Foreign Workers in the Reich

They kept the wheels of war turning

By Chris William

Soon after Adolf Hitler’s armed forces marched into Poland to begin the war in Europe, the need for a dramatic buildup in the number of soldiers became obvious for their planned conquests. With millions of men being pulled from the workforce, replacements were required to fill the labor roles in the burgeoning German war industry. By 1941, only two years later, German production had become fully dependent on a growing population of foreign workers.

Eastern workers were required to wear the “OST” patch on their clothing to differentiate them from their German co-workers.

In the United States, many of the industrial vacancies caused by men going into service during WWII were filled by women. Nazi ideology, however, dictated that women were to remain mothers and wives first or only work in traditional female occupations. A relatively small percentage of German women actually joined the workforce in non-traditional roles during the war.

To a minor degree, Germany had used foreign workers for many years before the hostilities of WWII began. Polish, Czech, Italian, French and other private employees performed manual labor (predominantly in agricultural areas). Generally, employers treated the foreigner workers well, in order to be compel the workers to return in the following years, if needed.

44-year-old Wladyslawa Zeugner, a female Polish laborer, was given this German Arbeitsbuch with the phrase “Nicht Reichsdeutscher” (not a German citizen) stamped on the first page.

Though some workers from German allied countries continued this practice after 1939, the vast majority of new foreign workers were people subjugated and forcibly brought into the country by the advancing German military machine. Forced foreign laborers fulfilled the manpower requirements in keeping the homeland factories and farms running smoothly. By 1944, there were 1.9 million prisoners of war and 5.7 million foreign civilian workers registered in the Reich.

The Deutsches Arbeitsfront (German labor organization) was appointed the Treu Hander (trustee) for all foreign workers in the Third Reich. Henceforth, it established Nazi Party control through dictating rules for the workers’ use and care.

Pierre Corbier, a 31-year-old Frenchman, looks quite debonair in his Arbeitsbuch photo, despite his occupation listing as a “longshoreman.”

Foreign civilian workers were divided into two distinct groups: Fremdarbeiter (those from friendly or neutral countries such as Hungary or Switzerland) and Zwangsarbeiter (those taken against their will from occupied enemy countries, such as Russia, Poland or France). Fremdarbeiter remained a relatively small percentage of the non-German workforce. They were treated with adequate care, though once hostilities started, they were not allowed to return to their home countries. Instead, they were  forced into serving for an indefinite period of time.

Zwangsarbeiter were, for the most part, treated poorly. This was due, in part, to the German perception of their inferior racial qualities. Many Ostarbeiter(eastern workers) were forced to wear Ostabzeichen (“OST” emblems), while Polish workers wore “P” emblems identifying them as non-German workers.

Disparities between voluntary and forced workers were rampant in regard to food, lodging, clothing, medical care, and wages. Foreign workers were paid paltry sums, and then charged 15% for Sozialausgleichs-abgabe (social security contributions), along with exorbitant fees for room and board. In addition, forced workers were not allowed to use public transportation, theaters, restaurants, attend religious services, or other social functions. They were required to adhere to strict curfews and not allowed to leave their workplaces without permission. All foreign workers were required to carry an Arbeitsbuch (work book) that contained their photo, personal information and work history.

The cover of a foreign workers Arbeitsbuch is similar to a German citizens’ book, with the exception of a smaller national eagle, green in color rather than brown, and the addition of the words “Für Ausländer” (for foreigner) on the bottom of the cover.

Besides the disparity in their treatment due to racial and ethnic traits, the differences between workers’ treatment in industrial and agricultural environments were significant. In general, farming communities were less politically motivated than their city counterparts. Additionally, because monitoring of farmhands was much more difficult than watching workers in a factory, foreign workers were often less strictly supervised and less brutally abused while doing farm work.

Though some factory managers treated their workers well (for either humane reasons, or in order to maximize productivity),  many other workplaces exhibited horrendous treatment of their work staff. Politically charged supervisors, foremen, and security personnel were commonly German nationals who kept close watch over their foreign workers. A supervisors’ wages were based on worker output, therefore, it was common for a supervisor to react quickly when even the least of significant rules were broken.

A complex set of state-sanctioned laws dealt with a range of violations from minor workplace infractions up to, and including, court-ordered death penalties. Besides the authorized laws, many workplace security guard units terrorized their workers with beatings, starvation, and other atrocities meant to keep the foreigners in a constant state of fear and under the security’s control.

This 19-year-old metal worker wears the “OST” patch in her Arbeitsbuch photo.

While not in the workplace, industrial workers were initially housed in private homes. Later, they were often moved into newly built camps to better monitor their growing numbers.

Contact outside of the workplace was prohibited between Germans and foreign workers. Punishments ranged from fines or short imprisonment for minor offences, to major penalties for having close or intimate relationships.

As the war progressed, and the allied bombs crushed Hitler’s cities, average German citizens developed a twofold, and somewhat contradictory attitude towards the foreign captives. On one hand, in working with the Russians, Slavs, Poles, and others, many Germans recognized (despite being inundated with constant propaganda) that the foreigners were not the Untermensch (sub-humans) , but were, for the most part, average people like themselves and their neighbors. On the other hand, as their cities, families and lives were destroyed around them, the German people became less concerned with the welfare of the foreign workers as they turned their attention to their personal and loved ones survival.

When the war ended and Germany lay in utter ruin, Allied forces prioritized the arduous task of returning foreign workers to their native countries. Some, such as the Russian POWs were not received well upon their return, being treated more like traitors because they allowed  themselves to be captured. Others made the trip back to their homelands to rebuild their lives and countries after the devastation wrought by Hitler’s war.

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