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Forced Labor in German Industry in the Nazi Era

The forced laborers brought to Germany after the beginning of war in September 1939 were initially meant for use in agriculture. Starting in 1940, the German authorities increasingly used forced laborers and concentration camp prisoners for heavy work, such as mining or building factories. People viewed as inferior in terms of the Nazi ideology of race, especially Jewish men and women, were exploited accordingly as a workforce until they died of exhaustion.


For firms, the employment of prisoners of war and forced laborers from Eastern Europe was profitable, as these workers received markedly lower wages than Germans and no social security contributions of any kind had to be paid for them. Many large concerns profited from armaments orders during the Nazi era. That enabled them to invest in streamlining and expansion and develop a good economic position for themselves for the postwar period. Smaller firms and those that made no products of military significance were stripped of their workforce by the authorities. “In this respect, from the firms’ viewpoint, the wide-scale deployment of forced laborers proved to be a clear consequence of an overriding strategy of growth and survival.”[1]


The systematic deployment of concentration camp prisoners was intended to boost the performance of the SS’s own enterprises in particular (mainly earth and stone works). In the Buchenwald and Neuengamme concentration camps, attempts were made to implement the plan for an SS-run armaments industry. This failed, however, because of the organizational overload on the SS. Starting in summer 1942, increased use was made of concentration camp prisoners in the arms industries. For a modest charge, firms could “rent” prisoners from the SS as a labor force. A number of companies made “use” of concentration camp prisoners, including Daimler-Benz AG, Ernst Heinkel Flugzeugwerke AG, Züblin AG, Siemens AG, Philipp Holtzmann AG, and Adler-Werke AG in Frankfurt am Main. As early as March 1941, I.G. Farben and Steyr-Daimler-Puch AG had begun deploying concentration camp prisoners on a massive scale. This deployment of prisoners served as a model for many companies. Besides I.G. Farben, the private concern that used the most prisoners was Hugo Schneider AG (HASAG). There, prisoners were ruined by the thousands in the production of armaments. But there were also isolated instances of businessmen who, like Oskar Schindler and Berthold Beitz, declared “their” Jewish prisoners indispensable to their strategically important firms, to protect them in this way from deportation to one of the extermination camps.


Without the deployment of foreign laborers, it would have been impossible for the German Reich to continue the war after 1942, as production in the agricultural and industrial sectors could not have been sustained without this labor force. In September 1944, around 3.5 million foreign laborers and prisoners of war were working in German industry.

(BG/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.

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] Mark Spoerer: Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz (Stuttgart/Munich: DVA, 2001), p. 189. (Translated by KL)