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"Slave Labor": Was Nazi Forced Labor Slavery?

On October 1, 1946, the main Nuremberg war crimes trial ended, which condemned "slave labor" as a central war crime of the National Socialists.

In the following video, three former forced laborers talk about forced labor as slavery. They use the term "slave" in different meanings.

"Sklavenarbeit": War die NS-Zwangsarbeit Sklaverei? Ausschnitte aus den Video-Interviews mit den Zwangsarbeitern Wasyl B., Bloeme E. und Claudio S., Archiv "Zwangsarbeit 1939-1945", Dauer 06:57 Minuten, Schnitt: Tobias Kilgus, Alexandra Neumann, Cord Pagenstecher, © Freie Universität Berlin 2011
Image Credit: Internet-Archiv "Zwangsarbeit 1939-1945"

"Slave Labor": Was Nazi Forced Labor Slavery?

"The Poles are to be the slaves of the Greater German World Empire," Governor General Hans Frank proclaimed in 1939. The systematic exploitation of over 12 million people had much in common with other historical (and contemporary) forms of unfree labor and the slave trade. However, the Nazi system differed from ancient or American slaveholding societies, for example, because Jewish concentration camp prisoners were ultimately to be exterminated - they counted "less than slaves" (B. Ferencz).

Some of the Nazi slaveholders were legally prosecuted soon after their rule ended: The deportation of millions of civilians for forced labor, known as the "slave labor program," was a central charge of the Nuremberg trial. On October 1, 1946, the verdict was passed, among others against Fritz Sauckel and Albert Speer.

In the decades that followed, however, forced labor was trivialized as a common phenomenon of war and "foreign labor." It was not until the 1990s that the term slave labor was used again.

In the debate about compensation, the distinction between forced labor and slave labor primarily highlighted the terrible fate of concentration camp prisoners. Comparing German companies to slaveholders not only supported compensation claims, but also helped survivors and commentators to categorize the enormity and brutality of the Nazi use of labor.

The term "slave labor" also plays a role in the individual memories of survivors. Some, though by no means all, former forced laborers describe themselves as "slaves," especially when they talk about humiliation and the justice they were denied.

  • Cord Pagenstecher, "We were treated like slaves." Remembering forced labor for Nazi Germany, in: Gesa Mackenthun, Raphael Hörmann (Hrsg.), Human Bondage in the Cultural Contact Zone. Transdisciplinary Perspectives on Slavery and Its Discourses, Münster 2010, S. 275-291
  • Buggeln, Marc, Were Concentration Camp Prisoners Slaves? The Possibilities and Limits of Comparative History and Global Historical Perspectives, in: International Review of Social History 53 (2008), S. 101-129

Biografische Daten

Vasyl B., Ukrainian forced laborer, lives in England

  • 1923 Birth in Vasilkovo (Rayon Spola)
  • 1939 Begins training as a chemist, discontinues training after the start of the war in 1941
  • 1942 Sent to Germany to work in the Naabwerk aluminum factory (Upper Palatinate)
  • 1945 Wasyl B. leaves the factory after a bombing raid and is transferred to a farm
  • After the end of the war he finds shelter in a UNRRA camp.
  • 1947 He accepts the Belgian offer to work in the coal mines there.
  • 1948 return to Germany, in the same year move to England
  • 1950 and 1966 marriage, he stays in England with his total of 10 children and works in an industrial company.
  • Interview za069 »
  • Duration: 4:06 hours, Date: 13.03.2006, Language: English

Bloeme E., Jewish Auschwitz survivor from the Netherlands

  • 1926 Born in Amsterdam into a Jewish working-class family
  • 1942 conscription to labor, escape and activity in the leftist resistance in Amsterdam
  • 1943 Arrest and deportation to Auschwitz
  • 1944 Forced labor in a tank and snow chain factory in the Liebau concentration camp (Silesia)
  • 1945 Liberation on May 8, return to Amsterdam
  • 1950 Marriage, six children
  • 1964 - 1999 Worked at the University of Amsterdam as a psychologist
  • Interview za165 »
  • Duration: 3:09 hours, Date: 30.06.2005, Language: Dutch

Claudio S., italienischer Militärinternierter (IMI)

  • 1920 Birth in Genoa
  • 1939 Studies of geology
  • 1943 Lieutenant in the Royal Italian Army under Marshal Badoglio. Captured by German troops after the fall of Mussolini on 25.7. and the German occupation of Italy on 8.9.1943
  • 1943 to 1945: prisoner of war in Germany and occupied Poland, including camps at Sandbostel, Czestochowa, Chelm, Deblin, Oberlangen, Duisdorf, Cologne, Forellenkrug and Wietzendorf. Refusal to enlist in fascist troops
  • 1944 Penal camp and forced labor at the Glanzstoff & Courtaulds parachute factory in Cologne, hospitalization
  • 1945 Liberation in Wietzendorf / NIedersachsen; return to Italy and continuation of studies
  • 1950 Marriage, worked as a geologist for the oil company AGIP in Germany and abroad
  • 1980 retirement. Since then numerous publications about the Italian military internees
  • Interview za126 »
  • Duration: 5:31 hours, Date: 06.08.32005, Language: Italian