The National Socialists regarded the population of Eastern Europe, if they were not to be killed or left for dead, as a reservoir of slave labor that would guarantee the Germans a higher standard of living. The Reichsführer SS, Heinrich Himmler, formulated this in unvarnished clarity in his infamous Posen speech from October 4, 1943: “Whether the other peoples live in prosperity or whether they die of hunger, that interests me only to the extent that we need them as slaves for our culture, otherwise it does not interest me. Whether 10,000 Russian women collapse from exhaustion during the construction of a tank ditch or not, that interests me only insofar as the tank ditch for Germany is completed.”1

As more and more German men had to go to the front to join the war effort, Nazi Germany needed more and more replacement workers to maintain the country’s war economy. Nazi Germany exploited a total of about 12 million people as civilian forced laborers, prisoners of war, and concentration camp inmates. Not only did leading National Socialists regard them as slaves, but many of those exploited also made this analogy. Their accounts speak of feeling as if they were on the slave market or in slavery. For example, one chapter in the famous Buchenwald Report, which was compiled by Eugen Kogon and nine other ex-prisoners in May 1945 from numerous prisoner interviews, was entitled “The SS Slave Trade.”

The Allies also saw clear similarities to slavery in 1945, when they freed the prisoners held in Germany, which is why slave labor became one of the charges at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. The prosecutors understood this to mean primarily the “slave labor program,” i.e., the deportation of millions of civilians to Germany for forced labor, rather than concentration camp forced labor. In the decades that followed, however, forced labor in the Federal Republic of Germany was trivialized as a common phenomenon of war. It was not until the 1980s that comprehensive historical work on these crimes began to emerge. In the negotiations for the compensation of former forced laborers in the early 2000s, the distinction between forced labor and slave labor was introduced. The category “slave labor” included forced labor in concentration camps, in labor education camps, and by Jews in occupied Eastern Europe.

This chapter examines the use of state-sponsored slave labor in Nazi Germany. In what follows, I will first use analytical categories to identify the forced labor relationships under German rule for which the term slave labor applies. The second part of the chapter is concerned with the conditions in the National Socialist concentration camps. It focuses on the different forms of entry into the concentration camps, the prisoner experiences with slave labor, and the possibilities for the exit. Since most forms of forced labor did not become a mass phenomenon until the beginning of World War II, the chapter covers primarily the period after 1939.

The Origins of Forced and Slave Labor in Nazi Germany

Terms and Practices

Starting from the three stages of the employment relationship: entry, exit, and working conditions2 and the important role played in the latter by Albert O. Hirschman’s concept of voice,3 Mark Spoerer and Jochen Fleischhacker proposed a division of forced laborers in the Reich into four groups. For the first three categories, the distinction is made primarily based on voice and exit; for the last, the chance of survival is the defining criterion. According to Spoerer and Fleischhacker, slave labor is characterized by the fact that there is neither an exit option nor the possibility to voice criticism (Table 34.1).4

Table 34.1 Main groups of foreign workers in Germany 1939–1945

I largely share the hierarchical positioning of the groups made here. Instead of less-than-slaves, however, I describe the category as slave labor with a high mortality rate, because there were also cases of extremely high mortality in “classical” slavery—e.g., on the Caribbean islands. The category less-than-slaves makes sense above all for those groups who were already murdered upon arrival in the extermination camps or, like the Sinti and Roma, who were held in a separate camp without being comprehensively used for forced labor before their planned extermination (Table 34.2).

Table 34.2 Rate of survival by type of labor

The mortality rate among the Italian military internees was about ten times higher than among the German population. It was even higher among Soviet prisoners of war. Here, however, the timeframe was of central importance. Mortality was exorbitantly high in 1941 and 1942, especially in the winter of 1941/1942, when Soviet prisoners of war were deliberately deprived of supplies. From the middle of 1942 onward, the mortality rate fell significantly because prisoners of war were increasingly needed as laborers, and their living conditions were improved for this purpose.

Mortality in the work education camps was consistently higher than in the civilian forced labor camps. However, it rarely reached such dramatic proportions as in the concentration camps. In the latter, mortality was consistently high throughout the second half of the war, reaching a peak from autumn 1942 to mid-1943 and then falling again from autumn 1944 until the end of the war. Even then, it remained much higher than in the civilian forced labor camps. In summary, mortality was highest in the concentration camps and lowest in the civilian forced labor camps and the prisoner-of-war camps (with the exception of the Soviet prisoners of war in 1941/42), while the work education camps represented an intermediate stage.

Before analyzing the situation in the concentration camps in detail, I briefly discuss the three most significant groups included under the two categories of slave labor: Polish and Soviet civilian forced laborers, Soviet prisoners of war, and prisoners in work education camps.5

Civilian Foreign Forced Laborers

The halt of the German offensive before Moscow at the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, and the subsequent shift to longer-term warfare constituted a key turning point in forced labor policy. At the beginning of 1942, some 2.1 million civilian foreign workers were deployed in Germany, while by the end of 1944 the figure had risen to 5.7 million. Above all, Sauckel’s appointment as Plenipotentiary General for the Use of Labor in March 1942 marks the transition from a recruitment policy still largely based on advertising and voluntarism—with the exception of Poland, where considerable pressure was exerted as early as 1940—to increasingly resorting to coercion. In addition, there was also a gradual shift from agriculture to industry and construction. Of the approximately 2.1 million civilian foreign workers at the beginning of 1942, about one million were of Polish origin. About three-quarters of them worked in agriculture, where they were usually housed individually with farmers rather than in camps. In the early war years, Western European civilian workers mostly lived in private flats. In Berlin, for example, about 120,000 of 250,000 civilian foreigners were housed in private quarters at the beginning of 1943. It was not until the summer of 1943 that compulsory camps were also decreed for Western European forced workers in the cities, but this was not fully implemented.

Due to the increasing number of Soviet forced laborers, and finally due to the housing shortage in the wake of the Allied bombing, most forced laborers were housed in camps. In contrast to the concentration or work education camps, differences in the treatment of Eastern and Western forced laborers remained of central importance in the labor camps until the end of the war. While Western European workers were able to dissolve the employment relationship and even voice criticism, the Eastern European forced laborers were given identification marks and subjected to a rigid racist special law. They had very little opportunity to complain about their working and accommodation conditions.6

Prisoners of War Camps

The use of prisoners of war also changed as the war progressed. Polish soldiers were the first prisoners of war to arrive in the German Reich. The vast majority, however, were transferred to civilian status after a few months and used mainly in agriculture. Only a small proportion of the French prisoners of war arriving in 1940 were released to civilian status, but they too worked mainly in agriculture; as late as August 1944, 60 percent of them were still employed in the agricultural sector. The organization of the prisoner-of-war system changed with the decision taken in the autumn of 1941 to bring Soviet prisoners of war into the Reich. In the camps with Soviet prisoners of war, there was an extremely high mortality rate in the winter of 1941–42. Only in the summer of 1942 did the situation begin to improve with the increase in food rations.

The prisoners of war were now increasingly assigned to forced labor in industry, mining, and construction. Of the Soviet prisoners of war, only 24 percent were working in agriculture in August 1944, but as many as 31 percent in industry and 25 percent in mining. In total, over 4.5 million prisoners of war had been brought to the Reich for work by the end of the war. While most prisoners of war enjoyed some protection under the 1929 Geneva Agreement on the Treatment of Prisoners of War and could be visited by the Red Cross, this did not apply to Soviet prisoners of war because the Soviet Union had not acceded to the agreement and Nazi Germany refused an offer from the Soviet Union in 1941 to treat prisoners of war from both sides in accordance with the agreement. While it was possible for almost all groups of prisoners of war to switch to civilian forced labor, this hardly applied to the group of Soviet prisoners of war.7

Work Education Camps (Arbeitserziehungslager)

The work education camps were located between forced labor camps and concentration camps as a place of repression. The first camps of this type were established in 1940–1941. They were intended both for the punishment of foreign civilian forced laborers and for disciplining German workers. A massive expansion of the work education camps took place in 1942 with the arrival of Soviet forced laborers. After that, the proportion of German workers among the inmates continued to decrease. Of the approximately 400,000 prisoners who passed through these camps in total, about two-thirds were civilian forced laborers from Poland and the Soviet Union. The admission was mainly on the initiative of factories; responsibility for the camps lay with the Secret State Police. The great advantage for the companies was that the period of imprisonment was limited to 56 days and that they were usually assured that the forced laborers would be returned to them, whereas workers were lost to the employer after being sent to a concentration camp. In addition, the factory management hoped that the encounter with the returned inmates of such work education camps, who were often starved and marked by beatings, would have a deterrent effect on the other forced laborers.

The main aim of the factories was to keep work performance constantly high through incarceration, to minimize absenteeism and slow work, and to nip any form of resistance in the bud. The inmates were also used for forced labor. Due to the high turnover, however, deployment in skilled industrial work was inconceivable, and particularly strenuous physical work in construction or other low-skilled work dominated. Due to the brutality and the high mortality rate, the classification of forced labor in work education camps as slave labor is obvious, but this situation was not permanent; instead, if the inmates did not die beforehand, there was an exit from this forced labor relationship after eight weeks at the latest, which is why the term slavery has little analytical use for the work education camps.8

The Nazi Concentration Camps and Slave Labor

Entry: The (Pseudo-)Legal Basis for Admission

The National Socialist dictatorship was a state of injustice. However, especially in its early phase, the regime tried to give its rule a legal appearance, which is why even the admission to concentration camps was regulated by laws, ordinances, and decrees. The early concentration camps were under the sovereignty of the Länder, which means there was a large number of more or less different legal regulations on admission to a concentration camp. Basically, two procedures can be distinguished: Schutzhaft (protective custody) and Vorbeugungshaft (preventive detention) authorized the executive to commit prisoners without a court ruling, while Sicherungsverwahrung (security detention) was ordered by the judiciary.

The procedure most commonly used for incarceration was the Schutzhaft. The basis for this was the “Ordinance for the Protection of the People and the State” (“Verordnung zum Schutz von Volk und Staat”), signed by Reich President Paul Hindenburg immediately after the burning of the Reichstag on February 28, 1933. The first article suspended several basic rights in order to enable the “defense against communist violence threatening the state.” All Schutzhaft orders were made with reference to this article. Schutzhaft violated the four internationally recognized basic principles of lawful deprivation of liberty. Firstly, it was carried out without a judicial order and, secondly, without the existence of a criminal offense. Thirdly, it did not allow the person concerned any legal remedy and fourthly, the period of detention was indefinite. Schutzhaft was the procedure by which primarily political opponents of National Socialism were sent to concentration camps, whereby the limitation to communist opponents in article 1 was circumvented, so that social democrats, trade unionists, or liberals were also subjected to it. There was also a tendency to extend the reach of the decree beyond political opponents, so that sometimes criminals (Berufsverbrecher) or beggars (Asoziale) were also taken into Schutzhaft. After the start of the war, Schuztzhaft was also the main mechanism through which foreigners were sent to concentration camps.

As early as 1933, Heinrich Himmler and other representatives of the police also sought to use the concentration camps for general social-racist prevention. Therefore, for the two groups of “professional criminals” and “asocials,” procedures of concentration camp incarceration other than Schutzhaft were increasingly developed. The most important executive procedure was Vorbeugungshaft, which was introduced by Prussian Prime Minister Hermann Göring in a decree on 13 November 1933. People could be taken into Vorbeugungshaft if they had several previous convictions, but no criminal offense could be proven in a court of law at that time.

However, there were also paths that ultimately led to the concentration camp via legal proceedings. Since 1934, the courts could impose Sicherungsverwahrung on people with several previous convictions, which went beyond the actual prison sentence. Initially, detention took place in regular correctional facilities. However, from the autumn of 1942 onward, the judiciary transferred most persons in Sicherungsverwahrung to a concentration camp, and from then onward newly convicted persons were sent directly to concentration camps. In addition, there was also the possibility to take welfare recipients into Arbeitshaft (labor detention) in order to force them to work. In Bavaria, the Dachau concentration camp was one of the places to deter welfare recipients. In contrast to the other procedures, however, this one included a time limit, usually between three months and three years.9

Camp Arrival and Initiation Rites

In the concentration camp system the dehumanization of the prisoners began right from the start with their capture and transport. Upon their arrival at the concentration camp, further steps were taken in this process. Often beatings were immediately administered to make it clear who were the masters over life and death. The prisoners were stripped of their own names to deprive them of an important element of self-identification. The SS gave the concentration camp prisoners numbers and in Auschwitz prisoners were branded with them.

The prisoners had to hand in their clothes and all personal belongings. Instead, they were given a blue and white striped concentration camp uniform. Toward the end of the war, when there was a shortage of uniform material, they were often allowed to keep their clothes, but these were marked with a bright yellow cross on the back. In addition, the prisoners were shorn on arrival and, as a rule, only a few functionary prisoners were allowed to let their hair grow.

In the concentration camps, prisoners were in principle not totally cut off from their families and social environment. At least in theory, most of them were allowed to exchange letters with their families. However, the letters had to be written in German, which meant that a large proportion of prisoners required help in writing their letters. Some prisoners were also allowed to receive parcels from their families or the Red Cross. During the war, German prisoners could even receive visitors in the camps if they had family members serving in the Wehrmacht.

In the camps, however, the SS tried with all its might to prevent the creation of new families by keeping men and women strictly segregated and by quickly killing any children born in the camps either through neglect or through the administration of direct violence by members of the SS.

Prisoner Experiences and Forms of Extraction of Slave Labor

The Evolution of Slave Labor in the Camps (1933–1945)

As early as 1933, the system of discipline and punishment established by Eicke at Dachau included compulsory labor for all inmates, a requirement that the SS would extend to all other concentration camps. In this regard, the literature is dominated by the idea that Eicke’s use of forced labor was mostly intended to torment the inmates. It was only in 1937, when full employment had largely been achieved in the Reich, that the SS was faced with demands to use the inmates not only for developing its own camps and workshops, but also for the benefit of the state. The SS responded by collaborating with Albert Speer, who had become head of the General Construction Inspectorate for the Reich Capital on 30 January 1937, under the orders of Hitler, with sole responsibility for redesigning Berlin.

On 29 April 1938, the German Earth and Stone Works, known by its German abbreviation, DESt, was founded by Arthur Ahrens and Dr. Walter Salpeter, who both had the SS rank of Sturmbannführer and would together play the role of official proprietors. However, the DESt was under the de facto control of Himmler and his chief administrator Oswald Pohl. Shortly after its founding, the DESt signed a contract with the General Construction Inspectorate on 30 June 1938, in which Speer guaranteed the purchase of 120 million bricks per year for ten years, for which the SS received an advance payment of 9.5 million Reichsmarks. After this, there was much hectic activity in the SS in order to start production of the construction materials. All plans were based on the exploitation of forced inmate labor.

The new concentration camps Mauthausen, Flossenbürg, and Neuengamme were erected next to quarries and brickyards. Work there was hard and heavy. Therefore, even though inmate labor had increased in economic value with the growth of SS business enterprises after 1938, this did nothing to improve the situation of inmates—in fact, quite the opposite. The SS extended working hours, and with the outbreak of war, concentration camps saw a continual growth in mortality rates.

As 1941 drew to a close, it became clear to the German leadership that arms production would have to be organized differently if there was to be any hope of winning the war. When the German offensive failed at the gates of Moscow in late 1941, it marked the definitive end of the Blitzkrieg strategy. As the new Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer was assigned the task of reorganization. In November 1941, the German military decided to revoke plans to release crucial workers from the army and have them return to their jobs in arms production, as the course of the war had rendered this idea obsolete; instead, even more soldiers would have to be recruited for frontline duty. This development also made it clear that the German arms industry would suffer from a serious labor shortage from then on.

To combat this shortage, Fritz Sauckel, the Gauleiter of Thuringia, was named general plenipotentiary for the employment of labor on March 21, 1942. Sauckel’s stated goal was to recruit large numbers of foreign workers for the German arms industry, as quickly as possible. His policies proved to be extremely successful for the German side. Sauckel reported that in the first eight months of his campaign, around 2.7 million workers had been acquired for the Reich.

At the concentration camps within the German Reich itself, the use of inmate labor saw little change until March 1942. It was only when Speer and Sauckel began to achieve results in their new duties that the SS perceived a threat to their continued control of the inmate population. Consequently, Himmler quickly moved to negotiate with Speer. Himmler’s offer was that companies could build manufacturing facilities inside the main concentration camps and use inmates for labor. As a result, large production plants were established in concentration camps, such as the Siemens plant in Ravensbrück.

However, industrial leaders and the German military found this arrangement unsatisfactory. They feared that the SS could gain control over the factories in the camps. Furthermore, the construction of new production plants proved burdensome. Industry would have preferred the opposite situation: instead of bringing the factory to the worker, bring the worker to the factory. In September 1942, Speer brought these proposals to Hitler, who then agreed.

Speer and Hitler’s agreement laid the groundwork for building a system of subcamps, as external branches of the main concentration camps. These new subcamps would now be established directly on business premises, or in the immediate vicinity of a workplace. Until late 1942, there existed roughly 80 subcamps. Just one year later, in late 1943, the SS had set up 186 subcamps throughout the entire area controlled by the Germans. However, it was not until supplies of civilian forced laborers from the occupied territories began to dwindle that forced labor using concentration camp prisoners gained sweeping importance for wartime efforts to complete large projects. In the spring of 1944, due to the retreat of the Wehrmacht from a number of occupied territories, Sauckel had to admit that only a small fraction of the number of forced laborers originally anticipated could be supplied. From the spring of 1944, this led to a rapid increase in the number of subcamps built. In June 1944, there were 341 camps; by January 1945, the number had grown to at least 662 subcamps, despite the considerably reduced amount of territory under German control. The rising number of subcamps was accompanied by a sharp increase in the number of inmates. The Concentration Camp Division of the Economics and Administrative Department of the SS (Amt D, WVHA) registered 110,000 prisoners in the late summer of 1942; by the summer of 1944, this number had grown to 524,826 detainees; and in January 1945, the camp population reached 714,211 prisoners, of which 202,674 were female. Following a brief registration in one of the main concentration camps, the majority of new arrivals were immediately transported to one of the many subcamps. As of late 1944, most of the prisoners—i.e., at least 60 percent, and closer to 80 percent within the Reich territory—were detained in subcamps, which were under the control of the main camps.

Since prisoner slave labor became especially important, more so in the second half of the war, the following section deals primarily with the conditions in the subcamps.10

The Terms and Conditions for the Establishment of a Subcamp

The procedure to erect a subcamp was that private companies or state enterprises submitted a request for inmate labor to the SS, and increasingly to the Ministry of Armaments as well. If this was approved, then the company had to build a camp that satisfied the security guidelines of the SS. After this was complete, the SS would then transfer inmates and a squad of guards to the camp. Supervision inside the camp was completely in the hands of the SS, and the company’s own personnel were generally not allowed to visit. In contrast, the workplace featured a supervision system with two or three layers. The SS guard detail secured the workplace and prevented escape attempts. The company’s civilian personnel directed and supervised the actual work. If they found that work was too slow or too careless, they could demand the inmate be punished by either an SS man or a functionary prisoner, also known as a Kapo. Sometimes this punishment would not be given until later, inside the camp, but often it was done immediately at the workplace. On some occasions, even civilian supervisors would commit the violence, although they were officially forbidden to do so.

For an unskilled male inmate or a female inmate, an employer had to pay four Reichsmarks per day to the SS, or in the final analysis, to the state. A skilled male inmate cost six Reichsmarks. Therefore, the cost to the employer was lower than that of a German worker or even a civilian forced laborer. However, this lower cost usually also meant much lower productivity from a camp inmate, so that it was only in some cases of good productivity that businesses could expect superior profits from inmate labor. If they had a choice, businesses generally preferred to take German workers or foreign civilian laborers. Therefore, businesses took an interest in camp labor mostly when it was uncertain if other laborers could be found for a particular project. In 1942–43, this applied in particular to any production project that was not essential to arms production. However, after the Ministry of Armaments changed policy in 1943, requests for camp inmates were approved only for projects relating to arms production.

A Comparative Look at Slave Labor: Costs, Incentives, and Mechanization

Wolfgang Sofsky argued that the work in the concentration camps was not slave labor but terror labor. Sofsky defined this as work that is ineffective per se, does not preserve the value of labor power but wastes it: “Violence is not a means for labor, labor is a means of violence.”11 However, this did not apply to the work in many subcamps. Most of the work performed took place in war and armament-related missions and work was far more important in the daily operation of the subcamps than terror. Violence here was primarily involved in the organization of work. Nor is it true that the slave labor of the prisoners was always ineffective. Ulrich Herbert’s and Karin Orth’s assertion that the productivity of prisoners was no more than 15 percent of that of a German worker12 can be considered refuted. Mark Spoerer has already shown that this was between 30 and 70 percent.13 My own research shows that the productivity was in some cases even higher. I therefore argue that the labor system in the subcamps can be much more accurately described as slave labor than as terror labor.14

Of particular importance is that the companies did not pay the concentration camp prisoners any wages, and thus there was no incentive to increase work performance. However, as in many other historical cases of slavery, a bonus system was introduced, which was supposed to be a wage-like incentive, but without making it permanent. The central difference compared to the Atlantic slave system in the United States or the Caribbean was that the concentration camp prisoners were not the property of the entrepreneurs, but prisoners of a state institution. The state lent out the prisoners for a rental fee, which meant that the logic of action and calculation for the beneficiaries of slave labor was different from that of the historical plantation economy. The slave owner of the Caribbean plantation system paid a one-time and comparatively high purchase fee for a slave, and then only the cost of reproduction. Because of the purchase price, the slave had to survive for several years in order to become profitable. Within this framework, however, there were different possibilities. The tendency on the sugar plantations in the Caribbean was maximum exploitation, which is why slaves usually died after six to ten years, and sometimes even faster; while on the tobacco, sugar, and above all cotton plantations in the South, due to a different organization of work longer life spans for slaves were common, often only slightly below the life expectancy of the free, white citizens in the United States.

In the case of the concentration camp prisoners, the main advance payment by the companies or authorities was not a purchase price, but the establishment of a camp. In some cases, this entailed greater costs, which required the continued use of prisoners to pay off. However, this cost compensation was not linked to an individual prisoner, but to the deployment as a whole. Since dead prisoners were usually replaced by the SS, the death of a prisoner was not related to the costs of camp construction. The principle of a daily rental fee instead of a labor hourly rental fee was designed to demand a high daily output from the prisoners. The daily rental fee for a male auxiliary laborer from the concentration camp was four Reichsmarks, and the hour of labor cost 0.50 Reichsmaks for an eight-hour working day and 0.33 Reichsmarks for a twelve-hour working day. This meant that a concentration camp inmate still worked more cheaply for a twelve-hour working day than for an eight-hour day, if he only worked 70 percent of the eight-hour day. The choice of the daily rental fee method was thus an incentive from the outset to exploit the prisoners’ labor as much as possible each day. From the point of view of the companies, the wear and tear of prisoners was irrelevant for their cost and profit calculations as long as they did not possess special skills that only a few other prisoners could demonstrate. Only then was the death of a prisoner a direct disadvantage. These special skills were mainly knowledge that had already been incorporated in school, training, studies, and work.

These “kill and mistreatment” obstacles were much more common in production work than in construction work. In most construction work, especially in the tank trenching, rubble removal, and underground relocation commands, there were hardly any skilled jobs for prisoners. For most of the work, only physical strength was necessary; if this dwindled, the exchange of prisoners was advantageous because the new prisoners could be used immediately in the same position and hardly needed to be trained. In the production of commandos, however, it was more likely that the prisoners would perform better after a training period because the work required specialized knowledge and practice. The number of qualified skilled workers and technicians among the concentration camp prisoners was probably small overall. It is estimated that of the 120,000 to 150,000 concentration camp prisoners who were employed in the armaments industry in 1944, probably 5 percent, but at most 10 percent, were skilled workers.15

The proportion of skilled workers among the dead in the subcamps was by no means small, which clearly shows that skilled worker status alone did not protect against death within the concentration camp system. Assignment to a subcamp in which production required a high technical level was in fact not exclusively to the advantage of the prisoners. In tendency, a higher technical level did not mean a higher qualification expectation for all workers, but a sharper differentiation between jobs. Highly skilled knowledge undoubtedly brought prisoners a considerable increase in their own value to the entrepreneur and incentives for better work and treatment. However, even in production there were many simple jobs that required lower skills and above all the use of physical strength. In those cases, the value of the prisoner to the entrepreneur remained similarly low as it was for the unskilled prisoner in construction work. The central advantage of employment in production was then reduced to the roof over one’s head and the partially heated rooms. But for many production prisoners this was also only partly the case. For example, much of the work in the shipyards took place outdoors.

It should be emphasized that the under-technification of the prisoners’ work that can be seen in some places was not solely due to the malice of companies or the SS or to a targeted “extermination through labor,” but was rooted in the nature of slave labor. Since the entrepreneur who exploited the labor power for his own purposes was not vulnerable to the prisoners because of the guards, his property was the central target of attack for the slave laborers. For this reason, in the case of slave labor, companies tried, as far as this was possible and justifiable in the labor process, to use equipment that was particularly difficult to destroy. However, it is misleading to speak of a general under-technification of slave labor in the subcamps. Some of the jobs were in the highly mechanized armament production. Many of the construction sites where concentration camp prisoners worked were also anything but under-engineered. When Sofsky claims, for example, that the construction work could have been carried out more quickly by excavators than prisoners, etc., this is true of the construction work in the main camps, some of which was nonsensical and some of which was under-engineered because the SS wanted to save money.

For the subcamps in large construction projects, this is wrong. According to an engineer, the gigantic construction site at the Valentin submarine bunker was one of the most technically equipped construction sites of the time. The time pressure in the construction of most armament projects was so immense in the subcamps that prisoners were not harassed with tasks that could be done much faster elsewhere, but were assigned work which German construction workers had done before the war.

Forms of Violence

As a rule, the slave labor of concentration camp prisoners was at the center of life in the satellite camps. Since they received no wages for their work, they usually had no interest in increasing their workload. Rather, it was in the prisoners’ interest to disrupt production—as far as possible—and thus harm the employers who exploited them. In addition, due to insufficient supplies, they were dependent on working as slowly as possible in order to have any chance of survival. Prisoners were often interested in the work process at the beginning of slave labor, because it could sometimes give them back a sense of dignity through the use of their own skills. This feeling quickly disappeared as the struggle for survival set in. The increasing disinterest of the prisoners in the production process could not be changed by the bonuses introduced in 1943 to reward work performance. Thus, the beneficiaries of slave labor had only the means of threatening and using violence if they wanted to increase the prisoners’ labor productivity.

However, since there no longer were enough SS men to guard the prisoners, and extensive supervision by the companies would have been too expensive, functionary prisoners were tasked with driving the other prisoners to work. The prisoner commandos used in production tended to develop a comparatively regulated system of punishment for working too slowly in the eyes of the supervisors, which was halfway predictable for the prisoners. Either they were beaten directly on the work site with fists and tools by Kapos and civilian foremen, or they were punished in the camp following a report by civilian foremen. The level of violence here was comparatively constant, and excessive beating of prisoners that resulted in admission to the infirmary was rather the exception. Even more frightening for the prisoners in the production commandos, and in some cases also in the construction commandos, was the threat that sabotage would be punished by death. There is evidence in several cases that prisoners were constantly threatened by company employees that they would be reported for sabotage.

In the case of slave labor in most construction commandos, the violent situation was usually more explosive. Since the prisoners here often had to do heavy carrying work, which they were hardly capable of doing due to their physical constitution, work performance was often extracted from prisoners by force. It was not uncommon for the Kapos to accompany the prisoners while they carried heavy loads and beat them indiscriminately. The situation had a high potential for escalation: if a prisoner fell out of line with the porters, he was often kicked and not infrequently beaten to death. The most common official punishment in the concentration camp was public flogging with the whip. The SS resorted to the central instrument of beatings that reflected the difference between freemen and slaves since ancient times.

If the prisoner was completely absent for a fortnight after the regular punishment and was probably able to work for another two weeks at half strength, this can hardly have been in the interest of the exploiters of slave labor. However, it should also be noted that the SS did not mistreat dozens of prisoners in this way every day in the majority of the subcamps and that, due to the form of slave labor, the prisoners could also only be driven to work under the threat and exemplary enforcement of violence. Exemplary punishment was therefore only irrational to a limited extent; it was in fact necessary for the maintenance of the social system of slave labor.16

The Inmate Society

Until 1940–41, concentration camps inside the German Reich had an inmate population that was mostly German. This changed very quickly, so that by the end of the war, Germans made up less than one quarter of the population in every major camp. At the end of the war, the two largest nationalities at concentration camps within the German Reich were the Soviets and the Poles. The third-largest nationality was often the French. The Jewish populations of Auschwitz and Majdanek began to quickly rise in 1942, until they eventually became the largest inmate group at these camps. It was not until the summer of 1944 that camps within the German Reich began receiving Jewish inmates, but then in great numbers, especially females. By early 1945, nearly 30 percent of the inmates were female, and the majority of them were classified as Jewish. From the SS viewpoint, there was a racial hierarchy among inmates, with Eastern Europeans, especially Jews, at the lowest end.

Since the beginning of the war the situation had become so bad that for most inmates, food rations were insufficient for continued survival. Even if one could avoid the violence of the guards, simple existence still meant a constant struggle between life and death. Therefore, the life of most inmates was mainly focused on just surviving to the next day. This involved paying close attention to food distribution and trying to get extra food during the course of the day.

In terms of work, the goal was to avoid wasting any physical energy. Most inmates considered the Nazi system or the German people to be the enemy, and thus had no interest in increasing productivity—on the contrary, they would rather sabotage German war production. This was very risky because of the threat of capital punishment. Inmate rebellions were nearly out of the question, given the overwhelming firepower and violent tendencies of the guards. Only Auschwitz experienced an inmate rebellion, but this was at the camp’s extermination section, in the face of certain death. There were also isolated incidents of smaller collective protests. Resistance by male inmates was handled with particular brutality.

The SS was always concerned about potential rebellions among male inmates, so attempts were made to play different nationalities off against each other, for example by assigning Kapo positions to a particular nationality. Extra care was taken to avoid establishing subcamps with homogenous nationalities, so the SS tried to achieve maximum possible diversity when assembling work units. According to eyewitness reports from many different camps, the SS often succeeded in creating animosity between groups of inmates. This was further aggravated by the shortage of supplies, which made the survival of one group dependent on competing with other groups for food.17

The SS systematically tried to undermine the development of solidarity among the prisoners. This was by no means universally successful, but the harsh conditions on the verge of subsistence severely limited the possibilities for solidarity. In the words of the former Auschwitz prisoner and later sociologist Anna Pawelczynska: “The slave deprived of all rights can afford neither aristocratic manners nor the customs and traditions cultivated in other social classes.”18

The Perpetrators

While some of the early camps of 1933 also had guards from the SA and the Gestapo, it was not long before the SS assumed exclusive responsibility for guarding concentration camps. Under the supervision of Theodor Eicke, SS camp personnel were taught that inmates were political enemies and should be persecuted as such. It was only in 1942 that the directives of the SS leadership began to reflect a greater emphasis on exploiting labor. From then on, everyday life in the camp was to become more efficient by reducing unnecessary harshness and exploiting inmate labor to the maximum possible extent.

The constant rise in camp populations led to an increased demand for guard personnel. In the early phase of the war, the SS was able to meet this demand by recruiting ethnic Germans from outside the Reich itself. However, by 1944 there was a major shortage of suitable personnel, made worse when some of the more experienced guard squads were commandeered for frontline warfare. Since inmate labor was also used for important military production, the SS finally convinced the military to help with its staffing shortage. The German military agreed to supplement the camp guards with soldiers who could no longer serve on the frontline. By the end of the war, over half of the camp guards were relocated soldiers. In addition, when inmates began working on municipal projects in the autumn of 1944, guard duty was also covered by government workers. For subcamps with female inmates, the SS either recruited female overseers from the employment office or used the company’s own female employees, putting them on guard duty after a quick training session.

This meant that guards who supervised inmate labor in 1944–45 were quite different from those who came before. During the early phases of the war, camp guards were a relatively homogenous group with years of ideological training; in contrast, later guards were much more diverse. At many subcamps, less than 10 percent of the guards were experienced SS men, and in many cases, there were only one or two of them. Most of the new guards may have exercised violence during their military days on the frontline, but only a few were experienced in harassing and terrorizing the unarmed. This is why many inmates later reported that when the new guards arrived in the camps, there was often an initial reduction in physical violence, although there were also soldiers who quickly adopted the brutal practices of the SS.

Toward the war’s end, conditions in the concentration camps had become much worse because of supply shortages, overcrowding, hard labor, and cold weather, which meant that in most cases, direct acts of violence were no longer the main cause of death. In order to counteract the high inmate mortality rates, active efforts would have been necessary, and not just the cessation of violence that was seen among at least some ex-soldiers, and even among certain SS men. However, hardly any soldiers were prepared to take active measures. Instead, in the few available reports describing the behavior of individual soldiers toward inmates, their attitudes ranged from widespread indifference to hatred and contempt. Therefore, the deployment of soldiers in the camps generally improved little for the inmates; instead, as the overall situation became worse, so did the situation inside the camps.19


According to Nikolaus Wachsmann, between 150,000 and 200,000 people were subjected to temporary detention without trial in 1933. By 1935, there were only five concentration camps left, with around 4000 inmates. While release was the norm in the concentration camps until 1935, it happened only rarely thereafter. In Mauthausen, slightly more than 3500 male and just over 700 female prisoners were released between 1938 and 1945, most of them in the last two years of the war through initiatives of the Red Cross. In total, the SS thus released about 2 percent of the approximately 190,000 prisoners who passed through the Mauthausen concentration camp, while about 90,000 did not live to see the end of the war. Release from the concentration camp, like the Schutzhaft, which did not require justification, was an expression of the unrestricted power of the SS and Gestapo. Those released continued to be monitored by the Gestapo and subordinate regional and local police units. Some releases from the concentration camps only led to a new imprisonment or that the released were sent to the punishment units of the Wehrmacht, in which many former prisoners died in frontline service.20 Especially compared to the Soviet Gulag system, escaping from a Nazi concentration camp was extremely difficult. Accordingly, escapes played an even smaller role in terms of numbers than releases.


  1. 1.

    Speech by Heinrich Himmler on the occasion of the SS Group Leader meeting in Posen, 4 October 1943, Nuremberg Document 1919-PS, in International Military Tribunal, vol. XXIX (Nuremberg: 1948), 123.

  2. 2.

    Marcel van der Linden, “Dissecting Coerced Labor,” in On Coerced Labor. Work and Compulsion after Chattel Slavery, eds. Marcel van der Linden and Magaly Rodríguez García (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 293–322.

  3. 3.

    Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970).

  4. 4.

    Mark Spoerer and Jochen Fleischhacker, “Forced Laborers in Nazi Germany: Categories, Numbers, and Survivors,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 33, no. 2 (2002): 169–204.

  5. 5.

    Mark Spoerer, Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz: Ausländische Zivilarbeiter, Krigsgefangene und Häftlinge im Deutschen Reich und im besetzten Europa, 1939–1945 (Stuttgart: DVA, 2001), 227–231.

  6. 6.

    Ulrich Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997); Alexander von Plato, Almut Leh, and Christoh Thonfeld, eds., Hitler’s Slaves: Life Stories of Forced Labourers in Nazi-Occupied Europe (Oxford: Berghahn, 2010); Spoerer, Zwangsarbeit.

  7. 7.

    Christian Streit, Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmacht und die Sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen, 1941–1945 (Bonn: J.H.W. Dietz, 1991); Reinhard Otto, Rolf Keller, and Jens Nagel, “Sowjetische Kriegsgefangene in deutschem Gewahrsam 1941–1945: Zahlen und Dimensionen,” Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte 56, no. 4 (2008): 557–602.

  8. 8.

    Gabriele Lotfi, KZ der Gestapo. Arbeitserziehungslager im Dritten Reich (Stuttgart: DVA, 2000).

  9. 9.

    Julia Hörath, “Asoziale” und “Berufsverbrecher” in den Konzentrationslagern 1933 bis 1938 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017), 89–142. On Sicherungsverwahrung, see also Nikolaus Wachsmann, “‘Annihilation through labor’: the killing of state prisoners in the Third Reich,” Journal of Modern History 71, no. 3 (1999): 624–659.

  10. 10.

    Marc Buggeln, Slave Labor in Nazi Concentration Camps (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 10–65; Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), 392–496.

  11. 11.

    Wolfgang Sofsky, The Order of Terror: The Concentration Camp (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 172.

  12. 12.

    Karin Orth, Das System der nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager: Eine politische Organisationsgeschichte (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1999), 241.

  13. 13.

    Spoerer, Zwangsarbeit, 186.

  14. 14.

    Buggeln, Slave Labor, 26, 125–127, 132–135.

  15. 15.

    Buggeln, Slave Labor, 92f.

  16. 16.

    Buggeln, Slave Labor, 195–212.

  17. 17.

    Buggeln, Slave Labor, 140–191; Wachsmann, KL, 497–541.

  18. 18.

    Anna Pawelczynska, Werte gegen Gewalt: Betrachtungen einer Soziologin über Auschwitz (Oświęcim: Verlag Des Staatlichen Museums Auschwitz-Birkenau, 2001), 233.

  19. 19.

    Buggeln, Slave Labor, 213–250; Wachsmann, KL, 100–117; Karin Orth, Die Konzentrationslager-SS: Sozialstrukturelle Analysen und biographische Studien (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2000); Stefan Hördler, Ordnung und Inferno: Das KZ-System im letzten Kriegsjahr (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2015).

  20. 20.

    Wachsmann, KL, 23–78; Rainer Müller, “Entlassungen aus den Konzentrationslagern am Beispiel des KL Mauthausen,” BA thesis, University of Vienna, 2014.