For a long time, the forced laborers had counted among the “forgotten victims of National Socialism” and also among the groups of victims who were not taken into consideration by German compensation law.
The German compensation legislation that came into effect in 1953 excluded payments to a large extent to the victims living abroad as well as those not persecuted on the basis of race or for political reasons. With the conclusion of the London Debts Agreement, the Federal Republic was able to legally declare indemnification of the forced laborers a reparations matter and postpone it indefinitely until such time as a peace treaty might be signed with Germany.
To promote the process of Western integration, the Federal Republic only provided payments to individual states in the form of the so-called global agreements – in 1952 to Israel (DM 3.5 billion as material reconstruction aid) as well as to several West-European states between 1959 and 1964 (DM 0.9 billion in total). During this phase, several large companies also paid several million DM to the Jewish Claims Conference.
The GDR denied any compensation for foreign victims of National Socialism as it identified itself as an anti-Fascist reestablishment. After the reunification of Germany in the year 1990 and in the course of the Two-Plus-Four Agreement, an additional global agreement with Poland (DM 500 million) as well as with Belarus, Ukraine and Russia (altogether one billion DM) followed. Russia and Belarus also had to take the Nazi victims in the, by this time, sovereign Baltic states into consideration. With these payments, government and industry viewed their responsibility as having been fulfilled.
Only with the end of the 20th century did the compensation of forced laborers again come to occupy national and international public interest. The first political initiatives of the Green Party in the Bundestag, the European Parliament or the Action Reconciliation Service for Peace still remained unsuccessful. Only with the legal and political pressure from the USA could the obstacles be overcome at the end of the 1990s. In 1998, the factions of the Bundestag agreed on a plan to establish a foundation for the compensation of forced labor with the financial contribution of German industry. Parallel to this, the class-action lawsuits and boycott threats in the USA led to the establishment of the "German Economy Foundation Initiative”, providing a way to participate in a humanitarian gesture – without admission of guilt – especially for those enterprises which were export-oriented. As a condition, they demanded the guarantee of “legal security” for the companies against further lawsuits in the USA.
After difficult international negotiations, the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” (EVZ) was founded by a federal law on August 12th, 2000. German companies contributed with nearly five billion DM to the 10 billion DM in funds for the compensation of former forced laborers and other victims of National Socialism as well as the establishment of a separate “Remembrance and Future” fund. Following the establishment of “legal security” by the Bundestag on May 30th, 2001, the payments could begin.
The regulation of compensation by means of a foundation was supposed to be unbureaucratic for the companies, but also to spare the elderly victims individual court procedures. In fact, few of the survivors would have experienced the end of such drawn-out processes. Nevertheless, the compensation of various groups of victims in several countries was a quite complicated process that was implemented in cooperation with seven international “partner organizations”. These organizations were responsible for processing the applications, determining eligibility for receiving payments and the disbursement of payments. Their respective financial frameworks were defined in advance by the international negotiations.
Of the entire fund of about 4.6 billion Euros, the Foundation EVZ disbursed compensation payments particularly to former concentration camp prisoners and to forced laborers deported from Central and Eastern Europe. Over 1.6 million survivors received one-time payments, which varied based on their country of origin and the severity of camp conditions.
Persons who were exploited as forced laborers in a concentration camp or who were compelled to work in a closed ghetto received the maximum amount of 7,669 Euros (category A). Those interned in the “work education camps” and so-called “other places of detention” received between 3,068 and 7,669 Euros. The Law envisaged payments of up to 2,556 Euros for victims of forced labor in industry (category B).
Thanks to an opening clause in the framework of their funds, the partner organizations were able to include additional groups of victims. Within the framework of the opening clause, forced laborers deployed in agriculture and children who were taken prisoner received between 536 and 2, 235 Euros. If the recipients were deceased after 1999, the next of kin were entitled to payment. Special compensations were disbursed from the additional Foundation funds for insurance and property losses as well as “other personal injuries”.
Due to previous international agreements, the law did not include prisoners of war if they had not been imprisoned in concentration camps. The Italian military internees taken captive in 1943 also did not receive compensation. Western and Southern European forced laborers were only recognized if they were forced to work under prison conditions. Persons forced by the Germans to work in their own home country were taken into account in the Czech Republic, Poland and Belarus.
In light of the oppressive conditions of poverty faced by many elderly people in Eastern Europe, the financial aspect of compensation was of great importance to the victims. The compensation debate, the eligibility and disbursement process itself, as well as the activities of the Foundation and other initiatives (encounter programs with survivors, exhibitions about forced labor, etc.) that follow have contributed to returning the long-forgotten victims of forced labor to public memory – in their home countries as well as in German communes, businesses and in the political arena. The digital archive “Forced Labor 1939-1945” aims to preserve the memory of these victims and their voices to be heard – for future generations as well.