Military history


By the end of September 1944, some seven and a half million civilian foreigners were toiling for the Third Reich. Nearly all of them had been rounded up by force, deported to Germany in boxcars, usually without food or water or any sanitary facilities, and there put to work in the factories, fields and mines. They were not only put to work but degraded, beaten and starved and often left to die for lack of food, clothing and shelter.

In addition, two million prisoners of war were added to the foreign labor force, at least a half a million of whom were made to work in the armaments and munitions industries in flagrant violation of the Hague and Geneva conventions, which stipulated that no war prisoners could be employed in such tasks.* This figure did not include the hundreds of thousands of other POWs who were impressed into the building of fortifications and in carrying ammunition to the front lines and even in manning antiaircraft guns in further disregard of the international conventions which Germany had signed.

In the massive deportations of slave labor to the Reich, wives were torn away from their husbands, and children from their parents, and assigned to widely separated parts of Germany. The young, if they were old enough to work at all, were not spared. Even top generals of the Army co-operated in the kidnaping of children, who were carted off to the homeland to perform slave labor. A memorandum from Rosenberg’s files of June 12, 1944, reveals this practice in occupied Russia.

Army Group Center intends to apprehend forty to fifty thousand youths from the age of 10 to 14…. and transport them to the Reich. The measure was originally proposed by the Ninth Army … It is intended to allot these juveniles primarily to the German trades as apprentices…. This action is being greatly welcomed by the German trade since it represents a decisive measure for the alleviation of the shortage of apprentices.

This action is not only aimed at preventing a direct reinforcement of the enemy’s strength but also as a reduction of his biological potentialities.

The kidnaping operation had a code name: “Hay Action.” It was also being carried out, the memorandum added, by Field Marshal Model’s Army Group Ukraine-North.22

Increasing terrorization was used to round up the victims. At first, comparatively mild methods were used. Persons coming out of church or the movies were nabbed. In the West especially, S.S. units merely blocked off a section of a town and seized all able-bodied men and women. Villages were surrounded and searched for the same purposes. In the East, when there was resistance to the forced-labor order, villages were simply burned down and their inhabitants carted off. Rosenberg’s captured files are replete with German reports of such happenings. In Poland, at least one German official thought things were going a little too far.

The wild and ruthless man hunt [he wrote to Governor Frank], as exercised everywhere in towns and country, in streets, squares, stations, even in churches, at night in homes, has badly shaken the feeling of security of the inhabitants. Everybody is exposed to the danger of being seized anywhere and at any time by the police, suddenly and unexpectedly, and of being sent to an assembly camp. None of his relatives knows what has happened to him.23

But rounding up the slave workers was only the first step.* The condition of their transport to Germany left something to be desired. A certain Dr. Gutkelch described one instance in a report to Rosenberg’s ministry on September 30, 1942. Recounting how a train packed with returning worked-out Eastern laborers met a train at a siding near Brest Litovsk full of “newly recruited” Russian workers bound for Germany, he wrote:

Because of the corpses in the trainload of returning laborers a catastrophe might have occurred … In this train women gave birth to babies who were thrown out of the windows during the journey. Persons having tuberculosis and venereal diseases rode in the same car. Dying people lay in freight cars without straw, and one of the dead was thrown on the railway embankment. The same must have occurred in other returning transports.25

This was not a very promising introduction to the Third Reich for the Ostarbeiter, but at least it prepared them somewhat for the ordeal that lay ahead. Hunger lay ahead and beatings and disease and exposure to the cold, in unheated quarters and in their thin rags. Long hours of labor lay ahead that were limited only by their ability to stand on their feet.

The great Krupp works, makers of Germany’s guns and tanks and ammunition, was a typical place of employment. Krupp employed a large number of slave laborers, including Russian prisoners of war. At one point during the war, six hundred Jewish women from the Buchenwaldconcentration camp were brought in to work at Krupp’s, being “housed” in a bombed-out work camp from which the previous inmates, Italian POWs, had been removed. Dr. Wilhelm Jaeger, the “senior doctor” for Krupp’s slaves, described in an affidavit at Nuremberg what he found there when he took over.

Upon my first visit I found these females suffering from open festering wounds and other diseases. I was the first doctor they had seen for at least a fortnight … There were no medical supplies … They had no shoes and went about in their bare feet. The sole clothing of each consisted of a sack with holes for their arms and head. Their hair was shorn. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire and closely guarded by S.S. guards.

The amount of food in the camp was extremely meager and of very poor quality. One could not enter the barracks without being attacked by fleas … I got large boils on my arms and the rest of my body from them …

Dr. Jaeger reported the situation to the directors of Krupp and even to the personal physician of Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, the owner—but in vain. Nor did his reports on other Krupp slave labor camps bring any alleviation. He recalled in his affidavit some of these reports of conditions in eight camps inhabited by Russian and Polish workers: overcrowding that bred disease, lack of enough food to keep a man alive, lack of water, lack of toilets.

The clothing of the Eastern workers was likewise completely inadequate. They worked and slept in the same clothing in which they had arrived from the East. Virtually all of them had no overcoats and were compelled to use their blankets as coats in cold and rainy weather. In view of the shortage of shoes many workers were forced to go to work in their bare feet, even in winter …

Sanitary conditions were atrocious. At Kramerplatz only ten children’s toilets were available for 1,200 inhabitants … Excretion contaminated the entire floors of these lavatories … The Tartars and Kirghiz suffered most; they collapsed like flies [from] bad housing, the poor quality and insufficient quantity of food, overwork and insufficient rest.

These workers were likewise afflicted with spotted fever. Lice, the carrier of the disease, together with countless fleas, bugs and other vermin tortured the inhabitants of these camps … At times the water supply at the camps was shut off for periods of from eight to fourteen days …

On the whole, Western slave workers fared better than those from the East—the latter being considered by the Germans as mere scum. But the difference was only relative, as Dr. Jaeger found at one of Krupp’s work camps occupied by French prisoners of war in Nogerratstrasse at Essen.

Its inhabitants were kept for nearly half a year in dog kennels, urinals and in old baking houses. The dog kennels were three feet high, nine feet long, six feet wide. Five men slept in each of them. The prisoners had to crawl into these kennels on all fours … There was no water in the camp.*26

Some two and a half million slave laborers—mostly Slavs and Italians—were assigned to farm work in Germany and though their life from the very force of circumstances was better than that of those in the city factories it was far from ideal—or even humane. A captured directive on the “Treatment of Foreign Farm Workers of Polish Nationality” gives an inkling of their treatment. And though applied to Poles—it is dated March 6, 1941, before Russians became available—it was later used as guidance for those of other nationalities.

Farm workers of Polish nationality no longer have the right to complain, and thus no complaints will be accepted by any official agency … The visit of churches is strictly prohibited … Visits to theaters, motion pictures or other cultural entertainment are strictly prohibited …

Sexual intercourse with women and girls is strictly prohibited.

If it was with German females, it was, according to an edict of Himmler in 1942, punishable by death.*

The use of “railroads, buses or other public conveyances” was prohibited for slave farm workers. This apparently was ordained so that they would not escape from the farms to which they were bound.

Arbitrary change of employment [the directive stated] is strictly prohibited. The farm workers have to labor as long as is demanded by the employer. There are no time limits to the working time.

Every employer has the right to give corporal punishment to his farm workers … They should, if possible, be removed from the community of the home and they can be quartered in stables, etc. No remorse whatever should restrict such action.28

Even the Slav women seized and shipped to Germany for domestic service were treated as slaves. As early as 1942 Hitler had commanded Sauckel to procure a half million of them “in order to relieve the German housewife.” The slave labor commissar laid down the conditions of work in the German households.

There is no claim to free time. Female domestic workers from the East may leave the household only to take care of domestic tasks … It is prohibited for them to enter restaurants, movies, theaters and similar establishments. Attending church is also prohibited …29

Women, it is obvious, were almost as necessary as men in the Nazi slave labor program. Of some three million Russian civilians pressed into service by the Germans, more than one half were women. Most of them were assigned to do heavy farm work and to labor in the factories.

The enslavement of millions of men and women of the conquered lands as lowly toilers for the Third Reich was not just a wartime measure. From the statements of Hitler, Goering, Himmler and the others already cited—and they are only a tiny sampling—it is clear that if Nazi Germany had endured, the New Order would have meant the rule of the German master race over a vast slave empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Ural mountains. To be sure, the Slavs in the East would have fared the worst.

As Hitler emphasized in July 1941, scarcely a month after he had attacked the Soviet Union, his plans for its occupation constituted “a final settlement.” A year later, at the high tide of his Russian conquests, he admonished his aides:

As for the ridiculous hundred million Slavs, we will mold the best of them to the shape that suits us, and we will isolate the rest of them in their own pigsties; and anyone who talks about cherishing the local inhabitant and civilizing him, goes straight off to a concentration camp!30

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