared in effect for all foreign workers who did not come from an allied or neutral country. On this basis, they were forbidden to return to their country of origin, which meant that many who originally had volunteered to come to Germany now became forced laborers. The industrial safety regulations were rendered inoperative in many cases. Short training periods, lack of protective clothing, and long work hours increased the risk of accidents. In 1944, the General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment, Fritz Sauckel, raised the weekly core working time to 60 hours for men and 56 hours for women and juveniles.


Laws were regularly adapted to the situation at hand (Sonderrechtsprinzip) in order to guarantee “strategic” production and thus the continuation of the war. On April 15, 1943, for example, a memorandum was published that was intended to put East and West European workers on an equal footing in order to take action against the common enemy, Bolshevism. The forced laborers were deployed predominantly in agriculture and industry. Depending on their place of deployment, they were housed in private households, in camps with barracks, or, especially in the case of Jewish forced laborers, in concentration camps. In the final months of the war, they were used in increased numbers for repair and fortification work.


The most inhumane form of forced labor was reserved for those who were deported to a concentration camp. Concentration camp prisoners, mostly Jews, who occupied the lowest rung of the Nazis’ ideological hierarchy of race, were deprived of all rights and left completely vulnerable to the reign of terror of the SS. In many cases, the SS “hired out” the prisoners to firms in exchange for a small fee. Here—usually under abominable conditions—they had to do grueling work. Of about 1.65 million people who were deported to a concentration camp for forced labor in the years 1933–1945, only around 100,000 were released again through normal procedures, and no more than 475,000 survived.


Those who survived the last few months of the war, often without any food supplies, and the numerous mass executions toward the war’s end became Displaced Persons, DPs. The DPs had been removed from their countries of origin, but at home they often were accused of collaboration with the Germans. Therefore many had little interest in returning to their native countries. Especially in the USSR, many returnees were punished with imprisonment and, once again, with deployment at forced labor. In the decades that followed, a considerable number of lawsuits were filed by former slave laborers seeking compensation payments from companies that had profited from the use of their labor.

(BG/SP; transl. KL)


“Verordnung über den Freiwilligen Arbeitsdienst vom 16. Juli 1932,” Reichsgesetzblatt I (1934), p. 352.



Bartz, Joachim / Mor, Dagmar: “Der Weg der Jugendzwangsarbeit. Maßnahmen gegen Jugendarbeitslosigkeit zwischen 1925 und 1935.” In: Gero Lenhardt, ed.: Der hilflose Sozialstaat. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1979, pp. 28–94.

Gruner, Wolf / Aly, Götz, eds.: Arbeitsmarkt und Sondererlaß: Menschenverwertung, Rassenpolitik und Arbeitsamt. Berlin: Rotbuch, 1990.

Gruner, Wolf: Jewish Forced Labor under the Nazis: Economic Needs and Racial Aims, 19381944. New York: Cambridge UP / United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2006.

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

Maier, Dieter: “Arbeitsverwaltung und nationalsozialistische Judenverfolgung in den Jahren 1933–1945.” In: Götz Aly / Wolf Gruner, eds.: Arbeitsmarkt und Sondererlaß. Menschenverwertung, Rassenpolitik und Arbeitsamt. Berlin: Rotbuch, 1990, pp. 62–136.

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. 70. (Translated by KL)

[2] Maier: Arbeitsverwaltung, p. 65.