Forced labor was a major part of Nazi Germany's economy during World War II. While much of this labor took place within the concentration camp system established by the Nazi regime, the majority of forced laborers were civilians deported from their home countries to work at different sites throughout Germany. Between 10 and 13 million women and men were brought to Germany as forced laborers from 1941 to 1945. By 1943, the vast majority of forced laborers—often described as "Ostarbeitern" or "eastern workers"—were from the Soviet Union and Poland. The majority of these workers were women.1 As a letter in this collection illustrates, these people often worked in factories with other laborers from across Europe. The conditions of daily life for these forced laborers depended on their nationality, gender, type of work assigned, language skills, and the authorities responsible for overseeing the labor. While some people were treated relatively well, the majority faced extreme hardships. Many of them died.
According to the Nazi worldview, a good work ethic was part of what made the so-called “Aryan” race superior to other people. Nazi propaganda portrayed physical labor as an important method for building and strengthening their imagined "people's community" ("Volksgemeinschaft") and claimed that people targeted by the regime did not know how to perform useful work.2 Nazi authorities used forced labor to humiliate and punish political opponents and so-called “racial enemies"—especially Jews.3 Pro-Nazi publications distributed images of Jews performing menial labor, such as this photograph of well-dressed Jews scrubbing a street. Images like this were used to demonstrate Nazi dominance and promote Nazi views of Jews as outsiders.
After the invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the start of World War II, forced labor became an important part of the German economy. The Nazi government introduced forced labor for both Jewish and non-Jewish Poles. As many as 1.5 million Poles were deported to Nazi Germany for labor. Nazi racial ideology labeled ethnic Poles as inferior, and the regime strictly regulated working and social conditions for Polish forced laborers. German authorities banned Polish forced laborers from public facilities, forced them to work long hours for little or no money, and made them wear badges with the letter “P” identifying them as Poles. Social contact between Germans and “non-Aryans” was banned. In some regions these racial separation laws were strictly enforced. Sexual contact was especially forbidden, as demonstrated by the case of a young Polish woman and a German man accused of having a relationship. In other circumstances, separation between groups was harder to enforce. In an oral history featured here, Rose Brunswic—a Jewish woman hiding as a Polish laborer—describes living with a German family in a small farming community.
Although conditions in rural areas tended to be less harsh overall for both male and female forced laborers, workers’ experiences largely depended on the family or business where they were assigned. Foreign women at worksites with German men were vulnerable to sexual assaults. Pregnancies posed an additional risk. If so-called “race experts” determined that the father was an "Aryan" German, the child could be taken away and placed with a German family. If the child was judged to be somehow racially inferior—as two sources in this collection demonstrate—women could be forced to have an abortion or give their infants to a so-called children’s home. Many of these had extremely high mortality rates. It is estimated that tens of thousands of women were forced to have abortions while working in Germany.4
As the war expanded with the German-led attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Nazi regime’s demand for forced laborers increased. German war planners had not expected a long conflict in the Soviet Union, assuming that German soldiers would be coming home from the front and returning to work in German factories and fields within a few months.5 Authorities responded with harsh regulations in a series of “Decrees on Eastern Workers” in February 1942, requiring laborers to wear identifying badges and live in separate barracks. In line with this new law, the German leadership launched a massive campaign to deport hundreds of thousands of young people from the occupied eastern territories to work in Germany.6 Some people volunteered to go at first, believing propaganda about better living conditions in Germany. Roughly 100,000 Yugoslavs volunteered to migrate for work, but more than 250,000 of them were ultimately sent to Germany as forced laborers. When word of the terrible conditions in these camps reached people back home—in letters such as this one from a young Russian woman—volunteers became more hesitant. In response, German troops conducted labor raids, kidnapping people off the streets and burning down villages to find workers.
Millions of Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) were singled out for particularly brutal treatment as forced laborers in Germany. The German army did not follow international agreements regarding the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war in part because officials did not believe that the rules of war applied to those considered racially inferior—such as Slavic peoples or those they classified as Communists.7 In the first few months of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, roughly 3.5 millon Soviet POWs died of starvation and cold—or they were shot by German guards.8 The labor shortage in Germany became so bad by early 1942, however, that German officials decided to use the Soviet POWs for labor. The terrible physical condition of these POWs in German camps made using them for labor extremely difficult at first, as this German army circular discusses.9 There were also unforeseen consequences of bringing large numbers of foreign forced laborers into the country, regardless of their origin. As documented in this German report, the escape of POWs from worksites raised fears among German authorities about the security and racial purity of the civilian population.
As the war came to an end in 1945, millions of people were displaced and stranded in Germany. Forced laborers and their families attempted to return home or ended up in Displaced Persons camps.10 The featured oral history of Antonina Serdiukova shows how other forced laborers had begun building new lives for themselves where they were. Ultimately, however, Serdiukova and millions like her were forcibly returned to the Soviet Union.
The Nazi regime’s exploitation of forced labor upended people's lives and displaced millions. As the war continued, more and more people were swept into the expanding forced labor system across Germany. These forced laborers faced difficult living conditions and had limited options. The sources in this collection demonstrate how Nazi policies transformed these workers' everyday lives and illustrate how they responded.