Forced labor was essential to Nazi Germany's economy during World War II. While much of this labor took place within the concentration camps established by the Nazis for Jews and other persecuted groups, the majority of forced laborers were civilians deported from their home countries to work 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 and the majority of those workers were women.1 As a letter in this collection illustrates, these women 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 ability, and the authorities responsible for overseeing the labor. While some people were treated relatively well, the majority faced extreme hardships. Many of them died.
In the Nazi worldview, work performed by German and so-called “Aryan” peoples was considered productive or useful. Nazi authorities portrayed manual labor as an important part of building a "national community."2 The regime initially used forced labor to humiliate and punish political and “racial enemies,” particularly Jews.3 Pro-Nazi publications distributed images of Jews conducting menial labor, such as this photograph of well-dressed Jews scrubbing a street. Images like this were used to promote Nazi views of Jews as outsiders and demonstrate Nazi power.
After invading Poland in 1939, German authorities quickly transformed forced labor from a method of humiliation and punishment to an important part of the German economy. The Nazi government introduced forced labor for both Poles and Jews. As many as 1.5 million Poles were deported to Nazi Germany for labor. Nazi racial ideology labeled Slavic peoples, such as Poles, as inferior and the regime strictly regulated Polish working and social conditions. 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 sometimes victims of rape. Pregnancies posed an additional risk. If Nazi “race experts” determined that the father was German, the child could be taken away and placed with a German family. If the child was judged 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 which had very high mortality rates. It is estimated that tens of thousands of Polish and Russian women were forced to have abortions while working in Germany.4
As the war expanded with the German invasion of 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 home from the front and return to the 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 At first, some people volunteered to go, believing propaganda about better living conditions in Germany. Some 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 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 Roughly 3.5 millon Soviet POWs died of starvation and cold, or were shot by German guards in the first few months of the war.8 The labor shortage in Germany became so dire 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 initially made using them for labor extremely difficult, 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 Nazi 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 Others, such as a Russian woman named Antonina Serdiukova, whose oral history is featured here, had begun building a new life with her husband in France. Ultimately, 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.