|| Return to Education...ALegacy Forum ||


The Question of the Polish Forced Labourer during and in the Aftermath ofWorld War II: The Example of the Warthegau Forced Labourers

by Jeanne Dingell, dingell@zedat.fu-berlin.de
Copyright 1998, All Rights Reserved. Please contact the author if you have any questions.

The question of the Polish forced labourers, who were used by Germanindustry in the Second World War, is, in view of the political changes inEastern Europe, an urgent challenge for historians and lawyers. While thisquestion was not ignored by the Allies following the war, it becameincreasingly unimportant in the wrangle between the Super Powers forGermany and in the wake of the Cold War.

In Post War Germany and in the West, the question of the compensation andrehabilitation of these "displaced persons" became less and less importantas the threat in the East became more real. The successful integration ofthe Federal Republic of Germany into the West was of prime interest to theUnited States and its Allied Partners in the early Fifties. KonradAdenauer, in his capacity as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of theFederal Republic of Germany, was able to persuade the Western Allies andGermany's creditors responsible for the Federal Republic'sreparations-debts at the Paris Conference on the German War Debt of l951that Germany's compensation and reparation commitments must be held to aminimum.

In order to prevent a repetition of the German reparations-disaster of theTwenties and Thirties, and to ensure the successful integration of theFederal Republic into the West, certain restraining measures had to betaken in order to secure the financial stability of the emerging newcountry. Certain groups of Nazi-victims were to be excluded from directcompensation through the German Government. At best, these victims couldhope for some sort of compensation through the German reparations paymentsto their home country. In the case of the Poles, this was to take placethrough the Germans reparations to the Soviet Union, as agreed upon at thePotsdam Agreements of l945.

Neither the Polish (non-jewish as well as Jewish) forced labourers ofWorld War II, nor any of the other numerous victims of Nazi War Crimes inPoland received any sort of adequate compensation through thesereparations agreements. There are a number of reasons for this, not theleast of which is that Poland never received any sort of reparationpayments as such: The Soviet Union arranged to share their part of theGerman reparation payments with Poland through a complicated system oftrade and exchange payments. The truth of the matter is that the PolishNation never received any concrete reparations payments and thatindividual victims of Nazi terror never received any sort of realcompensation for the injustice that was done to them. The only exceptionto this rule is the case of the Polish victims of Dr. Mengele'spseudo-medical experiments. This group of victims is entitled throughseparate agreements to a pension through the German Government.

The question of Polish forced labourers in World War II is a questionwhich continues to nag at the German conscience and will probably remainthe basis for a hopeless fight for justice on the part of these victims ofNazi-terror who still live.

The group of Polish forced labourers with which I am familiar with comefrom the "Gau Wartheland", one of four administrative districts which theNazis cut out of the part of Western Poland which they annected in l939.The "Warthegau", as many Nazis referred to this district, was a Nazicreation with little or no bearing on the historical realities of theregion. It was to become an experimental laboratory, where theeconomic, cultural and social supremacy of the German people wouldinevitably lead to the extermination of all other indigenous peoples inthe region (most Poles and all Jews).

In a complicated system of burocratically determined ethniticity,"Volksdeutsche" (Germans by descent, but not by citizenship) were to besegregated from the rest of the population. Jews were to be crowded intolocal and then consolidated regional gettos. Following the WannseeConference (January 20, l942), the Nazis planned the industrial murder ofthese and all other European Jews en masse. The Poles were to be used asan inexhaustible source of slave labour for the colonisation of this andother regions of Poland and were then to be eventually exterminated.Germans from all parts of Eastern and Western Europe were to be brought into take their place in the biggest colonisation project ever planned inEurope.

In the case of the "Warthegau", the governor in charge (Artur Greiser) wasfaced with an extreme dilemma as to what to do with the Polish population.On the one hand, it was not only official Nazi dogma that this "Warthegau"was to become "German", but his own personal goal that this district wasto become ethnically "German", and, if possible, in the course of thewar. On the other hand, the Poles were a necessary part of the daily workforce. They were necessary in the normal civilian production and theywere a necessary element in the Nazi colonisation projects throughout the"Warthegau". (This included many different kinds of infrastructureimprovement projects: pavement and building of roads, construction ofadministrative buildings, park planning and improvement, water works andcanalisation, rerouting of rivers, etc.) In addition, there was anincreasing tendency throughout the war for the German industrialists toset up armaments factories in this and other "annected" parts of Europe.It was thought, and to some extent rightly so, that the Allies would beless likely to bomb factories in this region. Poles were a necessary partof this war production work force, especially after the advent of theEastern Front in the Summer of l94l and the German Declaration of Waragainst the United States on the llth of December l94l..

As I have already mentioned, Governor Greiser was faced throughout thecourse of World War II with an essential dilemma: On the one hand hewanted to rid his district of unwanted Poles, in order to realise his goalof a purely "German Warthegau". On the other hand he needed thesepeople in order to keep the economy on its feet. He, the bureaucratsunder him and the local firms who needed these Polish workers, were evenforced l942-43 to compete with firms in the "Altreich" (Germany in itsborders from l937) for these workers.

While more than 360,000 Poles from this "Warthegau" were deported to otherparts of Germany to do forced labour, many more Poles were made to doforced labour in their home country during World War II. How many is aquestion of definition: Who is a forced labourer in a war situation? Areall native workers in an occupied country "forced labourers"? Or are onlythose who are deported "forced labourers"? How does one define thisconcept? And how can one define this concept and still do justice to thevictims of these horrendous crimes to humanity without overreaching thebounds of common sense? A reasonable educated guess is that somewherearound l to l l/2 Million Poles in this "Warthegau", above and beyondthose who were deported, were engaged in some sort of forced labour inthe course of the war. (The pre-war population in the region that becamethe "Warthegau" was around 4 Million.)

In the Nurnberger Trials against the 25 chief Nazi War Criminals , theprosecution emphasized that the deportation and use of "Fremdarbeiter"(foreign workers) in the "Reichskriegeinsatz" (Nazi Work Programm) was aviolation of International Law, in particular of the Hague Agreementsconcerning Land Warfare from l907. While the prosecution, in their caseagainst the defendants' crimes against humanity, never tried to spare theNazi War Criminals of their responsibility for the deportation and slaveryof foreign workers, they were forced in the absence of a better legalbasis to base their case on the said Agreements from the Hague. Articles46 and 52 of the fourth Hague Agreements gave them the chance to presentthe "Reichskriegseinsatz" as an infringement of the occupying army againstthe rights of the domestic population. The prosecution interpreted theAgreements from the Hague as following: The occupying army, in this casethe Wehrmacht, had a right to require civilians in the occupied lands (butonly against proper payment for services provided) to provide provisionsfor the occupying troops. Under no circumstances were German authoritiesentitled to deport civilians to the éAltreich‚ (Germany in it's bordersfrom l937) and require them to work in order to help the war effort on theGerman home front and against their native countries.

The real situation in which these ex-forced labourers found themselveswas, however, not rendered in the interpretation and representation of theprosecution. While the hierarchy of the "Fremdvolkischen" (foreignpeoples) and the living conditions of the imprisoned workers - plenty ofphotos were presented the court as evidence - were aptly described, thecharges which were made in Nurnberg don't come close to doing justice tothe plight of these victims of Nazi treachery. These people, the"P-Arbeiter" (Polish Workers) and the Russian "Ostarbeiter" (Easternworkers) were, despite the fact that they were legal alien workers in theGerman Reich, paid taxes, social security, health insurance dues and otherdisriminatory "Sonderabgaben" (special taxes for racially discriminatedpeoples in the Third Reich), under no circumstances normal workers, butrather inhumanly treated slaves. They were given the chance to livethrough doing work for the Third Reich. They received daily rations of onthe average 600-800 Kcal. The fare was representative for concentrationcamps in the Third Reich: substitute coffee once daily, a watery soupwith little or no meat, 750 Grams of black bread every three days. Andthe German authorities and industrialists responsible for this tragedyexpected their slaves to work 6-7 days a week, l0-l2 hours daily.

Depending on the size of the German firm which employed these inmates ofthe German industry, their treatment varied. In general, though, thelarger the firm, the worse the treatment. The "Arado" - FlugzeugwerkeGmbH Out-Placement Works in Rathenow on the Havel river near Berlin, forexample, were nothing less than a concentration camp. The some l0,000workers in this armament factory had to deal with not only hunger,overwork and the loss of any sort of private sphere, but also with thespectrum of typical concentration camp diseases: typhoid fever,tuberculosis and diphtheria. The greater the level of rationalisation,the more important it was for the workers to stay "healthy" and remain attheir work place. Sickness and failure to work meant a break in the chainof production for the employing firm. For forced workers this meantrisking being replaced, handed over to the SS and at worse beingexterminated.

Following the war, the chance of these forced labourers from the Eastreceiving a just compensation were not good. In particular, the eventsand decisions surrounding the "German Question" made it difficult tospeculate as to whether there would ever again be the necessarygeopolitical conditions necessary to approach the question of thecompensation of the forced labourers:

Even before the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht on the8./9. May l945 in Karlshorst near Berlin, Stalin had made his claims toEastern Europe clear: The Soviet war booty was to be not only thesovereignty over all lands east of the border set by the secret protocolto the Hitler-Stalin Pact (August 23, l939) regarding the borders of theThird Reich and the Soviet Union, but also the betrayal of Poland and therest of the lands east of of the Soviet Zone of Occupation in Germany.The negotiations of the "Big Three" in Jalta (February 4-ll, 1945) and inPotsdam (July l7- August 2, l945) were the realisation of Stalin's goals:The recognition of the Curzon Line as the eastern border of Poland, aswell as the division of Germany in Zones of Occupation were set down inthe "Declaration of Freed Europe".

Shrewd observers of the time knew precisely how to interpret thesehistorical events: The Division of Germany could only mean the Divisionof Europe. Millions of people were to be left to their fate under theStalinists. The basis of an economic and political dictatorship wascreated beyond the West German border. Out of the ashes of the SecondWorld War arose two Super Powers: One of which, the Soviet Union, was totake the lead of the socialist dictatorships. The western occupationZones of Germany and Austria were to return to the cradle of Capitalism.Their leaders were to be formed through "Reeducation", Lucky Strikes, U.S.Dollars, open markets and American troups.

The forced labourers about whom this paper is about, returned to life inthis divided world. Physically at ends, most of them without any sort ofcontact to their immediate families, in a foreign land and at the mercy ofrelief organisations, wanted for the most part only to go home. This homewas, unfortunately, only a thing of the past and for many of them wouldonly be a reality in their everlasting homesickness. Many of them werestill children, when the Nazis deported them to the "Altreich". Aftertheir liberation from the work camps, they were looked after appropriatelyfor the first time in the Allied camps which were set up for them afterthe war. The official Allied policy in regards to these physically andpsychologically damaged victims of Nazi terror, was that they were to betreated for the worst of the abuse to their persons and then be sent"home". These displaced persons were expected to take up with their liveswhere they left off.

Many of them returned to their previous homeland. Many returned on foot,others with special trains and still others were at the time of theirliberation already at home, as they were enslaved in their home country.Many of these displaced persons, however, were more than aware of thepolitical and economic changes that were taking place in Eastern andCentral Europe after the signing of the Potsdam Agreements from August 2,l945 and used their "displacement" as an opportunity to emigrate. Inparticular the generation of Poles and other Central Europeans, whoreceived their socialisation before the war, were more than aware of thedanger in returning to their home country.

Decision-makers and the press in pre-war Poland were more than aware ofthe hegemonial threat that the Soviet Union for Poland represented: Forthis reason, the Pilsudski-Government signed a non-agression Treaty withNazi-Germany l934. This treaty, otherwise so inappropriate in the pre-warpolicies of Poland, expressed the great fear which the generation ofPost-Versailles Poland had of Soviet-Russia and their French alliance.

Many of the ex-forced labourers decided to stay in Germany. Some 60,000of them remained in post-war Germany. In addition, many of thesedisplaced persons emigrated from Europe after their liberation. The U.S.Government, for example, well aware of the political changes which weretaking place in Europe, kept the immediate post-war policy regardingquotas of immigrants from Eastern Europe at their pre-war level, even ifthis wasn't representative among the different immigrating nations in theUS quota system. The limit for Eastern Europe was set at 20,000immigrants per year from the respective leading emigration countries.Nonetheless, this solution was a difficult one, as the demand to immigratewas much greater than the number spaces available. In particular, familymembers, who were of age, were not automatically guaranteed the right toaccompany these immigrants.

The efforts of the many Eastern and Central European exile organisationsin the U.S. and other immigration-countries could only ease thedifficulties these people had in integrating themselves in their newsociety: During the war, they were forced to leave their homeland and goto work for a totalitarian regime. After their liberation, they wereoften incapable of finding themselves the right nitch in their newcountry. The obvious difficulties that most of them had with learning anew language was certainly nothing compared to the isolation which many ofthem must have felt in their immigration experience. Who can really say,what sort of psychological barriers these people had to cross, in order todeal with a new language and culture? What must have gone through theirheads, the first time they saw an American city or town? How difficultwas it for them to get their papers and lives in order?

Their immediate goals were certainly no different than those of otherpost-war consumers: a regular income, an apartment or a house, a car, thefirst television... For many of these ex-forced labourers, the work theydid for the Nazis was the only qualification they had to find a job. Evenafter the war, they were to be reminded of this dreadful war experience.

Many of these ex-forced labourers have since died. Often, the cause oftheir deaths is directly related to their work experience under the ThirdReich. This is, of course, not always as easy to prove as to suppose.And even if the damage to their person is determined and documented duringtheir lifetime, they are not entitled to any sort of compensation orindemnification by German law:

These non-Jewish displaced persons, who were forced labourers under theThird Reich are categorised by the German Authorities in the CompensationAgency (now the Referat V B of the Finance Ministry) as national or atbest political, and not as racially disriminated war victims. Inaddition, since they are foreigners who live outside of the German"Kulturkreis" ("cultural circle"), they are not entitled to a compensationor indemnification under German national law, but are rather expected toturn to their native countries, who have theoretically received reparationpayments following the war. In the case of Poland, this is especiallyquestionable, as Poland was theoretically granted reparations through theSoviet Union in the Potsdamer Agreements. For practical purposes,however, Poland received only goods and services from the Soviet Union,and at prices based on hard currency and not at the usual East Bloc"Transfer Ruble" prices.

An exception was made following the war for "NationalgeschÉdigte"("damaged nationals"), who couldn't return home after the war: Therequirement for this sort of indemnification, was that the person inquestion was a political refugee as defined in the Geneva Convention fromJuly 28, l95l. These persons had to have been war victims, who wereunable to return home on political grounds or because of the changingpolitical situation in Eastern Europe. This category of war victim wasto be indemnified by the German Government directly, because they couldnot otherwise request help from their native countries.

Many of the displaced persons, who would have otherwise qualified aspolitical refugees as defined by the Geneva Convention from l95l, had,however, in l953, at which point in time the "BundesentschÉdigungsgesetz"(BEG: the German "Federal Compensation Law") became effective, long sinceemigrated and taken on new citizenships. These ex-displaced persons wereno longer refugees, but rather had established new lives in new countries.

The rest of the "NationalgeschÉdigte", as I have already mentioned, wereto be compensated or indemnified through their home countries. Germanreparations were to be the basis of this compensation. The one exceptionto this policy, was, as I have already mentioned, Polish non-Jewishvictims of pseudo-medical experiments, of the sort which Mengele did.They were compensated l972, following Willy Brandt's visit to Poland,through a special fund set up by the German Government as officialsuccessor-state of the German Reich.

Some -- mostly Jewish or German -- ex-forced labourers received a minimalone-time "Hilfe" ("help") payment from the firm, for which they hadworked. In order to receive such an indemnification, they were requiredto waive all further claims for compensation from the firm in question andfrom the Federal Republic as the official successor-state of the GermanReich. For the most part, the ex-forced labourers who came in question,were concentration camp inmates in Auschwitz, who had not even received atoken wage for their slave labour. As German Citizens, this was aviolation of their civil rights. For the successor firms of IG Farben(among others: Hoechst, Agfa, BASF, Bayer Leverkusen and Dynamit Nobel),it was important to clear the way for their participation in therearmament of Germany in the framework of the NATO and the westernintegration of Germany. The IG Farben Auschwitz-works were undeniable.And following the case of Norbert Wollheim vs. the successor firms of IGFarben, they were forced to settle out of court for the some 4,000 victimswho came in question.

The rest of the ex-forced labourers, some l0-l2 Million victims of Naziterror, were, as I have already mentioned, expected to be compensated inthe framework of reparation payments, which were agreed upon in Potsdamand above all in the London Creditor Agreements of l95l. The successorstates of the German Reich, the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria,negotiated concrete reparation and compensation sums with the westernallies and their creditors, which they agreed to pay under specificconditions. The Londoner Agreements, were, in particular, a frameworkwhich the Federal Republic used to keep the "Wiedergutmachung" (warreparations, compensation, and indemnification payments) costs down.

In the wake of the London Agreements, the Peopleïs Republic of Polandannounced in l953 it's waiver of further claims of reparations from thesuccesor states of the German Reich. This was in accordance with theSoviet Union and the other East Bloc countries, and was a move designed toprotect the German Democratic Republic from being forced to fufill furtherreparations claims. (Up until then, reparations had been paid in kindthrough demontage.)

All Polish governments, including the socialist governments during theperiod of the "Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa", have never put the separateclaims of the individual ex-forced labourers in question! The PolishGovernment recognises the rights of the ex-forced labourers toindemnification for the work done with minimal or no pay, for pensionswhich are now due, as well as the compensation due these victims for thedeportation and abuse done to them by their persecutors.

The Federal Republic and the German firms in question have in the post-warperiod consistently refused to acknowledge these rights of the ex-forcedlabourers and use the Londoner Agreements and the BEG, which is based onthe terms of these agreements to justify their refusal. Should one of themany ex-forced labourers, who have taken this matter to a German court,win, it would mean a precedence for further such cases...an avalanche ofsuch cases would have to be expected, and this at a time when the FederalRepublic is beginning to drown in the unexpected costs of theReunification. Even if only half or one quarter of the l0-l2 Millionex-forced labourers still live, it would be very difficult for the FederalRepublic to satisfy all the claims that could be made.

Following the "Quiet Revolution" in Poland and thereafter in all otherEastern Bloc countries, the Polish and German Governments signed twofriendship treaties in l991 and held talks which were the basis of theborder agreements (preceeding the German Reunification) from l99l. It wasagreed among other things, that the German Government would finance afoundation with 500 Million DM paid over a 3 year period in 3 payments,which would "help" the Polish victims of Nazi terror who were stillliving. The foundation was not supposed to "compensate" these victims,but rather to "linder" the misery these people had to live with. For themost part these people receive a one-time payment of between 5 - l2Million Zloty (approximately $300-500). (This means that an averagePolish ex-forced labourer - and only those still living in Poland -isentitled to a one-time "help"-payment of around $700 for up to 5 1/2years slave labour! ) The word "compensation" has been intentionallyavoided in order to prevent any sort of future legal obligation to Nazivictims of this sort. These "help" payments are the result of a politicalcompromise between the Polish and German Governments and should in no way,shape or form be interpreted as a sort of "compensation".

In the last few years the criticism of this "help" funds has taken a sharpturn: Following an investment scandal on the part of thefunds-management, the German Government and the German press has put, withgood reason, the management capability of the Polish board of directorsinto question: The Warsaw District Attorney`s Office is presentlyinvestigating charges of bad management practices and possibly assisted orattempted embezzelment on the part of Bronislaw Wilk, Director of theFundacja Polsko-Niemieckie Pojednanie. Wilk deposited about $ 2,5Million of the funds monies into an account with a small private bank (notguaranteed by the State) in Warsaw, the Bank for Energy-Development andEnvironmental Conservation, Megabank SA. A party friend of Wilk's,Eugeniusz S., apparantly forged Wilk's signature to use the Funds moniesin the Mega Bank account to guarantee loans to five different blind firms,all of which belonged to Eugeniusz S. The firms and the bank which loanedthe money went bankrupt. The $2.5 Million disappeared. Eugeniusz S.,the directors of the bank and one of their employees are now beingdetained pending trial. And the district attorney's office is alsolooking into Wilk's questionable investmentment practices.

The German Government and the German press has been following the courseof this drama with great interest. The accusations of fraud andincompetence which are making the rounds in Warsaw diminish the reallyimportant questions regarding this fonds: Why was so little money paidinto the fonds in the first place? (500 Millionen DM divided byapproximately 600,000 estimated victims entitled to this "help"‚ leaves anaverage "help" of less than l,000 DM or $600 per victim. And there aremany more victims who do not qualify under the present very rigidstipulations.) The real questions that need to be asked as to the size ofthe "help" per victim are lost in the debate about the management of thefonds.

500 Million deutsche mark is about 250 Million dollars. The Americansgave the Poles $600 Million following the transition to democracy. TheGermans have spent 1,000 Billion German Marks on bettering theinfrastructure in East Germany and wiping away all signs of communism inEast Germany.

The interest group which represents these forced labourers, StowarzyszeniePoszkodowanych przez III Rzeszy, have a suit going against the FederalRepublic of Germany in its capacity as successor state of the German Reichat the International Court of Justice in the Haag. Their goal is to tryto force the German Government to pay them a pension for the time thatthey paid into the German social insurance funds. They believe that evenif the firms and the German Government refuse to pay them the salary whichwas kept from them for their forced labour, that they should at leastreceive a pension, as is the right of every German who worked and paidsocial insurance dues during the Third Reich, for the time they paid intothe social insurance fonds.

The question of Polish forced workers will probably remain an unansweredand very difficult one in the relations between the German and Polishpeoples. Even after the last Polish victim of Nazi forced labour ceasesto draw his or her last breath, this question will remain one of a numberof open sores in the relations between these two peoples.


Go to the Top of the Page || Return to Education...A Legacy Forum