In the years following World War II, large numbers of German civilians and captured soldiers were forced into labour by the Allied forces.
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. Forced labour was also included in the final protocol of the Yalta conference in January 1945, where it was assented to by UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The largest group of forced laborers in the Soviet Union consisted of several million German prisoners of war (POW). Most German POW survivors of the forced labour camps in the Soviet Union were released in 1953.
Estimates of German POW casualties (in both East and West and cumulative for both the war and peacetime period) range from 600,000 to 1,000,000. According to the section of the German Red Cross dealing with tracing the captives, the ultimate fate of 1,300,000 German POWs in Allied custody is still unknown; they are still officially listed as missing.
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 and 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 labour camps in the Donbas (Donets or Donez basin) where 16% of them died.
In its shifted borders, post-war Poland comprised large territories that had a German-speaking majority and had been part of German states for centuries. Many ethnic Germans living in these areas were, prior to their expulsion from their home region, used for years as forced laborers in labour camps such as that run by Salomon Morel.
Among these camps were Central Labour Camp Jaworzno, Central Labor Camp Potulice, Łambinowice, Zgoda labour camp and others. 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.
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 programme of slave labour.
Others were still amongst the rest of the population, but the communist government had made several declarations that the German population should be exploited as forced labour, instructing a minimum of 60 hours work per week with no rights for breaks. The salaries were insufficient for survival, usually 25 or 50% of Polish salaries.
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. 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).
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.
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 labour and hostage taking.
France and Low Countries
German prisoners were forced to clear minefields in Denmark, Norway, 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.”
Some of the 740,000 German prisoners transferred in 1945 by the US for forced labour in France came from the Rheinwiesenlager camps; these forced laborers were already very weak, many weighing barely 50 kg (110 lbs).
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.
In 1946, the UK had more than 400,000 German prisoners of war, many of whom had been transferred from POW camps in the US and Canada. Many of these were used as forced labourers, as a form of war reparations.
The two main reasons for their continued presence in Britain were to denazify them (in particular German officers), and for non-officers employment as agricultural and other labour. In 1946 a fifth of all agricultural work in the UK was performed by German prisoners. A public debate ensued in the UK, where protests over the continued usage of German labourers raged in the British media and in the House of Commons. In 1947 the Ministry of Agriculture argued against rapid repatriation of working German prisoners, since by then they made up 25% of the land workforce, and they wanted to keep employing them into 1948. Faced with political difficulties in using foreign labour, the Ministry of Agriculture offered a compromise, in which German prisoners of war who volunteered were to be allowed to remain in Britain as free men. 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, by the end of 1947 about 250,000 of the prisoners of war were repatriated, and the last repatriations took place in November 1948. About 24,000 chose to remain voluntarily in Britain.
In Norway, the last available casualty record, from 29 August 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 (per article 32 of the Geneva Conventions) were rejected with the assertion that the Germans were not POWs; 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: 21 June 1945; 199 dead and 163 wounded Germans; 3 Norwegians and 4 British wounded. The last registration, from 29 August 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.
The United States transferred German prisoners for forced labour to Europe (which received 740,000 from the US). For prisoners in the US repatriation was also delayed for harvest reasons.
Civilians aged 14-65 in the US occupation zone of Germany were also registered for compulsory labour, under threat of prison and withdrawal of ration cards.
Tens of thousands of Axis prisoners of war including Germans were put to work in the US in farms, mills and canneries. These prisoners were paid $0.80 per day for their labour (equivalent to $14 in 2022 dollars).
Most German POWs 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 labour after the war cannot be claimed in Germany since 29 September 1978, due to the statute of limitations.
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