Nazi Labor Camps

The huge expansion of slave labor and the labor camp network in the Third Reich was based on two main preconditions: first, the rapid expansion of the SS and its business enterprises; and second, some unique elements in Germany’s economy, and particularly, in its wartime economy.

Early Forced Labor in Nazi Concentration Camps

The early concentration camps used compulsory labor in the spirit of the so-called "productive penal system," used previously by the Weimar judicial system as a corrective measure in its prisons. The Nazi regime introduced a specific twist into this system, by using manual forced labor to degrade and humiliate its political and ideological opponents. Sometimes, the work performed by the inmates was pointless, but in most cases it served local construction projects. The inmates of the 15 Emsland Camps were used, for example, in large drainage projects aimed at cultivating large parts of the Emsland wetlands. Some of these camps were established already in 1933 and were operated by the Reich’s Ministry of Justice. It was, however, the SS that systematized the economic exploitation of camp inmates after taking over most of the camp system from 1934.

The SS initiated business activities as a way to encourage German unity and Nazi values by starting to use inmates in its business enterprises soon after taking over the camps. Parts of one of the early camps, Dachau, were used for growing medicinal herbs, with inmates working in the fields. The use of camp inmates in camp-based enterprises intensified as the SS expanded its businesses and entered industrial production. In January 1936, SS chief Heinrich Himmler acquired the Allach Porcelain Manufacturing firm. Soon afterwards, the SS opened branch workshops of this factory inside nearby Dachau.

Forced Labor as Part of the Expansion of the SS Empire

When Hitler announced in 1936 his comprehensive Führerbauten plan, whose goal was to rebuild Germany's main cities, a huge business and political opportunity was opened to the SS. Consequently, Himmler started to convert part of his camp-based operations to the production of construction materials. Among others, he expanded the production of bricks in several camps. On 29 April 1938, the SS established the Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke firm (DESt). Himmler nominated Oswald Pohl, a former Navy paymaster, to be the firm’s general director. Pohl worked at the same time as the head of the SS’ businesses, becoming a central figure in the development of the Nazi slave labor system. Pohl’s new earthwork and stone-cutting enterprise based its entire business plan on the massive use of slave labor in several concentration camps or near them. Camps like Flossenbürg, Mauthausen and Natzweiler were established with the specific goal of using their inmates in DESt’s stone quarries and brick factories.

While Himmler sought to expand his modern industrial businesses, he also expanded enormously his low-tech enterprises. The most important common feature of this two-pronged organizational and economical expansion was the increased use of camp inmates. It must be stressed though, that using slave labor in these camps served two conflicting goals. While the SS sought to gain profit through the use of inmates, in most cases brutal methods and ill treatment for the sake of Nazi ideology was, in fact, counter-productive. In Mauthausen, for example, the “Wiener Graben” stone quarry was used to torture inmates and to execute them. It was a normal practice to force inmates, carrying heavy stones, to climb up and down the 186 steps leading to the quarry until they died.

Labor Camps and Germany’s War Economy

As World War II broke out, an acute shortage of labor force became apparent. The main causes of this shortage were: 1) the massive military draft; 2) the large-scale reduction of unemployment throughout the 1930s; 3) the failure to mobilize women efficiently; and 4) the expansion of industrial branches related to the armament industry.

Part of the solution to the problem came in 1939-1940, when POWs were allocated to different economy-related operations. Initially, most POWs were used for agricultural work, but in 1940 the Germans started to divert an increased number of POWS to industrial work. A series of new labor camps appeared from 1939 in occupied Poland and later in the occupied Soviet territories. These camps housed inmates from foreign nationalities and ethnical groups and were run in many cases by civilian authorities or by the Wehrmacht.

The SS ran one of the largest networks of such camps in eastern Upper Silesia under the title Organisation Schmelt. After its establishment in October 1940, this organization developed outside the existing camp system and controlled, at the height of its operation, some 177 sub-camps. Most of the inmates in these camps were Polish Jews who were forced to produce different war-related low-tech products. Some of the first Jews killed in Auschwitz came from the Schmelt camps after they were screened out as unfit for work.

Multiple labor camps were also constructed along Durchgangsstraße IV, a new highway that was supposed to connect Berlin with the Caucasus. This construction project represented, perhaps, the epitome of the annihilation-through-labor concept. It is estimated that around 25,000 Jewish slave workers died while working in this project in 1941-1942.

While the SS increased the employment of inmates in its own enterprises, it also provided inmates from its camp reservoir to outside firms. Statistics offer a glimpse into the economic potential of the camp system. In March 1942, between 70,000 and 80,000 inmates were locked in the SS’ main camps and in their sub-camps. One year later, this figure increased to 224,000 inmates. By mid-January 1945, the number of inmates under SS custody rose to around 714,000 inmates of which around 203,000 were women.

Initially, the SS refrained from allocating large number of inmates to work outside its camp system. However, in cases of extremely lucrative contracts, the SS was more lenient. In early 1941, the SS signed a groundbreaking contract with the directorate of the IG Farben. This company used prisoners in the construction of its new large factory near the Auschwitz concentration camp. The SS intended to use more than 100,000 Soviet POWs in this project. The employment of the early POW detachments that came from the East was typical of the evolving German system of annihilation-through-labor. Few, if any, of the 12,000 POWs that arrived at Auschwitz in late 1941 were still alive by the spring of 1942. In March 1942, local SS officers started to construct a new labor camp near the main factory of the Austrian armament manufacturer Steyr-Daimler-Puch. It was the first camp of its kind, and it signaled a change of policy that soon multiplied the number of labor camps.

Total War and the Expansion of the Labor Camp Network

The turn of events in December 1941, forced the Germans to reconsider the employment of slave labor as part of the massive expansion of war production. On February 1, 1942, the SS established the Economics and Administration Main Office (WVHA) under Pohl, and in April the Inspectorate of the Concentration Camps (IKL) was incorporated into it. This move created a unified supreme organization within the SS to control its economic and industrial enterprises, as well as their workforce. Pohl tended more and more towards partnership with the Armaments Ministry under new minister Albert Speer. This relationship allowed German military-related companies to use inmates outside the main camp system.

As part of the preparations for increased use of camp inmates, Pohl ordered the intensification of training inmates for industrial work. Although throughout 1942 many firms as well as some officials working with Speer were reluctant to do business with the SS, others were happy to cooperate. Among them was aircraft manufacturer Heinkel, which had used inmates since the spring of 1942 as part of the firm’s expansion strategy. Heinkel employed inmates from Sachsenhausen in its main Oranienburg plant, and local Poles and Jews in its new factories in the Generalgouvernment. The main labor camp that served these factories was constructed in 1942 near the Mielec factory.

Heinkel’s early involvement in the use of slave labor paved the way for more cooperation of this kind between the SS and private companies. This relationship also demonstrated that inmates could be used in the production of complicated hardware. In September 1942, Speer signed with Pohl an agreement regarding the employment of inmates in armament production. Although the SS intended originally to use inmates only in special "concentration camp works," throughout 1943 the SS constructed new labor camps next to factories all over the Reich in order to accommodate the inmates allocated to them. Some camps were constructed next to several automobile and aero-engine factories operated by BMW, which showed interest in using slave labor as early as 1941.

In most of the new camps, SS personnel supervised the inmates both in their living quarters and in their workplace. However, supervision at work tended to be more lax due to the presence of civilian foremen and workers. Preservation of experienced, and in some cases of trained workforce, also became priority in some of the new camps. Especially for Jews, allocation to a war production related camp improved significantly their chance of survival.

1944: The Climax of Forced Labor

In 1944, following several military setbacks, the proliferation of labor camps intensified. The SS converted DESt and its other camp-based enterprises to war production. All the main camps, including Auschwitz, became hubs for the distribution of slave workers.

Heavy air raids on the German aviation industry in February resulted in the establishment of the "Fighter Staff" and the allocation of around 100,000 inmates for its reconstruction and expanded production programs. Following more air raids on the oil industry in the spring, the Geilenberg Program was established to restore oil production. These two organizations supervised hundreds of labor camps. Among them were seven sub-camps that were constructed in southwestern Germany as part of the Operation Wüste, which sought to solve the bottleneck in oil production through extraction of oil from oil shale. Around 10,000 inmates worked in this project and it is estimated that some 3,480 of them died there.

As the Allies advanced into Germany, labor camps were evacuated and abandoned one after the other. In most cases, the Germans sought to transfer inmates for use elsewhere, but in other cases the inmates were either executed on the spot or sent on death marches. Many of the prisoners who survived the war were liberated in labor camps.

Dr. Daniel Uziel


Recommended Reading

Allen, Michael Thad, The Business of Genocide. The SS, Slave Labor, and the Concentration Camps, London, 2002.

Allen, Michael Thad, "The Puzzle of Nazi Modernism: Modern Technology and Ideological Consensus in an SS Factory at Auschwitz." in Technology and Culture 37 (1996), pp.527-71.

Browning, Christopher R., Remembering Survival: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp, New York, 2010.

Budrass, Lutz,“Der Schritt über die Schwelle. Ernst Heinkel, das Werk Oranienburg und der Einstieg in die Beschäftigung von KZ-Häftlingen“, in Meyer, Winfried (Hrsg.), Zwangsarbeit während der NS-Zeit in Berlin und Brandenburg, Potsdam, 2001.

Fings, Karola, Krieg, Gesellschaft und KZ. Himmlers SS-Baubrigaden, Paderborn, 2005.

Gruner, Wolf, (ed.), Die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden durch das nationalsozialistische Deutschland 1933-1945, Vol. 1: Deutsches Reich 1933-1937 München, Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2008.

Hamburger Stiftung für Sozialgeschichte des 20. Jahrhunderts, Das Daimler-Benz-Buch. Ein Rüstungskonzern im „Tausendjährigen Reich“, Nördlingen, 1987

Heim, Susanne, (ed.), Die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden durch das nationalsozialistische Deutschland 1933-1945, Vol 2: Deutsches Reich 1938 - August 1939, München, Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag, 2009.

Herbert, Ulrich, Hitler’s Foreign Workers. Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich, Cambridge, 1997.

Herbert, Ulrich, Orth, Karin & Dieckmann, Christoph (Hrsg.), Die nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslager - Entwicklung und Struktur, Bd. I & II, Göttingen, 1998.

Hess, Torsten (Hrsg.), Zwangsarbeit und die unterirdische Verlagerung, Berlin, 1994.

Hess, Torsten & Seidel, Thomas (Hrsg.), Vernichtung durch Fortschritt am Beispiel der Raketenproduktion im Konzentrationslager Mittelbau, Bonn, 1995.

Kaienburg, Hermann, Die Wirtschaft der SS, Berlin, 2003.

Kaienburg, Hermann, Konzentrationslager und deutsche Wirtschaft 1939-1945, Opladen, 1996.

Raim, Edith, Die Dachauer KZ-Außenkommandos Kaufering und Mühldorf: Rüstungsbauten und Zwangsarbeit im letzten Kriegsjahr 1944/1945, Landsberg a. Lech, 1992.

Schulte, Jan Erik, Zwangsarbeit und Vernichtung. Das Wirtschaftsimperium der SS. Oswald Pohl und das SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt, 1933-1945, Paderborn, 2001.

Spoerer, Mark, Zwangsarbeit unter dem Hakenkreuz. Ausländische Zivilarbeiter, Kriegsgefangene und Häftlinge im Deutschen Reich und im besetzten Europa 1939-1945, München, 2001.

Wagner, Jan-Christian, Produktion des Todes: Das KZ Mittelbau-Dora, Göttingen, 2004.

Werner, Constanze, Kriegswirtschaft und Zwangsarbeit bei BMW, München, 2006.