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Empire and Weimar Republic

Foreign Work Force under National Socialism

After the War: Displaced and Repatriated Persons

Soviet Prisoners of War and "Workers from the East"

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Occupation of Charkow (Ukraine) by the German Armed Forces, October 1941

Source: Federal Archives, Bild 183-B13132; Photograph: Mittelstaedt, Heinz

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On 22nd June 1941 the German Armed Forces started the war against the Soviet Union. Until December they had captured the Baltic states, Belarus and Ukraine in a "Blitzkrieg". The front was running further East so that a civil administration had already been established in the new "Reichskommissariat Ostland and Ukraine". The Germans entered the non-Baltic territories of the Soviet Union with a brutish plan in mind. While parts of the population were welcoming the Germans as the liberators of Bolshevism pinning cautious hopes on the occupying forces, the government of the Reich had a different plan: as part of the extraction of "habitat in the East" their intention was to ruin the territories economically and either starve out or drive away the population or bring them into forced labour.

Prisoners of War

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Thousands of Soviet POWs in an open field in the occupied Eastern territories, August 1942

Source: Federal Archives, Bild 183-B21845; Photograph: Wahner

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The Soviet POWs were the first to feel this. Within a few months two million of the 3.35 million prisoners, that had been imprisoned until the end of 1941, died from cachexia due to insufficient food rations, lack of medical care and lacking protection against heat and cold. Initially, the plan was not to deploy Soviet POWs for labour in the Reich. Racist ideological reasons and fearing a diffusion of Bolshevic ideas were the obstacles especially on the part of the law enforcement officers and the high command of the Armed Forces. Only when the early onset of winter 1941 caused a halt in the advance of Armed Forces, which meant that the war in the East would drag out for some time, and when parts of the German economy was threatening to stagnate because of the labour shortage growing rapidly again, the POWs were intended to be deployed in the Reich and were cockered up by feeding them increased food rations, as they said in the administrative language. Due to the maltreatment also in the Reich and very hard work especially in the defence and in the mining industry, which had to be carried out by Soviet POWs from then on, a further 1.3 million soldiers lost their lives.

"Workers from the East"

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People attending an informative session in the occupied Eastern Territories about a deployment in Germany, July 1943

Source: Federal Archives, Bild 183-J10842; Potograph: Kurrasch

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Although the cachexia of Soviet POWs in the first months of the Russian campaign was deliberately not hidden from the civil population, the number of those who volunteered for a deployment in the Reich was surprisingly high at first. Many were fooled by the German propaganda, which led the foreign workers to believe in a comfortable life in Germany without any deprivations. At the same time food rations in the Eastern territories were reduced below the mere subsistence level so that hundreds of thousands were gradually starving to death in their fertile and cultivated home countries. Hence the transport into the Reich was even more attached to the hope of not only surviving but also supporting the relatives from a distance.

The first reports about the conditions at German work places and the sight of the first people taken back from Germany that were unable to work, made all kinds of euphoria evaporate very rapidly still during the first year of occupation. Anyway, the responsible German authorities had not only deemed the use of coersive measures necessary in the first place, but considered the use of which as appropriate.

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Transportation of female "Workers from the East" to the station, June 1942

Source: Federal Archives, Bild 183-B25444; Photograph: Rabenberger

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The obligation of all residents of the occupied Eastern territories, to do labour for the occupying forces, took place in December 1941 through an enactment of the Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, Alfred Rosenberg, which affected any males up to the age of 65 and females between 15 and 45 years. As a result, the local authorities were imposed with “manpower supply contingents“ and local office holders were engaged to recruit people accordingly. In order to support the recruitment, the German occupying forces kept interfering with acts of terrorism more frequently. To meet the imposed contingents, passers-by and people attending celebrations or church services were seized in broad daylight and taken to assembly centres. Communities, that did not comply with the recruitment orders were facing draconian punishments, which could lead to burning down entire villages.

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Young Ukrainian women at Kiew main station are being allocated to boxwagons heading for Germany, 1942

Source: Federal Archives, Bild 183-R70660

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Additionally, in summer 1942 a compulsory service lasting two years was introduced in the Reich for all young people from Ukraine. Hardly equipped with the bare necessities, the recruited children, women and men were brought to transit camps in the Reich using freight trains, from where they were brought to the final deployment places and operations.

One of the biggest problems for the "Workers from the East" was the nutrition situation in the Reich, which was extremely bad in many cases. The quality of the food and the size of rations, which was partly made up of rubbish by 40 to 50 %, weakened the people so badly that soon sickness and cachexia left up to half of the deployed "Workers from the East" unable to work in many businesses and many businesses were on the verge of losing their efficiency. The businesses started complaining about the alarming conditions at the authorities. Months later the SD started taking these complaints seriously and pursued the situation which was subsequently confirmed and discussed at top level in the relevant ministries and offices for months without any significant changes of the situation.

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For propaganda purposes the businesses sat down attractive women at nicely decorated tables

Source: Federal Archives, Bild 183-J05126; Photograph: Schwahn

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Being at the lowest level in the foreigner hierarchy, the "Workers from the East" were accommodated in their own camps separate from the other foreign labourers. Their camps were initially fenced in with barbed wire.

Those "Workers from the East" who were deployed in German private households like numerous Polish girls were facing much better living conditions. They did not have to stay in camps but stayed in the home of their employers. Additionally, they received equal food rations as the German civil population to fit into the pattern of a German household without any signs of deficiency and cachexia.

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The "OST"-badge served identification and exclusion purposes of the "Workers from the East" and had to be attached to their clothes.

Source: DHM, Berlin, A 93/12

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Just like the Poles the "Workers from the East" were made recognizable on their appearance. They had to wear a blue rectangle with the inscription in white "OST" sewn onto the left chest side of their garment.

In the overall period of the war some 2.75 million "Workers from the East" were deployed in the Reich. The legal basis for their special treatment were the "Ostarbeiter decrees" of 20 February 1942.