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Politico-Economic Parameters of Forced Labor

The economic policy of the National Socialist government of the Reich had two objectives from the outset: elimination of unemployment and creation of an arms industry that would rely as little as possible on imports from other countries. The expansion of the arms industry and huge, government-commissioned construction projects were intended to answer both purposes. At first, however, a reduction in the actual unemployment figures was hardly attainable. As a substitute, people who were out of work were statistically reclassified as an invisible unemployment category (“ancillary labor pool”[1]): Women were no longer included in the jobless figures, and after March 1933 the “Voluntary Labor Service” (Freiwilliger Arbeitsdienst, FAD) was expanded. Young people in particular were used as unpaid agricultural workers as part of the Landhilfe, a rural aid program, or were conscripted to do military service. Thus the official jobless rate by 1938 was 1.3 percent.


Toward the outside world, agricultural protectionism and dirigiste control of imports shaped the policy of the Nazi regime. Inside the German Reich, businesses faced the threat of arbitrary personnel decisions on the part of the NSDAP or the SA.


After the proclamation of the Four Year Plan in 1936, increasing national indebtedness, an overheated economy, and the threat of inflation marked the economic situation of the German Reich. In some areas, skilled laborers had been in short supply since 1934, and this shortage progressively extended to include most branches of production. That situation was to be remedied by political quarters through recruitment of foreign workers, initially mostly skilled laborers from Austria and Czechoslovakia. In addition, the labor shortage triggered “more and more aggressive coercive measures that were intended to serve the purpose of meeting [… the] need for labor.”[2] German firms had various options available: Large concerns that made products with critical military applications profited from the arms build-up and received support from the government, in part through allocation of workers. German and Jewish men with a “labor service obligation” could be commandeered for incidental tasks. In addition, starting in March 1939, forced laborers from the occupied territories could be deployed in industry and agriculture. Smaller companies and those that were unwilling or unable to make products of importance to the defense economy were stripped of their workforce by the authorities.


The plan for a European greater economic area under German hegemony was advanced by the  “New Order” in Czechoslovakia and the “annexation” of Austria. To offset the loss of imports and exports, goods were stolen from the occupied countries to supply the German population with foodstuffs and the German industrial sector with raw materials. Furthermore, increasing numbers of foreign workers were brought from the occupied territories into the German Reich to perform forced labor.

(BG/SP; transl. KL)


Buchheim, Christoph: “Das NS-Regime und die Überwindung der Weltwirtschaftskrise in Deutschland.” In: Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte 56 (2008), No. 3, pp. 381–414.

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.

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

[1] Christoph Buchheim: “Das NS-Regime und die Überwindung der Weltwirtschaftskrise in Deutschland.” In: Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte 56 (2008), No. 3, pp. 381–414, here p. 394. (Translated by KL)

[2] Buchheim: Das NS-Regime, p. 414.