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Forced Labor in Agriculture and Small Firms

During the worldwide economic crisis, the influx of foreign seasonal workers was strictly regulated by law, so that only 110,000 foreign workers came to Germany in 1932, fewer than half the total for 1928.[1] Especially in agriculture, a sector in which the use of a foreign seasonal workforce was traditional, there was a shortage of labor after full employment was reached in 1935. In the Nazi regime’s planning for war, the use of prisoners of war for forced labor in agriculture had been scheduled since fall 1937, and a corresponding directive was issued in July 1938 by the Plenipotentiary for the Four Year Plan, Hermann Göring. In 1939 there was a shortage of at least 400,000 laborers in the agricultural sector, and as a result, in fall of that year, Polish POWs housed in Stalags (Stammlager, “main camps”) were deployed for the harvest. By the end of the year, their number had grown to 300,000. Farmers had an opportunity to register with the appropriate job centers and request workers. Only after that did the large-scale use of forced laborers in factories and firms begin.


Besides POWs, foreign women in particular and even children were used for agricultural work: In August 1944, 66.7 percent of all Polish and 28.5 percent of all Soviet POWs and civilian workers (men and women) were deployed in German agriculture. The civilians generally were housed directly with German families and thus were in personal contact with their “employers”; full-time monitoring by the police proved impossible. Frequently the farmers treated them the same as the German servants—in part, because the work could get done only if all hands were willing. Even though they received lower wages than their German colleagues and at the same time had to shift for themselves, the foreign workers in small businesses in the countryside ate better than workers in urban and large firms. The workers were well aware of that: periodically, even “Eastern workers” would apply for work in the countryside during the week of vacation authorized as an exception after July 1943, “where they could finally eat their fill for once.”[2] In September 1944, around 2.7 million foreign laborers, primarily from Poland and the Soviet Union, were working in the German agricultural sector.


Forced laborers were deployed in small businesses and in the trades, too, in places such as bakeries and workshops, where the main provider was away fighting at the front. For small businesses, this was an essential economic base, because firms that were unwilling or unable to make products of military significance and consequently were stripped of their workforce by the authorities frequently were forced to close their doors.

(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.

Hoffmann, Katharina: “Zwangsarbeit in der Landwirtschaft.” In: Ulrike Winkler, ed.: Stiften gehen. NS-Zwangsarbeit und Entschädigungsdebatte. Cologne: PapyRossa, 2000, pp. 130–147.

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. 68.

[2] Mark Spoerer: Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz (Stuttgart/Munich: DVA, 2001), p. 167. (Translated by KL)