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Circular on Preventing Prisoner Escapes

German occupation authorities criticize local businesses for failing to prevent foreign POW laborers from escaping their worksites.
International Tracing Service Archive, Courtesy of Bundesarchiv Koblenz

The German army began using prisoners of war (POWs) from numerous countries as forced laborers immediately after the war began in 1939. However, POWs from the Soviet Union were at first viewed only as racial and political enemies,1 not as a source of labor. But as the war dragged on, Germany faced a labor shortage. Authorities allowed some Soviet prisoners into the Third Reich for work. German security services insisted that any businesses that used Soviet POW labor had to closely guard the prisoners and keep them from having contact with Germans.2 This goal became unrealistic as the number of Soviet POWs in Germany increased.

In this confidential circular from November 1942, the president of the military economic district in Düsseldorf criticized local businesses for failing to prevent foreign POW laborers from escaping their worksites. In August 1942 alone, over 14,500 POW laborers escaped. 5,395 of these were from the Soviet Union.3 The Düsseldorf district president, Dr. Kayser, reminded businesses that escapes could only be brought under control “through energetic and conscientious guarding by employers and the civilian workers engaged as auxiliary watchmen.”

Dr. Kayser appealed to the businesses' economic interests, reminding the owners that it “is in the works manager’s own interest” to prevent escapes because forced laborers would not be replaced by new workers. He also used fear as a motivation, drawing on Nazi stereotypes about Russians and portraying them as threats to German civilians, “[roaming] about in the woods and procuring the bare necessities by means of theft, robbery, etc.” 

Although some business owners did not always treat the escapes as a priority, German security services did. By fall 1942, the Reich Security Main Office had set up checkpoints along roads and on railroads to search for escapees. Security police conducted raids in public places and neighborhoods, arresting people who could not provide proper identification or had removed the badges foreign forced laborers from eastern Europe were required to wear.4

Increasingly, the presence of forced laborers and escaped POWs on German territory became an unavoidable fact of daily life for Germans. According to the memo, the workers' presence was "absolutely of little interest to most Germans” until the final years of the war.5 By mid-1944, the potential consequences of having so many laborers in Germany against their will became clearer. Rumors spread that foreign workers would stage an uprising, leaving German women and children vulnerable to the violence of “insurgent foreigners.”6

Nazi ideology held that Slavic peoples were racially inferior and posed a threat to German "racial purity." Communism was also regarded as an existential danger to the Nazi state. 

Companies were not required to use forced labor. All forced labor, including Jewish camp labor, POW labor, and civilian labor, had to be requested by the firms. See Ulrich Herbert, "Forced Laborers in the Third Reich: An Overview," International Labor and Working-Class History 58 (Fall 2000): 206.

A total of 42,714 foreign workers were reported for escaping between spring and summer 1942. This number included both POWs and civilian workers. The Gestapo reported that over 34,000 of them had been recaptured. Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Penguin Group, 2006), 521. 


While prisoners of war fell under the jurisdiction of the German army, once they escaped they became the concern of the Reich Security Main Office. See Ulrich Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany Under the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). For more on badges worn by forced laborers, see the related item in Experiencing History, Oral History with Rose Brunswic.

See Herbert, "Forced Laborers," 199.

 Herbert, Hitler's Foreign Workers, 350–355.

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The Regierungspräsident Düsseldorf, November 16, 1942

Regional Office of Economics

for War Economic District VI b [Stamp] Registered

I/20 Bü/Mn. [Stamp] Confidential

Administrative Circular Abw. No. 1

Prevention of Escapes by Prisoners of War

After the Wehrmacht, in past months, had successfully implemented severe measures for curbing escapes from accommodations, it is now becoming apparent that the number of instances of escape by POWs from their place of work is steadily on the rise. As a result of the massive influx of Soviet POWs, many Soviet Russians also have been among the recent escapees. Luckily, we succeeded in recapturing a majority of the fugitives and returning them to the camps. The recapture of the Soviet Russians, however, is hampered by the fact that they hole up in the most hidden places, throw away their identification tags, and destroy their identity papers. Because Soviet Russian fugitives surely cannot obtain a job anywhere in order to earn a living, we must expect that they are roaming about in the woods and procuring the bare necessities by means of theft, robbery, etc.

These cases of escape, particularly from the POWs’ place of work, can be curbed only through energetic and conscientious guarding by employers and the civilian workers engaged as auxiliary watchmen. In particular, the Soviet Russians need the most diligent guarding, as they can pose a great threat to the civilian population.

I point out once again that employers are expressly obligated to guard the prisoners of war at the places of work, unless, in certain cases, a military guard force is present at the worksite. Diligent guarding is in the works manager’s own interest (provision of replacements for escaped POWs will hardly be possible); in addition, in the event of a violation of the duty of supervision, the works manager runs the risk of losing all the POWs employed under him.

I request that you do everything possible in your enterprise to thwart an escape by POWs. In particular, the guards are to be explicitly made aware of the need to fulfill their duties as guards.


signed: Dr. Kayser 

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
International Tracing Service Archive, Courtesy of Bundesarchiv Koblenz
Source Number Correspondence concerning work deployment of Russian and Italian prisoners of war in the brown coal mine and briquette plant Bachem, Cologne district, Digital Archive, Arolsen Archives
Date Created
November 16, 1942
Author / Creator
Dr. Kayser
Düsseldorf, Germany
Document Type Letter
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