Military history



Speer’s achievement in galvanizing the war economy into increased production, futile though it was to prove in the end, rested not least on the effective use of the labour force. The proportion of the industrial workforce engaged in arms manufacture had grown by 159 per cent from 1939 to 1941 and by the time Speer took up office, there was little room left for any further growth in this area. Speer encouraged the more efficient use of labour, not only through increasing the amount of shift-work but also through his general rationalization of production, halving the number of man-hours needed to make a Panzer III tank, for example. The number of combat aircraft made in German factories quadrupled between 1941 and 1944, and even if the choice of terminal dates for the statistics maximized the increase, the growth in production was still real enough. Yet this was achieved with an aircraft factory workforce that in 1944 was not much larger than it had been three years previously, at 390,000 instead of 360,000.67

At the same time, fresh labour was poured into the armaments industries, increasing the size of the workforce dramatically in a few key areas. In 1942 the number of workers engaged in producing tanks grew by nearly 60 per cent. A 90 per cent increase in the number of employees in railway locomotive factories in the same year helped boost production from under 2,000 in 1941 to more than 5,000 two years later. The crucial growth came in ammunition production, where 4 50,000 workers were employed by the autumn of 1943, compared to 160,000 in tank factories and 210,000 in the manufacture of weapons. Here too there were major increases, although they had been inaugurated not by Speer, but by a programme announced on 10 January 1942 under Todt.68 The task of recruiting these new workers was allotted to the man whom Hitler appointed as General Plenipotentiary for Labour Mobilization on the creation of this new post on 21 March 1942: Fritz Sauckel. Sauckel was a very different character from a smooth, cultivated bourgeois professional like Speer. Born on 27 October 1894, the son of a post office worker, Sauckel grew up in poor circumstances in Franconia, left school at the age of fifteen, became a cabin boy on a freighter and spent the First World War in a prison camp when his ship was sunk by a French warship as soon as hostilities broke out. Back in Germany in 1919, he worked as a lathe operator in a ball-bearing factory before studying engineering. Here, therefore, was a real plebeian, in both his origins and his lifestyle. Unlike some of the other leading Nazis, Sauckel appears to have had a happy marriage, during which he fathered no fewer than ten children. In 1923 he heard Hitler speak and was converted by his message of the need for national unity. Sauckel remained loyal to Hitler after the failed beer-hall putsch of the same year, and Hitler rewarded him by appointing him Regional Leader of Thuringia in 1927. Elected to the Thuringian legislative assembly in 1929, Sauckel became Minister-President of Thuringia when the Nazis came out of the 1932 state elections as the strongest party.69

In the 1930s, he not only led the Aryanization of one of the biggest arms manufacturers in Thuringia but also ensured that it was taken over by his own holding company, the Wilhelm Gustloff Foundation. Despite his origins, therefore, Sauckel was no stranger to the world of business and industry. His experience was to stand him in good stead in 1942. Sauchel’s plebeian populism found dramatic expression on the outbreak of war, when, after Hitler had turned down his request to be allowed to serve in the armed forces, he smuggled himself on to a U-boat as a stowaway, only being discovered after the submarine had put to sea. Given his prominence, the head of the U-boat fleet, Admiral Karl Dönitz, recalled the vessel to port, but the episode did Sauckel’s reputation no harm. A close ally of Martin Bormann, he seemed both to Bormann and, indeed, to Hitler to possess the qualities of energy and ruthlessness needed to solve the labour problem in 1942. His record as a hardline Nazi would reassure the Party that he was not going to be soft on ‘subhuman’ Slavs even if their labour was vital to the German war effort.

The new post was directly subordinate to Hitler, which gave Sauckel, like Speer, enormous clout. He used it, at least to begin with, to work closely with Speer in organizing the recruitment above all of foreign workers, though the tensions between the two men were palpable, later turning into a real power-struggle. Other institutions that had previously played a role in labour mobilization, including the Reich Labour Ministry, the Four-Year Plan and the German Labour Front, were effectively sidelined. On the other hand, the element of coercion needed to put the mobilization into effect necessarily involved the Reich Security Head Office, whose head, Heinrich Himmler, thus became a third major player in this field alongside Sauckel and Speer.70

There were already large numbers of foreign workers in Germany - over a million of them Polish - when Sauckel took up his newly created post. As Himmler and G̈ring considered Poles inferior racially and in every other way as well, they were thought only capable of working in simple, unskilled jobs in agriculture, where indeed they were badly needed because of the drafting of German labourers into the army and the longer-term migration of rural workers into the towns.71 Of the 1.2 million prisoners of war and foreign civilians working in Germany in May 1940, 60 per cent were employed in agriculture. The 700,000 Poles amongst them worked almost exclusively as farm labourers, though a few were employed in road construction. Attempts to draft them into the mines had met with little success; the Polish workers were inexperienced, many were in poor health, malnourished or unfit for the heavy physical labour required of coalminers, and their productivity was low.72 While Polish labourers had overwhelmingly been drafted into agriculture, however, the need by mid-1940 was for more workers in the arms industry - the deficit according to some armaments inspectors was as high as a million. The large numbers of French and British prisoners of war taken during the western campaign of May- June 1940 seemed eminently suitable. By early July 1940, some 200,000 of these had already been sent to work in Germany; the number increased to 600,000 by August 1940 and 1,200,000 by October 1940.73

Yet attempts to identify skilled workers for deployment into the arms industry were less than wholly successful. By December 1940 over half of the prisoners were employed, like the Poles, in agriculture. The deficit had to be made up by civilian volunteers. They were recruited from the occupied western countries and from countries allied to Germany, and they were supposed in theory at least to have the same wages and conditions as German workers. By October 1941, there were 300,000 civilian workers in Germany from the western countries, 270,000 from Italy, 80,000 from Slovakia and 35,000 from Hungary. The Italians quickly made themselves unpopular with complaints about German food and with rowdy behaviour in the evenings, while the privileges they were accorded aroused resentment amongst native Germans. Nor did the foreign workers live up to their employers’ expectations. Most of them, as the Security Service of the SS complained, put little effort into their work. The reason was obvious: their wages were kept lower than those of their German counterparts, and were not tied to performance.74

The invasion of the Soviet Union, however, introduced a whole new dimension to the deployment of foreign labour. Hitler, G̈ring and the economic managers of the Reich began, as we have seen, by regarding the people of the territories conquered in Operation Barbarossa as dispensable. Victory would be swift, so their labour would not be needed. By October 1941, however, it was clear that victory would not come that year, and industrialists in Germany were beginning to put pressure on the regime to supply Red Army prisoners of war, for example in the mines, where manpower shortages had caused a fall in production. On 31 October 1941, Hitler ordered that Russian prisoners of war should be drafted into work for the war economy. Using them as unskilled labourers would enable skilled German workers to be redeployed where they were most needed.75 So many Soviet prisoners of war had died by this time, however, and the condition of the rest was so poor, that only 5 per cent of the 3,350,000 Red Army troops captured by the end of March 1942 were actually used as workers.76 Thus the recruitment of civilians became even more urgent.

Using a mixture of advertising and inducements on the one hand, and coercion and terror on the other, the German civil and military authorities in the occupied eastern territories launched a massive campaign to recruit civilian workers even before Sauckel came into office. Armed recruitment commissions roamed the countryside arresting and imprisoning young, able-bodied men and women, or, if they had gone into hiding, maltreating their parents and families until they surrendered. By the end of November 1942 Sauckel himself claimed to have recruited over a million and a half extra foreign workers since his appointment, bringing the total up to nearly 5.75 million. Many of these, notably from the west, were on six-month contracts, and a proportion had been released as unfit, so that the actual number of foreign workers (including prisoners of war) employed in Germany in November 1942 was in fact no more than 4,665,000. This was a substantial achievement by Sauckel’s own lights.77 But it was still not enough. By 1942 the war in the east had turned into precisely the kind of war of attrition that Hitler had tried to avoid. From June 1941 to May 1944 the German armed forces were losing on average 60,000 men killed on the Eastern Front each month. In addition, hundreds of thousands more were put out of action by capture, wounds or disease.78 Replacing them was far from easy. Nearly a million more recruits were gained in 1942 by lowering the age of conscription; 200,000 more men were drafted in from jobs in the arms industry previously ruled exempt; raising the age of conscription to include the middle-aged had also been necessary to bring many of them in. But these measures in turn exacerbated the existing shortages of labour in the arms industry and in agriculture.79

The more German soldiers died on the Eastern Front, the more the army drafted in fresh groups of previously protected German workers from the arms industries, and the more those industries needed to replace the departing employees with new cohorts of foreign workers. Unwilling to offend popular opinion in Germany by improving wages and conditions for foreign workers, the regime went over increasingly to compulsion even in the west. On 6 June 1942 Hitler agreed with Pierre Laval, the Vichy French Prime Minister, that he would release 50,000 French prisoners of war in return for the despatching of 150,000 civilian workers to Germany, in a scheme that was subsequently considerably expanded still further. Early in 1942 Sauckel demanded that a third of all French metalworkers, amounting to some 150,000 skilled labourers, be relocated to Germany, along with another quarter of a million workers of all kinds. By December 1943 there were over 666,000 French workers employed in Germany, along with 223,000 Belgians and 274,000 Dutch. The more determinedly Sauckel’s roving commissions seized workers from French factories, the more difficult it became to keep those factories producing munitions and equipment for the German war effort. Increasing compulsion led to growing resistance, just as had previously happened in Poland.80

The scope Sauckel felt he had for forced recruitment in the east was considerably greater than in the west. As the military situation on the Eastern Front became more difficult, the army, the occupation authorities and the SS all began to abandon any remaining scruples in the recruitment of local inhabitants for labour. Speaking in Posen in October 1943, Heinrich Himmler declared: ‘Whether 10,000 Russian women collapse with exhaustion in the construction of an anti-tank ditch for Germany only interests me insofar as the ditch gets dug for Germany.’81 The SS burned down whole villages if the young men evaded labour conscription, picked up potential workers off the streets, and took hostages until sufficient candidates for conscription came forward - all measures that further fuelled recruitment for the partisans. Meanwhile, the military authorities in the east devised a plan (‘Operation Hay’) to seize up to 50,000 children between the ages of ten and fourteen for employment in construction work for the German air force, or for deportation to Germany to work in arms factories. By such methods, the number of foreign workers from the occupied areas of the Soviet Union employed in Germany was boosted to more than 2.8 million by the autumn of 1944, including over 600,000 prisoners of war. By this time, there were nearly 8 million foreign workers in the Reich as a whole. 46 per cent of workers in agriculture were foreign citizens, 33 per cent of workers in mining, 30 per cent in the metal industries, 32 per cent in construction, 28 per cent in the chemical industry, and 26 per cent in transport. More than a quarter of the workforce in Germany consisted of citizens of other countries in the final year of the war.82


This massive influx of foreign labour changed the face of Germany’s towns and cities from the spring of 1942 onwards. Camps and hostels were set up all over Germany to house these workers. In Munich alone, for example, there were 120 prisoner-of-war camps and 286 camps and hostels for civilian foreign workers. In this way, 80,000 beds were made available for foreign workers. Some firms employed very large numbers: towards the end of 1944 the motor vehicle manufacturer BMW was housing 16,600 foreign workers in eleven special centres.83 The Daimler-Benz factory at Unterẗrkheim, near Stuttgart, which made aircraft engines and other war products, had a workforce of up to 15,000 during the war. Excluding the company’s research and development section, the proportion of foreign workers increased from roughly nil in 1939 to more than half by 1943. They were housed in seventy different facilities, including improvised barracks set up in an old music hall and a former school.84 In the Krupp steelworks in Essen, which had lost more than half its male German workers to the armed forces by September 1942, while at the same time having to cope with a doubling of turnover since 1937 in response to huge increases in military orders, nearly 40 per cent of the workforce consisted of foreigners by the beginning of 1943. They were there because the firm had put in repeated requests to the relevant government authorities (latterly Sauckel’s office), and because the company itself had gone on a recruiting drive for skilled workers in Western Europe. Top Krupp officials pulled strings in the German occupation administration in France to secure an allocation of nearly 8,000 workers, many of them highly skilled, in the autumn of 1942. Sauckel’s office even began to suspect that the company preferred skilled foreign workers to less well-trained and experienced German ones. In the Krupp company town of Essen, the foreign workers lived in private lodgings, or - if they were prisoners of war, or drafted from the east - in specially constructed and heavily guarded camps. The camps for Soviet workers were particularly badly built, with inadequate sanitation and a lack of bed-linen and other equipment. A large number of the civilians were under the age of eighteen. The diet they were allocated was markedly worse than that provided for other nationalities. One foreman at the Krupp vehicle manufacturing plant, who was also a sergeant in the SS and thus not likely to be sympathetic to Soviet workers, complained that he was supposed to get a decent day’s work out of men whose daily ration was ‘nothing but water with a couple of turnips floating in it, just like dish-water’. Another Krupp manager pointed out: ‘These people are starving and in no position to do the heavy labour in boiler construction for which they were assigned to us.’85

Corruption was rife in the foreign workers’ camps, with commandants and officers siphoning off supplies and selling them on the black market, or hiring out skilled workers to local tradesmen in return for schnapps or food for themselves. There was a lively trade in leave permits, often forged by educated inmates working in the camp administration. At one camp, a German-Polish interpreter established a widespread prostitution ring, using young female inmates and bribing the German guards to turn a blind eye with food stolen from the camp kitchens. Sexual liaisons were common between German camp officials and female inmates; they were often coerced, and rape was not uncommon. For the sexual needs of the foreign workers, sixty brothels had been specially established by the end of 1943, with 600 prostitutes, all (at least according to the Security Service of the SS) volunteers from Paris, Poland or the Czech Protectorate and all earning a tidy sum of money by providing sexual services for the workers. Whether their work was quite as lucrative as the SS supposed was questionable. At one camp brothel in Oldenburg, for example, some six to eight women clocked up 14,161 visits by clients in the course of 1943, earning 200 Reichsmarks a week, with 110 deducted for living costs.86 If these measures were intended to prevent liaisons between foreign workers and German citizens, they failed. Social contact between Germans and western foreign labourers was not banned if the latter were not prisoners of war, and there were inevitably many sexual encounters, so many, indeed, that the Security Service of the SS estimated that at least 20,000 illegitimate children were born to German women as a result, so that the ‘danger of foreign contamination of the blood of the German people was constantly increasing’.87

The situation of Polish workers in the Reich was particularly bad. In the countryside, as the secret observers of the exiled German Social Democrats reported in February 1940, villagers were giving assistance to Polish labourers in all sorts of ways. Especially in eastern areas, Germans had been used to Poles as seasonal migrant labourers for many decades. The regime was appalled by such fraternization, and responded with propaganda detailing the atrocities supposedly committed by Poles and presenting evidence of their alleged racial inferiority and the threat that this allegedly posed.88 Building on the experience of dealing with Czech workers drafted into the Reich after March 1939,89 the Nazi regime, following discussions between Hitler, Himmler and G̈ring, issued a series of decrees on 8 March 1940 to ensure that the racial inferiority of the Poles was clearly recognized in Germany. Polish workers in Germany were issued with leaflets warning them that they risked being sent to a concentration camp if they slacked at work or attempted industrial action. They were paid lower wages than their German counterparts doing the same work, they were subject to special taxes, and they got no bonuses and no sick pay. Polish workers had to wear a badge designating them as such - a forerunner of the ‘Jewish star’ introduced the following year. They had to be housed in separate barracks and to be kept clear of German cultural institutions and places of amusement such as bars, inns and restaurants. They were not to use the same churches as German Catholics. Sexual liaisons with German women were to be prevented by recruiting equal numbers of both sexes from Poland, or alternatively where this was not possible by establishing brothels for the men. Polish workers were not allowed to use public transport. They were subject to a curfew. Sexual intercourse with a German was punishable by death for the Polish man involved, on the personal orders of Hitler himself. Any German women who had entered into a relationship with a Polish worker were to be publicly named and shamed, among other things by having their heads shaved. If they were not condemned to a prison sentence by a court, they were to be sent to a concentration camp anyway. The sexual double standard in operation under the Nazi regime ensured that similar punishments were not decreed for German men who had sexual relations with Polish women. During the first phase of the war, these decrees were widely distributed to local authorities and acted upon in a number of places, sometimes as a result of denunciations from members of the public, although ritual acts of humiliation such as the shaving of German women’s heads also caused widespread popular disquiet.90 A typical incident occurred on 24 August 1940 in Gotha, when a seventeen-year-old Polish worker was publicly hanged without trial in front of fifty Poles (who were forced to attend) and 150 Germans (who attended voluntarily). His offence was to have been caught having sexual intercourse with a German prostitute. Such incidents became more common from the autumn of 1940 onwards.91 In every way possible, the Poles were to be kept apart from German society. Small wonder, therefore, that many absconded, and that resistance to recruitment in Poland itself spread rapidly.92

Soviet prisoners of war working in Germany were treated even more harshly than their Polish counterparts.93 At a meeting held on 7 November 1941, G̈ring laid down the basic guidelines:

The place of German skilled workers is in the armaments industry. Shovelling dirt and quarrying stones are not their jobs - that is what the Russian is there for . . . No contact with German population, in particular no ‘solidarity’. German worker always basically the boss of the Russians . . . Food provision a matter for the Four-Year Plan. Russians to arrange own food (cats, horses, etc.). Clothing, housing, maintenance a bit better than what they had back home, where some still live in caves . . . Supervision: members of the Armed Forces during work, as well as German workers, acting as auxiliary police . . . Range of punishment: from cutting food rations to execution by firing squad; generally nothing in between.94

Part of the intention of these regulations was to co-opt the German working class into the ideology of the regime, from which many of its members still remained distant, by enrolling them as members of the master race in their dealings with the Russians. The broader compromise they represented, between the exterminatory racist impulses of the SS on the one hand, and the need for labour on the other, was expressed here as elsewhere by conscripting the supposedly subhuman as workers, but continuing to treat them as subhuman by denying them decent living conditions and imposing on them a draconian regime of supervision and punishment. On 20 February 1942, after weeks of negotiation, Heydrich signed a draft decree ordering that Soviet prisoners of war and forced labourers, who - it was claimed - had been brought up under Bolshevism and were therefore inveterate enemies of National Socialism, would be segregated from Germans as far as possible, made to wear a special badge, and punished by hanging if they engaged in sexual intercourse with German women.95

Whether they had come voluntarily or not, Soviet forced labourers were all treated the same: herded into barracks, subjected to the humiliating rituals of delousing, and fed on bread and watery soup. ‘We’re no better off here than pigs,’ complained two young Russian women who had come voluntarily and were therefore allowed to write to their relatives at home early in 1942. ‘. . . It’s like being in jail, and the gate is shut . . . We’re not allowed to go out anywhere . . . We get up at 5 a.m. and go to work at seven. We finish at 5 p.m.’96 Tuberculosis and similar diseases were rife.97 Employers soon began to complain that the eastern workers were so malnourished that more than 10 per cent were absent every day due to sickness and the rest were barely fit to work. Some women collapsed from hunger as they worked. Reports of their treatment reached their friends and relatives at home and led to a rapid decline in the number of volunteers. Rosenberg’s Eastern Ministry demanded an improvement in their treatment; and when on 13 March 1942 Speer reported on the situation to Hitler, the Leader ordered that the civilian Russian workers should not be kept confined and that they should be given better wages, performance bonuses and improved rations. On the other hand, any insubordination was punishable by death. On 9 April 1942 these orders found expression in a new set of regulations which Sauckel immediately put into effect, dressing them up in brutal rhetoric designed to reassure Nazi ideologues that racially inferior Russians were not being treated in a humanitarian spirit. If they disobeyed orders, he said, they should be handed over to the Gestapo and ‘hanged, shot!’ If they were now being given decent rations, it was because ‘even a machine can only perform if I give it the fuel, lubricating oil and care it needs’. Otherwise the Russians would become a burden on the German people or even a threat to their health.98

Such rhetoric was able to overcome the hostility of the SS to the recruitment of Soviet civilians. However, it was regarded as vital for political purposes that their wages and conditions were not substantially improved at a time when rations for Germans were being reduced. This would have caused hostile reactions among the German population. Their standard of living in the east had in any case been lower, it was argued. On the other hand, it was just as important not to make their wages so low that employers would dismiss German workers in order to take them on. To prevent this, employers were made to pay a special surtax on eastern workers. And to improve work-rates, the workers were paid piece-rates and productivity bonuses, especially when it was realized that Stalin’s forced industrialization programme of the 1930s had equipped many of them with skills badly needed in German industry. Despite limited improvements of this kind, increasing numbers of them were now drafted. Sauckel nevertheless found it necessary to remind local Nazi officials in September 1942 that ‘flogged, half-starved and dead Russians do not mine coal for us, they are totally useless for making iron and steel’.99 By the end of 1942, therefore, foreign workers were becoming vital for industry as well as agriculture in Germany. At the same time, however, the SS and the law enforcement and Party agencies were becoming increasingly concerned about what they saw as the security threat posed by the presence of enormous numbers of men and women from conquered countries in the cities and towns of Germany and were trying contain it by any means possible. With the agreement of the Reich Security Head Office, Martin Bormann set up a special surveillance operation, with units of reliable Party members, ex-soldiers, SS and SA men, to monitor foreign workers, and report them if they broke regulations by, for example, using public transport, visiting bars, or riding bicycles.100

Not only were conditions poor for these workers, security was also in practice very lax, despite draconian punishments for infractions of the rules. In April 1942, as Sauckel’s programme of importing foreign labour was getting under way, just over 2,000 Soviet prisoners of war and civilian workers escaped from their camps and hostels; three months later the figure had multiplied more than tenfold. In August 1942 the Gestapo despairingly predicted there would be at least another 30,000 escapes by the end of the year. Even if their claim to be recapturing some three-quarters of the escapees was correct, the situation was clearly spiralling out of control. Taking charge of the situation the following month, Gestapo chief Heinrich M̈ller had road-blocks and cordons set up all over the country, instituted checkpoints at railway stations and posted men in inner cities to check the papers of suspicious-looking pedestrians. Thus the mass influx of foreign labourers was now having a drastic effect on the lives of ordinary Germans, as police checks and controls became more intrusive than ever before. There were so many foreign workers in Hamburg by the spring of 1943, Luise Solmitz noted in her diary, that there was ‘a confused babel of languages wherever you hear people speaking’.101

In the meantime, Fr.[iedrich Solmitz] saw a miserable procession of foreign workers in Ostmark Street: blonde girls, young people, amongst them unmistakeable Asiatics, old people, staggering under their burden, without an eastern smile, loaded down with their meagre possessions, close to dying from exhaustion. ‘Get down off the pavement, you bandits!’102

Such sympathy was not uncommon, even though, as Luise Solmitz’s reference to ‘Asiatics’ suggests, German people frequently felt a sense of racial superiority over Soviet prisoners and forced labourers.103 When, a few months later, he gave some food to a starving forced labourer, Friedrich Solmitz was denounced anonymously to the police and arrested by the Gestapo; he was lucky to escape with nothing more than a warning.104


A major reason for the mass recruitment of foreign labour to the German arms industry lay in the fact that, for a variety of reasons, the regime did not bring a sufficient number of German women into the workforce. The possibilities here were indeed rather limited. For many decades, women’s participation in the workforce had been much greater in Germany than in the more advanced industrial economy of Britain. By 1939 just over half of all women between the ages of fifteen and sixty in Germany were in work, compared to only a quarter in the UK. Thanks to a considerable effort, the British participation rate increased to 41 per cent by 1944; but it never reached that of Germany. Women’s share of the German labour force was also greater than the equivalent in the USA, which stood at 26 per cent. The basic reason was that the small farms so characteristic of many agricultural regions in Germany depended heavily on female labour, the more so as men departed for the front or were sucked into the munitions industry. In 1939, no fewer than 6 million German women worked on farms, compared to a mere 100,000 in Britain. As men were drafted into the army, or into arms production, the proportion of women in the native German agricultural labour force increased from 55 per cent in 1939 to 67 per cent in 1944; such work was a vital part of war production, and the women engaged in it were helped at crucial times such as the harvest months by the drafting-in of additional temporary female labour, involving, for example, nearly 950,000 women in the summer of 1942. Above and beyond this, hundreds of thousands of women worked as unpaid family assistants on farms or in shops. 14 million women were in employment by 1941, constituting 42 per cent of the native workforce (there were already substantial numbers of foreign women workers in Germany before the war, and their numbers increased too). How much higher could the rate go?105 Economic managers considered that even with the most vigorous efforts to mobilize women for war production, it would not be possible to recruit more than about 1.4 million extra pairs of hands in this way. This was a mere fraction of the numbers actually needed.106

When the war began. Germany actually experienced a fall in female employment as half a million women left the labour market between May 1939 and May 1941. This was largely because of cutbacks in the textile, footwear and consumer goods industries in general, which employed very large numbers of women. Some 250,000 women workers had been transferred from such areas into war industries by June 1940. Between May 1939 and May 1942 the number of women working in producer goods industries rose from 760,000 to just over 1.5 million, while in the consumer goods industries it fell from just over 1.6 million to just under 1.3 million. The German Labour Front therefore lobbied strongly for an improvement in conditions for women workers in order to attract more to the arms industry. In May 1942 it succeeded in getting an increase in government funding for crèches for married women workers, and an improved allowance for women workers for the weeks before and after they gave birth, as well as new restrictions on the working hours of expectant and breast-feeding mothers. But the effect of such inducements was more than countered by the generous allowances provided to the wives and widows of men on active service; in some cases these added up to as much as 85 per cent of the men’s wages in their previous civilian occupations. Hitler himself was also personally opposed to the conscription of German women into the war industries because he thought working in munitions factories might damage their childbearing prospects or indeed discourage them from having children altogether. He personally vetoed the idea of conscripting German women between the ages of forty-five and fifty for labour service in November 1943, declaring that this would affect their ability to look after their husbands and families; the previous year, he had also intervened to try to ensure that German women who volunteered for war-related employment were given relatively undemanding office jobs. Mobilizing women with young children was not considered acceptable in any belligerent country, and in any case by 1944 more than 3.5 million such women in Germany were in part-time jobs, which was four times the number in the UK. More fundamentally, perhaps, Hitler was obsessed, as always, with the precedent, as he saw it, of the ‘stab-in-the-back’ that he considered had caused Germany’s defeat in 1918. Women on the home front had been discontented because they had resented being forced into poorly paid, dangerous and exhausting factory work, and some had taken part in the strikes that Hitler thought had undermined morale on the home front. Inadequate welfare support had led women to take part in food riots and spread anti-war sentiment among the population more widely. He was determined that was not going to happen in the Second World War.107

On 1 September 1939, to be sure, Hitler called on women to join in Germany’s ‘fighting community’ and make their contribution to the war effort. But what was that contribution?108 The regime’s attempts to boost the role of the mother in the German ‘national community’ continued unabated during the war: Nazi women’s organizations carried on with the travelling exhibitions on motherhood, courses on child-rearing, and celebrations of Mother’s Day that they had organized before the war.109 Alongside the ongoing publication of literature praising the German mother, new collections of essays now appeared, intended for consumption by women, recounting the lives of heroic German women of the past. Their heroism, however, consisted not of warlike deeds which they carried out on their own behalf, but of nobly assisting their menfolk, sending their husbands and sons off to battle, or protecting their children when the enemy loomed. Women’s courage in wartime was shown mainly by their refusal to give in to despair when told of the death of a loved one in battle. As housewives, so propaganda in various media insisted, women could contribute to the war effort by behaving responsibly as consumers and keeping the family clothed and fed in difficult economic circumstances. If women were to be persuaded to engage in war work, then it had to be war work in keeping with what Nazi ideology regarded as their feminine essence. If they served as air-raid wardens, then they did so to protect the German family; if they made munitions in a factory, then they were supplying the nation’s sons with the arms they needed to survive in battle. Selfless sacrifice was to be their lot. ‘Earlier,’ one woman who worked in a factory while her son was serving at the front was reported as saying, ‘I buttered bread for him, now I paint grenades and think, this is for him.’110

There was no German equivalent of the much-vaunted American propaganda icon ‘Rosie the Riveter’, who cheerfully rolled up her sleeves to help the war effort by doing what had traditionally been regarded as a man’s job in a man’s industrial world.111 For all the welfare measures designed to protect working mothers, the fact remained that in Germany, as in other countries, the majority of women in full-time paid work were young and unmarried. Organizations like the League of German Girls and the German Labour Front went to some lengths to recruit women in various kinds of war-related jobs, and the extent to which committed young Nazi women volunteered for labour service out of enthusiasm for the cause should not be underestimated. Women’s share in the German civilian labour force did increase, according to one estimate, from 37 per cent in 1939 to 51 per cent in 1944, and there were also 3.5 million women working part-time in shifts of up to eight hours by this latter date. But of course the German civilian labour force was shrinking all the time. More and more German men were leaving for the front, so the actual number of German women in paid employment only increased from 14,626,000 in May 1939 to 14,897,000 in September 1944.112 Employers simply found it much easier to rely on foreign labour. They could obtain workers from France or the conquered areas of the Soviet Union who were skilled, or at least trained, and in any case capable (at least in theory) of tough physical labour. And they could employ them for very low wages and without having to organize and provide the extensive benefits and privileges to which German female workers were entitled.113

Employers did not object to women workers as such, of course. Indeed, by May 1944 women made up some 58 per cent of all Polish and Soviet civilian workers in Germany. Many of them were employed as domestic servants, to help German women in the home while the young German girls who in peacetime would normally have taken on this role were sent on a year of compulsory labour service instead. On 10 September 1942 Sauckel issued a decree for the importation of female domestic workers from the east. In part, this was regularizing a situation in which many civilian administrators and officers in the armed forces had already brought women from the occupied territories to their homes in Germany as domestic servants. Consulted on the matter, Hitler brushed aside possible racial objections: many women in the Ukraine, he declared, were of German descent anyway, and if they were blonde and blue-eyed, they could be Germanized after a suitable period of service in the Reich. Sauckel’s decree duly required that the women, who were to be between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, should look as much like German women as possible. Middle-class families eagerly grasped at the opportunity. Employing a domestic servant from the east became a new status symbol. Unlike German servants, eastern women could be given any kind of job to do, no matter how dirty or heavy; they were cheap; they could be made to work long hours without holidays; and they could be kept in a position of absolute subordination.

As the Security Service of the SS reported, ‘a large proportion of housewives have repeatedly complained that, in contrast to the Russian girls, German domestic helpers are often cheeky, lazy and licentious, and permit themselves every liberty’.114 Having a Russian servant in the home enabled middle-class families to hark back to the good old days when servants knew their place and did as they were told.115

Similar reasoning was brought to bear by industrial employers. Unlike their German counterparts, women from the east could be put to work on night shifts and given heavy physical tasks to perform. They could not take holidays, and they were regarded as docile and compliant. ‘We want more eastern female workers!’ declared the management at the Carl Zeiss optics factory in Jena in June 1943.116 Given these numbers, it was inevitable that there should be sexual liaisons between German men and female foreign workers on quite a large scale. Typically, Himmler and the SS became concerned about the children resulting from such relationships. Some Polish and other women deliberately sought pregnancy because they thought this would get them sent home.117 But from the end of 1942 pregnant female foreign workers were not to be deported back to their place of origin, but were to be examined to determine whether the child was likely to be of ‘good racial stock’. If the diagnosis was positive they were to be taken from their mothers after weaning, put in special nursing homes - without the mother’s permission if she was from the east - and brought up as Germans. The others were placed in nursing homes for foreign children. These infants remained a low priority in terms of nourishment and overall standards of care and support. In one such home, near Helmstedt, 96 per cent of the Polish and Russian children died between May and December 1944 from disease and malnutrition, while forty-eight out of 120 in another home in Voerde died in a diphtheria epidemic in the same year. The death rate among the babies of Russian and Polish women workers placed in the children’s home at the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg was comparable. An SS general reported to Himmler on 11 August 1943 that the children in one home he visited were obviously being ‘allowed to starve slowly to death’.118 Policies such as these must have had an effect on the morale and commitment of many foreign workers. Yet while between 1939 and 1941 output per worker in the arms industry declined by nearly a quarter, it began to recover in 1942, and productivity had improved markedly by 1944. The reason for this lay above all in the principles of rationalization introduced by Speer and his allies and pushed through with such determination that 1944 was to prove the high-water mark of the German war economy.


A key part of Speer’s management of the arms economy was his collaboration not only with the SS but also with German industry. Here, a nexus of common interests soon emerged. In their search for cheap and pliant labour, industrial firms across Germany looked beyond the available foreign workers and began to recruit concentration camp inmates. By October 1944, for example, the 83,300 foreign workers employed by the giant chemicals combine I. G. Farben - 46 per cent of the total workforce - included not only 9,600 prisoners of war but also 10,900 prisoners supplied by the camp system. Among the key industrial sites set up by the combine during the war was a large buna (synthetic rubber) factory at Monowitz, three miles from the town of Auschwitz. It was far enough to the east to be out of range of bombing raids, but enjoyed good railway connections and was close to good supplies of water, lime and coal. Once its construction had been agreed, on 6 February 1941, Carl Krauch, the I. G. Farben director who was also head of research and development for Hermann G̈ring’s Four-Year Plan organization, got G̈ring to ask Himmler to supply labour both from resettled ethnic Germans in the area and from inmates of the nearby concentration camp (at this time Polish political and military prisoners) in order to speed up construction. The company agreed to pay the SS 3 to 4 marks for each nine-to-eleven-hour shift completed by each prisoner, while the camp commandant Rudolf Ḧss agreed to provide, train, feed and guard the inmates and to build a bridge and rail spur from the camp to the site. By the spring of 1942 there were 11,200 men working on the site, 2,000 of them from the camp. Otto Ambros, who led the buna programme within I. G. Farben, declared that the company would ‘make this industrial foundation a strong cornerstone for a virile, healthy Germanism in the east’. ‘Our new friendship with the SS,’ he reported privately to his boss within the company, Fritz terMeer, ‘is proving very beneficial.’119

By late 1943, however, the building was still far from complete. Up to 29,000 workers were employed at Monowitz, roughly half of them foreigners, about a quarter ethnic Germans and the rest camp inmates. Maltreatment of the prisoners by SS guards, together with the poor rations they received and the lack of basic medical and sanitary facilities at the construction site barracks, where they were sleeping two or three to a bed, meant that increasing numbers of them fell sick or were unable to do the long hours of heavy physical labour required on the site. By this time, too, the great majority of camp inmates were Jewish. Most likely at the invitation of company managers on the spot, an SS officer was summoned from the camp, inspected the 3,500 prisoners engaged on construction work and sent those judged no longer fit to work back to the main Auschwitz camp to be gassed. From now on, these ‘selections’ were repeated at frequent intervals, so that in 1943-4 a total of 35,000 inmates passed through Morowitz, of whom 23,000 are known to have died from disease or exhaustion or been sent to the gas chambers; the total may have been as high as 30,000. In their living quarters, the company managers were exposed to a continual stench from the crematoria chimneys and even more, at intervals from September 1942 onwards, from the grilles on which large numbers of dead bodies were sometimes burned in the open air. I. G. Farben overseers and managers knew of the mass extermination in progress at Birkenau, and of the fate that awaited those identified by the SS as unfit to work on the Monowitz site: indeed, some of them even used the gas chambers as a threat to prisoners they did not think were working hard enough. Meanwhile, the SS was garnering a tidy income from its collaboration with the giant chemicals firm, altogether collecting something like 20 million Reichsmarks in payments for these labourers from the company.120

The use of concentration camp prisoners as workers was the outcome of a significant change in the nature, extent and administration of the camps that took place early in 1942. Almost as soon as the war broke out, Theodor Eicke, who had been running the camps since the early days of the Third Reich, was transferred to military duties; he was killed in action in Russia on 16 February 1943. Under his successor, Richard Gl̈cks, the overall population of the camp system expanded rapidly from a total of 21,000 on the eve of war to 110,000 in September 1942. This total did not of course include the Reinhard Action extermination camps, where prisoners were not registered but went straight to the gas chambers, except for a small number employed for a time in the Special Detachments. Large numbers of the new inmates were Polish workers, and from 1940 also known or suspected opponents of the German occupation regime in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, France, Belgium, Norway, Holland and Serbia. Workers, professionals and clergy were a particular target. With the invasion of the Soviet Union came further arrests. A table of the arrests made by the Gestapo in October 1941 across the Reich showed that the month’s total stood at 544 arrests for ‘Communism and Marxism’, 1,518 for ‘opposition’, 531 for ‘prohibited association with Poles or prisoners of war’, and no fewer than 7,729 for ‘ceasing work’. Smaller numbers were arrested for religious opposition to the regime, or because they were Jews who had been released from a camp after the pogrom of November 1938 on condition that they emigrated and had then failed to do so.121

The expansion of the system in the first two and a half years of the war involved the establishment of new camps, including Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen and Stutthof. Despite Himmler’s attempt to insist that some of the new foundations were really labour camps, the distinction between a concentration camp, a labour camp and a ghetto became rather blurred as the war progressed. This was not least because the rapidly growing need for labour in the German war economy made the camp population an increasingly obvious source of workers for war-related industries. The most important change in this respect came as part of the general reorganization of the war economy following the defeat of the German army before Moscow and then the appointment of Albert Speer as Armaments Minister. On 16 March 1942, Himmler transferred the Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps to the Economy and Administration Head Office of the SS, run by Oswald Pohl. This became the channel through which firms requested the provision of labour, and the SS put more and more Poles and eastern workers in the camps so that they could meet this demand. On 30 April 1942 Pohl wrote to Himmler summarizing the change of function that was now taking place in the camps:

The mobilization of all camp labour at first for military tasks (to raise armaments production) and later for peace-time building programmes is becoming increasingly important. This realization demands action which will permit a gradual transformation of the concentration camps from their old one-sided political form into an organization suited to economic requirements. 122

13. Concentration Camps and Satellite, 1939-45

Himmler was in broad agreement with this radical change, though he continued to insist that the camps should carry out political re-education, ‘otherwise the suspicion might gain ground that we arrest people, or if they have been arrested keep them locked up, in order to have workers’.123

The labour was provided under broadly the same arrangements as obtained at Monowitz: the SS received payment for it, and in return supervised and guarded the labour detachments, made sure they worked hard and supplied them with clothes, food, accommodation and medical assistance. Himmler ordered that skilled workers in the camp population should be identified, and that others where appropriate should receive training. The bulk of them were used in construction projects, for heavy and relatively unskilled physical labour, but where they did possess expertise, Himmler intended that it should be exploited. Ever since 1933, many camp inmates had been marched out on work duties on a daily basis, but such was the scale of the system’s expansion from this point onwards that it soon became necessary to establish sub-camps near workplaces more than a day’s march from the main camp. By August 1943 there were 224,000 prisoners in the camps; the largest was the complex of three camps in Auschwitz, with 74,000, then Sachsenhausen, with 26,000, and Buchenwald, with 17,000. By April 1944 the inmates were housed in twenty camps and 165 sub-camps. By August 1944 the number of inmates had climbed to nearly 525,000. Increasingly, too, forced labourers in the occupied territories were transferred to the Reich, so that on January 1945 there were nearly 715,000 inmates, including more than 202,000 women.124

By this stage, the proliferation of sub-camps, many of them quite small, had reached such dimensions that there was scarcely a town in the Reich that did not have concentration camp prisoners working in or near it. Neuengamme, for example, had no fewer than eighty-three sub-camps, including one on Alderney, in the Channel Islands. Auschwitz had forty-five. Some of these were very small, for example at Kattowitz, where ten prisoners from Auschwitz were engaged through 1944 on the construction of air-raid shelters and barracks for the Gestapo. Others were attached to major industrial enterprises, such as the anti-aircraft factory run by the Rheinmetall-Borsig company at the Lauraḧtte, where roughly 900 prisoners were working at the end of 1944 alongside 850 forced labourers and 650 Germans. Many of the prisoners were picked for their skill and qualifications, and these were relatively well treated; others worked in the kitchens, provided clerical services, or did unskilled labour loading and unloading products and equipment. The camp where they lived was run by Walter Quakernack, a guard seconded from the main camp at Auschwitz and known for his brutality; he was executed for his crimes by the British in 1946.125 But this situation soon changed when the SS lost control over the distribution and employment of camp inmates, which was finally taken over by the Armaments Ministry in October 1944. In the final months of the war, the SS was reduced, in effect, to the role of simply providing ‘security’ for the prisoners’ employers.126

A vast range of German arms companies made use of camp labour. Such was the demand from business, indeed, that in contravention of the most basic ideological tenets of the SS and the camp administrations, even Jewish prisoners were commandeered if they had the right skills and qualifications.127 Businesses were indifferent to the prisoners’ welfare, and the SS continued to treat them in the same way as in the camps, so that malnourishment, overwork, physical stress and not least the continual violence of the guards took their toll. At the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg, 7,000 camp inmates were employed from April 1944 onwards, mostly on construction work; the miserable conditions under which they lived were of little concern to the company management, and the SS continued to prioritize the suppression of the prisoners’ individuality and group cohesion over their maintenance as effective workers.128 Prisoners were drafted in to the Blohm and Voss shipyards in Hamburg, where the SS set up another sub-camp. Here too the economic interests of the company conflicted with the repressive zeal of the SS.129 At the Daimler-Benz factory in Genshagen, 180 inmates from Sachsenhausen were put to work from January 1943, to be joined by thousands more from Dachau and other camps in a variety of plants. The deployment of camp labour was the motor driving the creation of sub-camps across the country, reflecting in its turn the increasing dispersal of arms production over many different sites, some underground, others in the countryside, in an effort to evade the attention of Allied bombing raids. Business needed a quick injection of labour to build the new facilities, and the SS was more than willing to supply it.130

Deaths in forced labour camps were common, and conditions were terrible. Everywhere, prisoners who were too weak or too ill to work were killed by shooting or, in some cases, gassing. Unlike the other camps, the Auschwitz complex continued to the end to serve the dual function of labour and extermination camp, and mass gassing facilities elsewhere only found relatively restricted use in comparison, as at Sachsenhausen or Mauthausen. However, SS camp doctors in general were given instructions to kill inmates who were too ill or too weak to work, by giving them lethal injections of phenol. The cause of death in such cases was given as typhus or some similar ailment.131 On 16 December 1942 the deputy commandant of Auschwitz, Hans Aumeier, was recorded as telling the SS officer in charge of deportations from Zamość:

Only able-bodied Poles should be sent in order to avoid as far as possible any useless burden on the camp and the transport system. Mentally deficient persons, idiots, cripples, and the sick must be removed as quickly as possible by liquidation so as to lighten the load on the camp. Appropriate action is, however, complicated by the instruction of the Reich Security Head Office that, unlike Jews, Poles must die a natural death.132

Thus, in effect, Aumeier was saying that only when Poles were killed did the records have to be falsified to record death by natural causes. Death rates were indeed high. No fewer than 57,000 out of an average total of 95,000 prisoners died in the second half of 1942 alone, a mortality rate of 60 per cent. In some camps, notably Mauthausen, where ‘asocial’ and criminally convicted Germans were sent for ‘extermination through labour’, death rates were even higher. In January 1943 Glücks ordered camp commandants ‘to make every effort to reduce the mortality figure’, thus ‘preserving the prisoners’ capacity for work’. Death rates did indeed decline somewhat after this. Nevertheless, a further 60,000 prisoners died in the camps between January and August 1943 from disease, malnutrition and ill-treatment or murder by the SS.133 A continual tension existed between the SS, which was unable to abandon the ingrained concept of the camps as instruments of punishment and racial and political oppression, and employers, who saw them as sources of cheap labour; it was never satisfactorily resolved.134

How far did business profit from the employment of forced and prisoner labour? Certainly it was indeed cheap. A Soviet prisoner of war, for instance, cost less than half to employ than a German worker did. Up to 1943 German business most probably gained financially from using foreign workers. But their productivity was low, particularly if they were prisoners of war. In 1943/4, for example, the productivity of prisoners of war in the coalmines was only half that of Flemish workers.135 But foreign labour was increasingly used on construction projects that did not yield significant profits before the war came to an end. The giant chemicals plant at Auschwitz-Monowitz, for example, was never completed, and never managed to produce any buna, though a facility to manufacture methanol, used in aircraft fuel and explosives, began operating in October 1943; by late 1944, it was producing 15 per cent of Germany’s total output of the chemical. In the longer term, the Monowitz factory did become a major producer of artificial rubber, but only well after the war was over, and then under Soviet occupation.136 A similar enterprise built using the labour of concentration camp inmates, among others, at Gleiwitz, cost the chemical firm Degussa 21 million Reichsmarks by the end of 1944, while sales from the products it was beginning to turn out netted no more than 7 million, and the facilities constructed by the prisoners were dismantled for their own use by the Soviet forces, after which what was left was nationalized by the Polish government. The eagerness of business to use the concentration camp system as a source of cheap labour, especially in the last two years of the war, reflected longer-term goals than the gaining of instant profits . By 1943, most business leaders realized that the war was going to be lost. They began to look ahead and position their enterprises for the postwar years. The safest way of investing was to acquire real estate and plant, and for this their factories had to expand to gobble up more land and get more armaments orders from the government. This in turn required the recruitment of more workers, and business leaders did not mind too much where they got them from. Once they acquired the workers, businesses often made their own decisions as to how they were to be exploited, regardless of the instructions of central planning bodies. The provision of forced labour, and still more the murderous conditions under which it was used, was the responsibility of the SS and the Nazi state. But a large part of the responsibility for its rapid expansion and exploitation lay with the businesses who demanded it.137 Altogether in the course of the war, some 8,435,000 foreign workers were drafted into industry; only 7,945,000 of them were still alive in mid-1945. Prisoners of war fared even worse: of the 4,585,000 who found themselves engaged in forced labour during the war, only 3,425,000 were still alive when the war ended.138 The survivors had to wait nearly half a century until they were able to claim compensation.

Speer never achieved total domination over the economy. Although his influence was enormous, much of it depended on smooth cooperation with other interested parties, involving not only Göring and the Four-Year Plan but also the armed forces and their procurement officers such as Milch and Thomas, Sauckel and his labour mobilization operation, the Reich Ministry of Economics and the SS. In his memoirs, Speer drew a sharp contrast between the years when he was in charge and what he portrayed as the administrative chaos that preceded them; the contrast was overdrawn.139 On the one hand, Fritz Todt had already achieved a degree of centralization before his death; on the other hand, the administrative ‘polycracy’ that many historians have identified in the arms economy before Speer continued right up to the end of the war.140 Speer did his best to master it, but he never quite succeeded. Just as importantly, Speer was able to benefit from Nazi conquests. When taken together with the looting and forced requisitioning of vast amounts of foodstuffs, raw materials, arms and equipment, and industrial produce from occupied countries, with the expropriation of Europe’s Jews, with the unequal tax, tariff and exchange relations between the Reich and the nations under its sway, and with the continual purchase by ordinary German soldiers of goods of all kinds at an advantageous rate, the mobilization of foreign labour made an enormous contribution to the German war economy. Probably as much as a quarter of the revenues of the Reich was generated by conquest in one way or another.141

Yet even this was insufficient to boost the German war economy enough to enable it to compete with the overwhelming economic strength of the USA, the Soviet Union and the British Empire combined. No amount of rationalization, efficiency drives and labour mobilization would have worked in the long run. The German military successes of the first two years of the war depended to a large extent on the element of surprise, on speed and swiftness and the use of unfamiliar tactics against an unprepared enemy. Once this element was lost, so too were the chances of victory. By the end of 1941 the war had become a war of attrition, just like the First World War. Germany was simply being out-produced by its enemies, and in the end there was nothing Speer could do to rescue the situation, however hard he tried. This had been clear to many economic managers even before Speer took over in 1942.

At no point in the war was the ratio of the GDP of the Allies to that of the Axis countries, including Japan, less than 2:1, and by 1944 it was more than 3: 1.142 By the beginning of 1944, even Speer was starting to realize that the odds were hopeless. All his efforts simply postponed the inevitable. They were directed not at managing the arms supply crisis, but at disguising it. The mass recruitment of foreign labour, the rationalization, the desperate efforts at co-ordinating armaments production, all were fundamentally irrational undertakings that ignored the basic impossibility of Germany’s out-producing its enemies.143 On 18 January 1944, worn out by the strain of trying to achieve the impossible, Albert Speer fell seriously ill and was taken to hospital. It was nearly four months before he recovered sufficiently to be able to return to work. In the intervening period, his rivals, from Himmler to Sauckel, gathered like vultures around what they thought was his political corpse, hoping to pick off parts of his empire for themselves.144

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