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Empire and Weimar Republic

Foreign Work Force under National Socialism

After the War: Displaced and Repatriated Persons

Industrialisation up to World War I

Due to the industrialisation more and more young people left their home towns in the Eastern farmlands of Prussia in the middle of the 19th century. Hence the lack of farm workers led to an increasing number of seasonal workers from Poland - which was then part of the Russian tsardom - who had come to Prussia since the 1860s. The pay which was low in comparison to what German workers earned, was nevertheless lucrative for the Polish workers. So their employment on the estate of big landowners east of the river Elbe was mutually beneficial.

The employment of foreign manpower was from now on a common sight in Prussian agriculture on the Oder and Weichsel. Polish workers were frequently badly treated and discriminated in many ways, a fact that arose from the perception of Slavs being second class citizens. Consequently, National Socialism was able to rely on the already existing prejudices against Slavs and Jews. Racist reasons and the fear of foreigners in face of the large number of foreign farm workers were fueling the fear of a gradual infiltration of German territory by Polish residents, a “polonization“. The government tried to counteract this development by dictating Polish workers a "compulsory absence period" which forced them to return to their home country during the winter months, when they were not needed for farm work. Their settlement in Prussia was to be avoided by all means.

Had the working and living conditions become unbearable at one particular manor, the workers left the farmyard and looked for work elsewhere. As a consequence of accumulating incidents of violating employment contracts („Contract breaches“) a foreign seasonal worker needed as of 1908 a special right of unlimited residence, which was tied to a specific employer. ("Inlandslegitimationszwang").

Despite substantial deficiencies and discrimination in treating the Polish, they were still in Germany by choice. The most effective leverage was the threat of sending them back to their home country. In addition, their situation was meanwhile subject of heated debates in German society and raised tremendous outrage among the broad public. These disputes were also eagerly watched from abroad.

In the Western empire mainly foreign workers from the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria and Italy were employed whereby racist prejudice was much less significant. In 1907, the percentage of foreigners on the German job market was 4.1 %, which was equivalent to some 800,000 people.