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The Legal Limbo of Nazi Forced Labourers

Neuengamme prisoners working on the Dove-Elbe canal, available at Wikimedia Commons

Thomas Lundmark became the first American law professor at a German university when he was appointed Chair in Common Law and Comparative Legal Theory at the University of Muenster. He took emeritus status from Muenster to join the Law School at the University of Hull. Now an associate of the Wilberforce Institute, Thomas is beginning a new research project on the plight of forced labourers in National Socialist (Nazi) Germany, 1938-1945.

Professor Thomas Lundmark
Professor Thomas Lundmark, HK Bevan Chair in Law, The Law School, University of Hull

During the National Socialist years in Germany (1933-1945), 12 to 14 million non-Germans from almost 20 European countries were impressed into service in order to buoy up the German economy. Most of these individuals, known as Zwangsarbeiter, worked in the armaments industry, while others worked on farms, in homes, for local governmental agencies, for churches, and for companies. Many of the companies that employed forced labourers are still in existence today, such as Krupp, Siemens, Daimler-Benz, and Volkswagen.

Most of these forced labourers—approximately two-thirds—were transported from central and eastern Europe. To get an idea of the magnitude of this programme, and the effect it had on the civilian population, consider that, at its peak, 20 per cent of the German work force consisted of forced labourers, and half of the population of Belarus were killed or deported as forced labourers during the German occupation.

Whilst forced labourers were not destined to be worked to death, as were 250,000 to 500,000 Sinti and Roma and 6 million Jews, they were nonetheless treated like slaves. Like the Jews, who were required to wear a prominent yellow Star of David patch made of cloth, forced labourers were also required to wear a patch. The Poles, for example, wore a “P”. Labourers from the Soviet Union wore patches with “Ost,” meaning “east.” Very often, as when working to repair roads and buildings, they were also required to wear striped black and white clothes that looked like pyjamas.


Forced labour at Neuengamme concentration camp, available at Wikimedia Commons

When the air-raid alarms were sounded, Germans—mostly women, children, and men too old to serve in the armed forces—rushed with their children, pets, and strollers into the bomb shelters. Forced labourers had to seek shelter elsewhere. As a consequence, a large percentage of the 350,000 to 500,000 ‘civilian’ deaths attributed to Allied bombing by the post-war German government were deaths of forced labourers.

Professor Thomas Lundmark

Were these forced labourers ‘slaves’? According to Article 1(1) of the 1926 Slavery Convention, ‘Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.’ By definition, forced labourers in Germany were ‘owned’ in the sense that they were forced to work, they had no choice in what kind of work they did, they were often given no remuneration, they were confined to barracks or other mandatory living and sleeping arrangements, and, of course, they were not allowed to leave. They were literally prisoners.

Whether or not forced labourers should be classified as slaves—the author’s position is that they should be—was a moot point for the forced labourers themselves, for the classification as ‘slave’ did not bring with it any enforceable rights. Indeed, German forced labourers enjoyed no legally cognizable rights whatsoever. For example, if forced labourers were victims of a crime, they could not complain to the police or public prosecutor, for the German courts were closed to them. Their only recourse was to complain to their ultimate ‘employers’, who were the Schutzstaffel, known as the SS, who oversaw the entire system of forced labourers, even those who worked for companies.

Similarly, if forced labourers were suspected of having committed a crime, such as theft, the SS served as prosecutor, judge, and executioner. Hundreds of thousands of German forced labourers were executed by the SS, often for minor infractions, or merely for the suspicion of having committed an infraction.

After the end of the war, thousands of former forced labourers sought compensation in the German courts. Once again, they were denied justice by the German courts, who employed various arguments to avoid having the German state, and the companies for whom the Zwangsarbeiter laboured, pay compensation.

Finally, in 2000 the German Bundestag (parliament) enacted the German Forced Labour Compensation Programme that eventually provided symbolic compensation (one-off payments of between 2,500 and 7,500 euros) to some 1.7 million victims who were still alive over 50 years after the end of the war.

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