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Forced labor of Germans after World War II

Memorial at the border transit and release camp Moschendorf (1945–1957). The inscription states it was the door to freedom for hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war, civilian prisoners, and expelees.

Forced labour of Germans after World War II refers to the Allied use of German civilians and captured soldiers for forced labor in years following World War II (and in some cases much longer).

The topic of using Germans as forced labour for reparations was first broached at the Tehran conference in 1943, where Soviet premier Joseph Stalin demanded 4,000,000 German workers.[1]

Forced labour was also included in the Yalta conference[2] in January 1945, where it was sanctioned by UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


  • Eastern Europe 1
    • Soviet Union 1.1
    • Poland 1.2
    • Czechoslovakia 1.3
    • Eastern Germany 1.4
  • Western Europe 2
    • Background 2.1
    • France 2.2
    • United Kingdom 2.3
    • Norway 2.4
    • United States 2.5
    • Conclusion 2.6
  • Nuremberg trials 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7

Eastern Europe

The mother of a prisoner thanks Konrad Adenauer upon his return from Moscow, September 14, 1955. Adenauer has succeeded in concluding negotiations about the release to Germany, by the end of the year, of 15,000 German civilians and prisoners of war.

Soviet Union

The largest group of forced laborers in the Soviet Union consisted of several million German prisoners of war. Most German POW survivors of the forced labor camps in the Soviet Union were released in 1953.[3][4] The last major repatriation of Germans from the Soviet Union occurred in 1956.

Estimates of German POW casualties (in both east and west and cumulative for both the war and peace-time period) range from 600,000 to 1,000,000.[5] According to the section of the German Red Cross dealing with tracing the captives, the ultimate fate of 1,300,000 German POW's in Allied custody is still unknown; they are still officially listed as missing.[6]

The capture and transfer of civilian ethnic Germans to the Soviet Union began as soon as countries with a German minority began to be overrun in 1944. Large numbers of civilians were taken from countries such as Romania, Yugoslavia, and from the eastern parts of Germany itself. For example, after Christmas 1944 between 27,000 to 30,000 ethnic Germans (aged 18–40) were sent to the USSR from Yugoslavia. Women made up 90% of the group. Most were sent to labor camps in the Donbass (Donez basin) where 16% of them died.[7]


Many ethnic Germans living within the Polish pre-war borders were used for years as forced labor prior to their expulsion in labor camps[8] such as that run by Salomon Morel. Among these camps were Central Labour Camp Jaworzno, Central Labour Camp Potulice, Łambinowice, Zgoda labour camp and others.[9][10] The law authorising forced labour, Article 20 of the law on the exclusion of the enemy elements from society, also removed rights to Polish citizenship and all property owned.[11]

The many camps were used during the process of the expulsions for the sake of "rehabilitating" Reichs- or Volksdeutsche, to decide if they could stay or go, but in reality this was a program of slave labor.[12] Roughly 200,000 ethnic Germans died in the Polish/Soviet run concentration camps in Poland.[12]

Others were still amongst the rest of the population, but the Polish government had made several declarations that the German population should be exploited as forced labor, instructing a minimum of 60 hours work per week with no rights for breaks. The salaries were insufficient for survival, usually 25 or 50 percent of Polish salaries.[8]


The German-speaking population of the Sudetenland was, in the same case as Poland, expelled after the war. The expulsion was not indiscriminate, however, since as late as 1947, large numbers of skilled German workmen were still being detained.[13] Germans were forced to wear a white armband with the letter "N", for "Němec" signifying German in Czech to identify them (even German Jews had to wear it).[14]

Czech Deputy Premier Petr Mareš has in the past, in vain, tried to arrange compensation for ethnic Germans who were forcibly resettled or used as forced labour after the war.[15]

Eastern Germany

Many Germans in what would become East Germany were forced by the Communist authorities to work in German uranium mines producing the majority of the raw material of the Soviet atomic bomb project.[16] Beginning in the summer of 1946 the Soviets began explorations in the Erzgebirge, and sealing off the old radium hot springs by September of the same year. An initial workforce of four to five thousand was established, with another 20,000 called for by the end of the year. The work was dangerous and stressful and the Soviets made no effort to improve it; as a result the mines became filled with forced labor conscripts and has been compared to a death march and the Gulags of Kolyma. Quotas were repeatedly set and raised, and conscription took place without regard to health or work experience - mines became staffed with office workers, craftsmen and students with no mining experience. By 1948 workers were pulled away from factories and criminals from jails to staff the mines, as were POWs returning to Germany from the Soviet Union. Housing lagged behind the burgeoning workers (with many regions doubling in population between 1946 and 1951), worsening already difficult conditions. The mines were considered worse than a penal colony, but were controlled directly by Moscow and local governments were unable to help. When an extra 60,000 workers were called for in the summer of 1947, a wave of potential workers flooded into West Germany to avoid the mines including many citizens who would otherwise prefer to live in the communist East. Workers who began as volunteers were turned into forced labourers. In an effort to increase the number of labourers, women were increasingly recruited to the non-segregated mines, many of whom brought or were infected with venereal diseases, and were sexually exploited by the Russian guards. Workers who attempted to escape, conscripted or volunteer, were hunted down and returned to the mines. Eventually Germans would become more involved in the running of the mines, forming a joint company with Russia in 1956.[17]

Western Europe

German soldier clearing a mine near Stavanger, Norway, August 1945.


Contrary to Section IV of the Hague Convention of 1907, "The Laws and Customs of War on Land", the SHAEF "counter insurgency manual" included provisions for forced labor and hostage taking.[18]


German prisoners were forced to clear minefields in France and the Low Countries.

According to Simon MacKenzie, "callous self-interest and a desire for retribution played a role in the fate" of German prisoners, and he exemplifies by pointing out that sick or otherwise unfit prisoners were forcibly used for labour, and in France and the Low countries this also included work such as highly dangerous mine-clearing; "by September 1945 it was estimated by the French authorities that two thousand prisoners were being maimed and killed each month in accidents"[19][20]

Some of the 740,000 German prisoners transferred in 1945 by the U.S. for forced labour in France came from the Rheinwiesenlager camps, these forced labourers were already very weak, many weighing barely 50 kg.[21]

In retaliation for acts of resistance French occupation forces expelled more than 25,000 civilians from their homes. Some of these civilians were subsequently forced to clear minefields in Alsace.[22]

United Kingdom

In 1946, the UK had more than 400,000 prisoners, many had been transferred from POW camps in the U.S. and Canada. Many of these were used as forced labour, as a form of "reparations".[23][24]

The two main reasons for their internment were political re-education (Wilton Park), and for non-officers employment as agricultural and other labour.[25][26] In 1946 a fifth of all agricultural work in the UK was performed by German prisoners.[26] An emotional and public debate ensued in the UK, where words such as "slaves", "slave labour" and "forced labour" were increasingly used in the media and in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom.[27] In 1947 the Ministry of Agriculture argued against rapid repatriation of working German prisoners, since by then they made up 25 percent of the land workforce, and they wanted to use them also in 1948.[27] Faced with political difficulties in using volunteer foreign labour a compromise solution was suggested by the ministry of agriculture, German prisoners were to be allowed to remain in Britain as free men.[27] Following disputes about how many former prisoners of war would be permitted to remain voluntarily in Britain and whether they would first have to return briefly to Germany before being allowed to officially migrate to Britain,[27] by the end of 1947 about 250,000 of the prisoners of war were repatriated, and the last repatriations took place in November 1948.[26] About 24,000 chose to remain voluntarily in Britain.[26]


In Norway the last available casualty record, from August 29, 1945, shows that by that time a total of 275 German soldiers had been killed while clearing mines, while an additional 392 had been maimed. German protests that forcing POWs to clear mines was against international law, article 32 of the Geneva conventions, were rejected with the assertion that the Germans were not POW's; they were disarmed forces who had surrendered unconditionally ("avvæpnede styrker som hadde overgitt seg betingelsesløst"). Mine clearance reports received by the Allied Forces Headquarters state: June 21, 1945; 199 dead and 163 wounded Germans; 3 Norwegians and 4 British wounded. The last registration, from August 29, 1945 lists 392 wounded and 275 dead Germans. Mine clearance was then for unknown reasons halted for close to a year before recommencing under better conditions during June–September 1946. This time many volunteered thanks to good pay, and death rates were much lower, possibly thanks in part to a deal permitting them medical treatment at Norwegian hospitals.[28]

United States

The United States transferred prisoners for forced labor to both the UK and France (which received 740,000 from the US). For prisoners in the U.S. repatriation was also delayed for harvest reasons.[29]

Civilians aged 14 – 65 in the U.S. occupation zone of Germany were also registered for compulsory labor, under threat of prison and withdrawal of ration cards.[30]


Most captives of the Americans and the British were released by the end of 1948, and most of those in French captivity were released by the end of 1949.

According to the Office of Public Administration (part of Federal Ministry of the Interior), compensation for Germans used as forced labor after the war cannot be claimed in Germany since September 29, 1978, due to the statute of limitations.[31]

Nuremberg trials

Judge Robert H. Jackson, Chief US prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials in a letter discussing the potential weaknesses of the trial, in October 1945 told US President Harry S. Truman that the Allies themselves:

"have done or are doing some of the very things we are prosecuting the Germans for. The French are so violating the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners of war that our command is taking back prisoners sent to them. We are prosecuting plunder and our Allies are practicing it. We say aggressive war is a crime and one of our allies asserts sovereignty over the Baltic States based on no title except conquest."[32][33]

Under the Nuremberg Principles some of the crimes specified were:

  • ill-treatment or deportation of slave labor or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory;
  • murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population.

See also


  1. ^ Eugene Davidson "The death and life of Germany: an account of the American occupation". p.22
  2. ^ Eugene Davidson "The death and life of Germany: an account of the American occupation". p.121 "In accordance with the Yalta agreement, the Russians were using slave labor of millions of Germans and other prisoners of war and civilians"
  3. ^ "Prisoners: Homecoming". Time. 12 October 1953. Archived from the original on 7 December 2010. 
  4. ^ "2,500,000 Missing". Time. 7 July 1952. Archived from the original on 25 November 2010. 
  5. ^ stern-Serie: Besiegt, befreit, besetzt - Deutschland 1945–48 "Die Schätzungen über die Zahl der in Haft gestorbenen Männer schwanken zwischen 600 000 und einer Million. Nach Angaben des Suchdienstes des Deutschen Roten Kreuzes ist bis heute das Schicksal von 1,3 Millionen Kriegsgefangenen ungeklärt - sie gelten offiziell als vermisst."
  6. ^ stern-Serie: Besiegt, befreit, besetzt - Deutschland 1945–48
  7. ^ The Expulsion of 'German' Communities from Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, Steffen Prauser and Arfon Rees, European University Institute, Florense. HEC No. 2004/1 p. 55
  8. ^ a b Philipp Ther, Ana Siljak, "Redrawing nations: ethnic cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944–1948" p.58 (google books)
  9. ^ HNET review of "An Exploration of the Inner Landscape of Experience"
  10. ^ These were former nazi concentration camps, that were used to imprison ethnic Germans as in Potulice: One Place different memories
  11. ^ "Creation of Concentration, Extermination and Labor Camps".  
  12. ^ a b Ethnic Germans in Poland and the Czech Republic: A Comparative Evaluation p.9
  13. ^ Herbert Hoover, Report, "German Agricultural and Food Requirements", February 26, 1947 p.4
  14. ^ Bernard Wasserstein, "Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe Since 1945" p.38, (googlebooks)
  16. ^ "The secret mines of Russia's Germany".  
  17. ^ Naimark, Norman M. (1995). The Russians in Germany: a history of the Soviet Zone of occupation, 1945–1949. Cambridge: Belknap Press of  
  18. ^ Perry Biddiscombe, "Werwolf!: the history of the National Socialist guerrilla movement, 1944–1946", 1998. p.256
  19. ^ S. P. MacKenzie "The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II" The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 66, No. 3. (Sep., 1994), pp. 487–520.
  20. ^ Footnote to: K. W. Bohme, Zur Geschichte der deutschen Kriegsgefangenen des Zweiten Weltkrieges, 15 vols. (Munich, 1962–74), 1, pt. 1:x. (n. 1 above), 13:173; ICRC (n. 12 above), p. 334.
  21. ^ - Zwischen Tod und Liebe (accessed 2009-12-12) On a documentary by Guido Knopp, "Die Gefangenen Folge 4", "... Tausende deutsche Kriegsgefangene wurden in den Monaten nach der Kapitulation im Mai '45 nach Frankreich verschifft, wo sie unter lebensgefährlichen Bedingungen Minen räumen oder in Bergwerken arbeiten mussten." "Da man dringend Arbeiter für den Wiederaufbau benötigte, wurden insgesamt 740.000 deutsche Kriegsgefangene von den Amerikanern an die Franzosen überstellt. Diejenigen, die aus den Rheinwiesenlagern kamen, waren körperlich geschwächt, wogen kaum 50 Kilogramm. Zeitzeugen berichten von Misshandlungen und Scheinexekutionen."
  22. ^ Perry Biddiscombe, "Werwolf!: the history of the National Socialist guerrilla movement, 1944–1946", 1998. p.261
  23. ^ Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, "After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology" (1979) pp. 35–37 "In Britain there were some 400,000 German POWs. By Autumn 1944 they were being used for forced labour as a form of 'reparations'. repatriation began in September 1946 and continued until the summer of 1948, over three years after the German surrender. After the war, too, the POWs spent the harsh winter of 1945–1945 in tents in violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention. The POWs referred to themselves as 'slave labour', with some justice." "The psychological state of the POW changed 'from the anxiety and hope of the first half of 1946 to the depression and nihilism of 1948,' according to Henry Faulk."
  24. ^ Eugene Davidsson, "The Trial of the Germans: An Account of the Twenty-Two Defendants Before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg", (1997) p. 518–519 "the Allies stated in 1943 their intention of using forced workers outside Germany after the war, and not only did they express the intention but they carried it out. Not only Russia made use of such labor. France was given hundreds of thousands of German prisoners of war captured by the Americans, and their physical condition became so bad that the American Army authorities themselves protested. In England and the United States, too, German prisoners of war were being put to work long after the surrender, and in Russia thousands of them worked until the mid-1950s."
  25. ^ J. A. Hellen. "Revisiting the past: German Prisoners of War and their legacy in Britain". Retrieved 2009-12-14. After the D-Day Invasion in June 1944, increasing numbers of German POW were trans-shipped to Britain, although the main movements were from the near-Continent and North America after May 1945 (Table 1). There were two main purposes for this transfer: screening, political re-education and de-nazification and, for non-officers, their employment as agricultural and other labour ... Conclusion: In summary, it can be argued that the main raison d'être of the camps, the political re-education of the Germans in Britain, had the unintended and long-term effect of re-educating the British themselves in their perceptions of and attitudes towards the German enemy in particular, and to Europeans in general. 
  26. ^ a b c d James Richards (2009-11-05). "Life in Britain for German Prisoners of War".  
  27. ^ a b c d Inge Weber-Newth; Johannes-Dieter Steinert (2006). "Chapter 2: Immigration policy—immigrant policy". German migrants in post-war Britain: an enemy embrace. Routledge. pp. 24–30.  
  28. ^ Jonas Tjersland, Tyske soldater brukt som mineryddere VG, 08-04-2006.
  29. ^ Noam Chomsky, Edward S. Herman, "After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology" (1979) pp. 35–37 "In the United States, as in Britain, prisoners were used for forced labor. Truman delayed repatriation for 60 days for POWs essential for the harvest. POWs performed 20 million man-days of work on army posts and 10 million for contract employers (farm work, lumber, industry etc). some were assigned to work at the Chemical Warfare Center at the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland."
  30. ^ Eugene Davidsson, "The Trial of the Germans: An Account of the Twenty-Two Defendants Before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg", (1997) p.518 "In 1946 General Clay ordered the registration in the American zone of Germany of all persons capable of work between the age of 14 to 65 for men and 15 to 50 for women. 'All persons incapable of work because of illness, disability, etc., must present to the labor office proof of incapacity. the labor office is empowered to direct compulsory labor when necessary.' Under Allied Control Law No. 3 of February 17, 1946, German males from fourteen to sixty five and women from fifteen to fifty were subject to compulsory labor; the penalty for disobedience was imprisonment and having their ration cards taken away, a penalty that the International Military Tribunal declared inhuman when it was inflicted by the Germans."
  31. ^ Zwangsarbeit als Minenräumer"Rudi war total durchlöchert", SPIEGEL (accessed 2009-12-20)
  32. ^ David Luban, "Legal Modernism", Univ of Michigan Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0-472-10380-5 pp. 360,361
  33. ^ The Legacy of Nuremberg PBF

Further reading

  • Michael Foley, "Prisoners of the British", 2009 ISBN 978-1-904408-49-9
  • Sullivan, Matthew Barry, "Thresholds of Peace. Four hundred thousand German prisoners and the people of Britain, 1944–1948", Hamish Hamilton, London 1979

External links

  • Ruhs, Florian: Foreign Workers in the Second World War. The Ordeal of Slovenians in Germany., in: aventinus nova Nr. 32 [29.05.2011]
  • Victor Gollancz, "Germany Revisited", London Victor Gollancz LTD, 1947
  • France's Deadly Mine-Clearing Missions
  • Transcripts of UK War Cabinet discussions Provided by The National Archives. The meetings of May 18, 1945, and June 11, 1945 discuss the provisions made for slave labor in the Yalta protocol, and the value to be extracted from the workers.
  • Report on Germany by former US President Herbert Hoover, February 1947
  • Excerpt from Norwegian documentary on mine clearing According to narrator and text prisoners were killed by blinds when the British guards forced them to walk over cleared fields.
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