Forcing the Issue:
Wartime Labor in the Third Reich

By David Meyler
September 2013

In 56 B.C., during his conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar made an unprovoked attack against the Veneti federation, centred around present-day Brittany. He used the pretext of revolt, but critics then and since have called the campaign nothing more than a massive slave drive. According to his own figures, Caesar sold off the entire population as slaves, some 60,000 men, women and children. The incredible profits realized on the busy Roman slave markets allowed the would-be emperor to secure the loyalty of his soldiers, bribe the support of the Roman mob and buy crucial votes back in the Senate.

Human resources here takes on a whole new meaning. When histories write of economic warfare in the Second World War, we tend to think of oil, or iron, or other strategic raw materials. But by 1941, Nazi Germany found itself, like Rome in the time of Caesar, with an insatiable hunger for cheap human labor.

The German economy had not been geared for a long war. The rapid expansion of the armed forces by the end of 1941 put a severe stress on the civilian economy. Each year these stresses increased. With so many young men at the front or in support services, there was a shortage of skilled and unskilled labor, both in the countryside and in the cities.

In the Soviet Union and to a lesser extent in the West, women replaced male labor, especially in key war industries, but this did not find a place in Nazi ideology. The other solution was to cut wages and increase hours for those remaining in the work force, but this was equally unpalatable.

German Labor Office in Lyons, France.

The solution for the Nazis was found in the pre-war system of compulsory labor. Akin to compulsory military service, but for civilian projects, each citizen was obligated to spend a certain amount of time in unpaid labor for the state, ranging from farm labor to road building. With the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, tens of thousands of unemployed were smoothly absorbed into the German labor system.

With the defeat of Poland, more than 200,000 POWs were available in what had now become a mass forced labor program (under the Geneva Convention prisoners could be put to work in areas not directly related to war production). Workers at best received a minimal pay (pay more often than not was lacking altogether, especially as the war went on), were housed in barracks in camps surrounded by barbed wire with little privacy and poor hygiene, and subsisted on a very meagre diet. Penalties were harsh. Public hanging was the punishment for fraternizing with German women, for example.

The attack on Soviet Russia netted almost 3 million POWs in the first several months. As Moscow had not signed the Geneva Convention, Soviet prisoners did not have even its tenuous protection. Housed in vast barbed wire camps, without sanitation, food or medical treatment, more than 1 million POWs died of typhus and other diseases. The huge Auschwitz crematoria were first built to dispose of the massive number of corpses.

But when Moscow did not fall in that winter and the Stalin’s regime did not collapse, the Nazi leadership had to scramble to rethink their wartime economic planning — indeed, to come up with an economic plan. The occupation of France and the Low Countries had brought in hundreds of thousands more POWs that could be used as labor, but with the prospects of a short war gone, covetous eyes were cast upon the vast numbers of Russians languishing, useless, in the mass camps. Suddenly conditions improved. Food was provided, not plentiful or interesting, but enough to keep a man on his feet for a ten-hour work day. Housing was improved and basic sanitation provided. A mass industry resulted in the import of Eastern Europeans into German manufacturing and agriculture, in which Heinrich Himmler’s SS played an important role.


Albert Speer, a fellow architect and old crony of Hitler from the 1930s, eventually came to control the whole German wartime economy. Speer became Dr. Fritz Todt’s successor upon the industrialist’s untimely death in 1942. As Reich Minister of War Production and Armaments, Speer gained control over a huge array of construction projects across occupied Europe. From this already vast portfolio, the ambitious and able Speer (he was touted as an example of the new up-and-coming generation, the intelligent Nazi, an oxymoron if there ever was one) expanded his responsibilities to include all areas of the German economy from raw materials and production, to transportation and distribution, to labor.

An evil nebbish. "I did everything possible to treat
(the foreign slave laborers) well." Fritz Sauckel, 23 February 1946.

His chief rivals were Hermann Göring, who controlled aircraft production; Himmler and his SS empire (an economic entity in its own right); and Martin Borman, Nazi party chief and head of the Gauleiters, the provincial party bosses who jealously ran their jurisdictions as semi-independent feudal fiefdoms. The ineffectual Göring was easily co-opted, especially with the connivance of Milch, in charge of aircraft production, and an ally of Speer. Himmler and Borman proved tougher nuts. Speer needed Himmler’s cooperation to access the slave labor camps in the east, but a working arrangement was usually maintained. The Gauleiters’ approval was required or Speer’s economic reforms could be sabotaged at the local level. Speer had called for a complete ban on civilian building projects until the end of the war, to free up more labor and materials for war production, but Borman more often than not proved obstructive if not openly hostile to Speer’s continued attempts to centralize economic planning.

Hitler was generally content to let his deputies fight out their own turf wars (better this than his underlings ganging up on him!). Thus, even though Speer was a favourite, the control of labor was allowed to slip through his fingers. Theoretically established as a subordinate office under Speer, the labor department of Fritz Sauckel was allowed sufficient independence that Sauckel became a virtual rival.

Sauckel’s plan was to concentrate war production in German plants. Production facilities in occupied areas were considered to be of secondary value. As the Wehrmacht drained away able-bodied men (even such sensitive areas as scientific research were unable to protect staff from conscription into the armed forces), Sauckel began to organize the mass transportation of foreign workers. Russians and other citizens of the Soviet Union formed the largest group (2.8 million), followed by French (1 million), Italian (especially after 1943, 600,000), Dutch (500,000), Poles (300,000) and British (200,000), with about 1.5 million from the rest of occupied Europe.

A very small number had gone willingly, as even a low-paying German job was better than going hungry at home. Some had been participants in pre-war employment programs, for example, such as had existed in the Netherlands to funnel unemployed workers into the then-booming German economy. After the German occupation, this existing administrative machinery was put to efficient use to round up even more Dutch labor.

The vast majority, however, went under duress. Harsh penalties were handed out for those who failed to heed their call-up notice. Families might be denied food rations, and shirkers who were caught faced the concentration camp and sometimes summary execution.

Nazi soldiers and dogs “secure resources"
in Amsterdam, February 1941.

If enough workers could not be secured (and this became very problematic as the Germans began to obviously lose the war), entire towns or city sections would be sealed off and the entire area combed out for able-bodied men. One of the largest of these so-called razzias was held in Rotterdam in the spring of 1944, netting some 20,000 men.

The "Economic Miracle"

At the best of times, imported workers in Germany faced hunger (two slices of bread and a bowl of cabbage soup a day were typical rations for favoured Western Europeans by 1943; Eastern Europeans, Jews and Italians had to wait at the end of the line for scraps), as well as violence from their overseers, disease, parasites and death from Allied bombers. Another perk for Western Europeans was use of a bomb shelter. Russians had to sit out raids in their factories or barracks. All of these factors hardly motivated the foreigners to work enthusiastically for the greater good of the Reich.

Speer preferred to keep workers busy in their home countries. He was certainly not shy about using forced or slave labor when he could, but he felt Sauckel’s program was counter-productive and full of inefficiencies. There were the obvious costs of transportation, food and housing for workers brought to Germany, when these were provided “free” at home. Men and women forced to leave their homes hardly made happy and well-motivated workers. Labor raids forced many people to go underground, a loss to the German war effort as these people were no longer available in either their home industries or in German factories. Sauckel’s policies also proved a boon to the various resistance movements.

Albert Speer. He was just an architect.

Wide-scale sabotage was limited. Supervision was generally too close and the risks too high — a six-week visit to a concentration camp, termed a “punishment” camp, was standard for minor infractions, and many men did not return from even these relatively short stays; for anything serious, it was a one-way ticket to a death camp. However, there were innumerable methods to slow production that were difficult to monitor or control, from ill-defined sicknesses (an all-too-common occurrence in any case) to “accidental” breakages or mistakes because instructions delivered in German could not be “understood.” As the war situation worsened for the Germans, connivance with these stalling tactics increased. Many German foremen and bosses were not ardent Nazis in any case, and some came to sympathize with the men and women under their supervision.

(My father John Meyler, taken from Rotterdam in March ’43, was used in a labor camp in Glinde, a small suburb of Hamburg, until the end of the war. He was part of a maintenance crew at a Krupp factory producing crankshafts. His training as a plumber probably saved his life, as his first detail was to join a work gang of Russians, a virtual death sentence. His foreman, Meister Jansen, was relatively decent, letting off minor infractions with a warning and protecting his team from beatings, an otherwise common occurrence.)

An estimated 10 million foreign workers were brought to Germany during the course of the war with a peak of about 7.5 million by mid-1944. This labor freed up some 2.5 million German workers for the Wehrmacht. Roughly, it took three foreign workers to replace the output of one German. Speer rightly argued that the marginal increase in German home production was not worth the disruption and decline in output from occupied areas due to the removal of labor to the Reich. But his arguments fell on deaf ears, and the Wehrmacht’s demand for young German men proved insatiable.

By mid ’44, however, the whole issue had become moot. With the Allies driving through France and the Russians pouring through Eastern Europe, the chief labor markets were lost to the Germans, along with the industrial facilities located there.

“Volunteer” workers arrive in Augsburg.

Speer’s economic miracle, as he himself would boast in the years after the war, had kept the Nazi war machine going an extra 18 to 24 months. German production in many areas peaked in 1944, in spite of the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign. German monthly aircraft production had finally surpassed that of Britain, for example, but matching Soviet figures, much less those of the U.S., would prove to be impossible.

After the war, both Sauckel and Speer were put on trial at Nuremberg along with the other top surviving Nazi leaders for war crimes, specifically in their cases for the use of slave labor. Sauckel would hang. But Speer was eloquent enough to save himself from the executioner, instead serving 20 years in prison. (The highest-ranking Nazi to avoid the noose, he also managed to suppress his own personal war crime, the expulsion of 75,000 Berlin Jews so their flats could be made available to other bombed-out Berliners, wounded soldiers and others.)

Political Marker: Razzia

This is a variant for Third Reich. Add this marker to the pool once German is at war with the Soviet Union. Once played, put this marker back into the pool as long as Germany controls Warsaw and/or Paris.

Sauckel demands more labor! Mass raids are made in various major cities to capture able-bodied workers. Play this marker in the Production Segment of the next Spring turn, only if Germany is at war with the Soviet Union, has conquered Poland and/or France, and still controls Warsaw and/or Paris.

Total conquered BRPs as usual, but Germany adds only 60% of this total to its stockpile this year (round fractions up). 10% of the conquered BRP total is added directly to the German BRP base. (Round fractions up. The maximum BRP base is also increased by this amount if already at maximum — the remainder is lost due to shirking, sabotage and increased resistance movements.)

During the next production segment, if either Warsaw or Paris is controlled, place one free 3-3 or 1-3 INF from the Force Pool (if available) onto the board (the usual restrictions to newly built units apply).

If both Paris and Warsaw are controlled, place two 3-3s or 1-3s (or any combination thereof), or one 4-6 ARM.

Example: Germany has earned 105 BRP’s from conquered territories. Germany would add 63 BRP’s to its stockpile, and would add 11 BRP’s (10.5 rounded up) directly to its Base. Both Paris and Warsaw are German-controlled, so the German player decides to take two 3-3 INF from the Force Pool and place them as newly built units in the upcoming Production Segment.

You can download the new marker here.

Select Bibliography

Werken in Duitsland, Karel Volder, 1990.

The Good Nazi: The Life and Lies of Albert Speer, Dan van der Vat, 1994.

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