The Question of the Polish Forced Laborer during and in the Aftermath of World War II: The Example of the Warthegau Forced Laborers

The Question of the Polish Forced Laborer during and in the Aftermath of World War II:

The Example of the Warthegau Forced Laborers

by Jeanne Dingell,
Copyright 1998, All Rights Reserved. Please contact the author if you have any questions.

The question of the Polish forced laborers, Warthegau Forced Laborers, who were used by German industry in the Second World War, is, in view of the political changes in Eastern Europe, an urgent challenge for historians and lawyers. While this question was not ignored by the Allies following the war, it became increasingly unimportant in the wrangle between the Super Powers for Germany and in the wake of the Cold War.

In Post War Germany and in the West, the question of the compensation and rehabilitation of these “displaced persons” became less and less important as the threat in the East became more real. The successful integration of the Federal Republic of Germany into the West was of prime interest to the United States and its Allied Partners in the early Fifties. Konrad Adenauer, in his capacity as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany, was able to persuade the Western Allies and Germany’s creditors responsible for the Federal Republic’s reparations-debts at the Paris Conference on the German War Debt of l951 that Germany’s compensation and reparation commitments must be held to a minimum.

In order to prevent a repetition of the German reparations-disaster of the Twenties and Thirties, and to ensure the successful integration of the Federal Republic into the West, certain restraining measures had to betaken in order to secure the financial stability of the emerging new country. Certain groups of Nazi-victims were to be excluded from direct compensation through the German Government. At best, these victims could hope for some sort of compensation through the German reparations payments to their home country. In the case of the Poles, this was to take place through the Germans reparations to the Soviet Union, as agreed upon at the Potsdam Agreements of l945.

Neither the Polish (non-jewish as well as Jewish) forced laborers of World War II, nor any of the other numerous victims of Nazi War Crimes in Poland received any sort of adequate compensation through these reparations agreements. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is that Poland never received any sort of reparation payments as such: The Soviet Union arranged to share their part of the German reparation payments with Poland through a complicated system of trade and exchange payments. The truth of the matter is that the Polish Nation never received any concrete reparations payments and that individual victims of Nazi terror never received any sort of real compensation for the injustice that was done to them. The only exception to this rule is the case of the Polish victims of Dr. Mengele’s pseudo-medical experiments. This group of victims is entitled through separate agreements to a pension through the German Government.

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

The group of Polish forced laborers with which I am familiar with come from the “Gau Wartheland”, one of four administrative districts which the Nazis cut out of the part of Western Poland which they annexed in l939. The “Warthegau”, as many Nazis referred to this district, was a Nazi creation with little or no bearing on the historical realities of the region. It was to become an experimental laboratory, where the economic, cultural and social supremacy of the German people would inevitably lead to the extermination of all other indigenous peoples in the region (most Poles and all Jews).

In a complicated system of bureaucratically determined ethniticity,”Volksdeutsche” (Germans by descent, but not by citizenship) were to be segregated from the rest of the population. Jews were to be crowded into local and then consolidated regional ghettos. Following the Wannsee Conference (January 20, l942), the Nazis planned the industrial murder of these and all other European Jews en masse. The Poles were to be used as an inexhaustible source of slave labour for the colonisation of this and other 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 in Europe.

In the case of the “Warthegau Forced Laborers”, the governor in charge (Artur Greiser) was faced 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 the war. On the other hand, the Poles were a necessary part of the daily workforce. They were necessary in the normal civilian production and they were a necessary element in the Nazi colonisation projects throughout the “Warthegau”. (This included many different kinds of infrastructure improvement projects: pavement and building of roads, construction of administrative buildings, park planning and improvement, water works and canalisation, rerouting of rivers, etc.) In addition, there was an increasing tendency throughout the war for the German industrialists to set up armaments factories in this and other “annexed” parts of Europe.It was thought, and to some extent rightly so, that the Allies would be less likely to bomb factories in this region. Poles were a necessary part of this war production work force, especially after the advent of the Eastern Front in the Summer of l94l and the German Declaration of War against the United States on the llth of December l94l.

As I have already mentioned, Governor Greiser was faced throughout the course of World War II with an essential dilemma: On the one hand he wanted to rid his district of unwanted Poles, in order to realise his goal of a purely “German Warthegau”. On the other hand he needed these people in order to keep the economy on its feet. He, the bureaucrats under him and the local firms who needed these Polish workers, were even forced l942-43 to compete with firms in the “Altreich” (Germany in its borders from l937) for these workers.

While more than 360,000 Poles from this “Warthegau” were deported to other parts of Germany to do forced labour, many more Poles were made to do forced labour in their home country during World War II. How many is a question of definition: Who is a forced laborer in a war situation? Are all native workers in an occupied country “forced laborers”? Or are only those who are deported “forced laborers”? How does one define this concept? And how can one define this concept and still do justice to the victims of these horrendous crimes to humanity without overreaching the bounds of common sense? A reasonable educated guess is that somewhere around l to l l/2 Million Poles in this “Warthegau”, above and beyond those who were deported, were engaged in some sort of forced labour in the course of the war. (The pre-war population in the region that became the “Warthegau” was around 4 Million.)

In the Nurnberger Trials against the 25 chief Nazi War Criminals , the prosecution emphasized that the deportation and use of “Fremdarbeiter”(foreign workers) in the “Reichskriegeinsatz” (Nazi Work Programm) was a violation of International Law, in particular of the Hague Agreements concerning Land Warfare from l907. While the prosecution, in their case against the defendants’ crimes against humanity, never tried to spare the Nazi War Criminals of their responsibility for the deportation and slavery of foreign workers, they were forced in the absence of a better legal basis to base their case on the said Agreements from the Hague. Articles 46 and 52 of the fourth Hague Agreements gave them the chance to present the “Reichskriegseinsatz” as an infringement of the occupying army against the rights of the domestic population. The prosecution interpreted the Agreements from the Hague as following: The occupying army, in this case the Wehrmacht, had a right to require civilians in the occupied lands (but only against proper payment for services provided) to provide provisions for the occupying troops. Under no circumstances were German authorities entitled to deport civilians to the Altreich (Germany in it’s borders from l937) and require them to work in order to help the war effort on the German home front and against their native countries.

The real situation in which these ex-forced labourers found themselves was, however, not rendered in the interpretation and representation of the prosecution. While the hierarchy of the “Fremdvolkischen” (foreign peoples) and the living conditions of the imprisoned workers – plenty of photos were presented the court as evidence – were aptly described, the charges which were made in Nurnberg don’t come close to doing justice to the 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 the German Reich, paid taxes, social security, health insurance dues and other disriminatory “Sonderabgaben” (special taxes for racially discriminated peoples in the Third Reich), under no circumstances normal workers, butrather inhumanly treated slaves. They were given the chance to live through doing work for the Third Reich. They received daily rations of on the average 600-800 Kcal. The fare was representative for concentration camps in the Third Reich: substitute coffee once daily, a watery soup with little or no meat, 750 Grams of black bread every three days. And the German authorities and industrialists responsible for this tragedy expected 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 of the German industry, their treatment varied. In general, though, the larger the firm, the worse the treatment. The “Arado” – FlugzeugwerkeGmbH Out-Placement Works in Rathe now on the Havel river near Berlin, for example, were nothing less than a concentration camp. The some l0,000 workers in this armament factory had to deal with not only hunger,overwork and the loss of any sort of private sphere, but also with the spectrum 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 at their work place. Sickness and failure to work meant a break in the chain of production for the employing firm. For forced workers this meant risking being replaced, handed over to the SS and at worse being exterminated.

Following the war, the chance of these forced laborers from the East receiving a just compensation were not good. In particular, the events and decisions surrounding the “German Question” made it difficult tospeculate as to whether there would ever again be the necessary geopolitical conditions necessary to approach the question of the compensation of the forced labourers:

Even before the unconditional surrender of the German Wehrmacht on the 8./9. May l945 in Karlshorst near Berlin, Stalin had made his claims to Eastern Europe clear: The Soviet war booty was to be not only the sovereignty over all lands east of the border set by the secret protocol to the Hitler-Stalin Pact (August 23, l939) regarding the borders of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, but also the betrayal of Poland and the rest 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 in Potsdam (July l7- August 2, l945) were the realisation of Stalin’s goals:The recognition of the Curzon Line as the eastern border of Poland, as well as the division of Germany in Zones of Occupation were set down in the “Declaration of Freed Europe”.

Shrewd observers of the time knew precisely how to interpret these historical events: The Division of Germany could only mean the Division of Europe. Millions of people were to be left to their fate under the Stalinists. The basis of an economic and political dictatorship was created beyond the West German border. Out of the ashes of the Second World War arose two Super Powers: One of which, the Soviet Union, was to take the lead of the socialist dictatorships. The western occupation Zones 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 in this divided world. Physically at ends, most of them without any sort of contact to their immediate families, in a foreign land and at the mercy ofrelief organisations, wanted for the most part only to go home. This home was, unfortunately, only a thing of the past and for many of them would only be a reality in their everlasting homesickness. Many of them were still children, when the Nazis deported them to the “Altreich”. After their liberation from the work camps, they were looked after appropriately for the first time in the Allied camps which were set up for them after the war. The official Allied policy in regards to these physically and psychologically damaged victims of Nazi terror, was that they were to be treated for the worst of the abuse to their persons and then be sent”home”. These displaced persons were expected to take up with their lives where 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 their liberation already at home, as they were enslaved in their home country.Many of these displaced persons, however, were more than aware of the political and economic changes that were taking place in Eastern and Central Europe after the signing of the Potsdam Agreements from August 2,l945 and used their “displacement” as an opportunity to emigrate. In particular the generation of Poles and other Central Europeans, who received their socialisation before the war, were more than aware of the danger in returning to their home country.

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

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

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

Their immediate goals were certainly no different than those of other post-war consumers: a regular income, an apartment or a house, a car, the first television… For many of these ex-forced laborers, the work they did for the Nazis was the only qualification they had to find a job. Even after the war, they were to be reminded of this dreadful war experience.

Many of these ex-forced laborers have since died. Often, the cause of their deaths is directly related to their work experience under the Third Reich. 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 during their lifetime, they are not entitled to any sort of compensation or indemnification by German law:

These non-Jewish displaced persons, who were forced labourers under the hird Reich are categorised by the German Authorities in the Compensation Agency (now the Referat V B of the Finance Ministry) as national or at best political, and not as racially disriminated war victims. In addition, since they are foreigners who live outside of the German”Kulturkreis” (“cultural circle”), they are not entitled to a compensation or indemnification under German national law, but are rather expected to turn to their native countries, who have theoretically received reparation payments following the war. In the case of Poland, this is especially questionable, as Poland was theoretically granted reparations through the Soviet 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: The requirement for this sort of indemnification, was that the person in question was a political refugee as defined in the Geneva Convention from July 28, l95l. These persons had to have been war victims, who were unable to return home on political grounds or because of the changing political situation in Eastern Europe. This category of war victim was to be indemnified by the German Government directly, because they could not otherwise request help from their native countries.

Many of the displaced persons, who would have otherwise qualified as political 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 since emigrated and taken on new citizenships. These ex-displaced persons were no longer refugees, but rather had established new lives in new countries.

The rest of the “NationalgeschÉdigte”, as I have already mentioned, were to be compensated or indemnified through their home countries. German reparations were to be the basis of this compensation. The one exception to this policy, was, as I have already mentioned, Polish non-Jewish victims 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 official successor-state of the German Reich.

Some — mostly Jewish or German — ex-forced laborers received a minimal one-time “Hilfe” (“help”) payment from the firm, for which they had worked. In order to receive such an indemnification, they were required to waive all further claims for compensation from the firm in question and from the Federal Republic as the official successor-state of the German Reich. For the most part, the ex-forced laborers who came in question,were concentration camp inmates in Auschwitz, who had not even received a token wage for their slave labour. As German Citizens, this was a violation 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 the rearmament of Germany in the framework of the NATO and the western integration of Germany. The IG Farben Auschwitz-works were undeniable.And following the case of Norbert Wollheim vs. the successor firms of IG Farben, they were forced to settle out of court for the some 4,000 victims who came in question.

The rest of the ex-forced laborers, some l0-l2 Million victims of Nazi terror, were, as I have already mentioned, expected to be compensated in the framework of reparation payments, which were agreed upon in Potsdam and above all in the London Creditor Agreements of l95l. The successor states of the German Reich, the Federal Republic of Germany and Austria,negotiated concrete reparation and compensation sums with the western allies and their creditors, which they agreed to pay under specific conditions. The Londoner Agreements, were, in particular, a framework which the Federal Republic used to keep the “Wiedergutmachung” (war reparations, compensation, and indemnification payments) costs down.

In the wake of the London Agreements, the People’s Republic of Poland announced in l953 it’s waiver of further claims of reparations from the successor states of the German Reich. This was in accordance with the Soviet Union and the other East Bloc countries, and was a move designed to protect the German Democratic Republic from being forced to fufill further reparations claims. (Up until then, reparations had been paid in kind through demontage.)

All Polish governments, including the socialist governments during the period of the “Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa”, have never put the separate claims of the individual ex-forced laborers in question! The Polish Government recognises the rights of the ex-forced laborers to indemnification for the work done with minimal or no pay, for pensions which are now due, as well as the compensation due these victims for the deportation and abuse done to them by their persecutors.

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

Following the “Quiet Revolution” in Poland and thereafter in all other Eastern Bloc countries, the Polish and German Governments signed two friendship treaties in l991 and held talks which were the basis of the border agreements (preceeding the German Reunification) from l99l. It was agreed among other things, that the German Government would finance a foundation with 500 Million DM paid over a 3 year period in 3 payments,which would “help” the Polish victims of Nazi terror who were still living. The foundation was not supposed to “compensate” these victims,but rather to “linder” the misery these people had to live with. For the most part these people receive a one-time payment of between 5 – l2 Million Zloty (approximately $300-500). (This means that an average Polish ex-forced laborer – and only those still living in Poland -is entitled to a one-time “help”-payment of around $700 for up to 5 1/2 years slave labor! ) The word “compensation” has been intentionally avoided in order to prevent any sort of future legal obligation to Nazi victims of this sort. These “help” payments are the result of a political compromise 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 sharp turn: Following an investment scandal on the part of the funds-management, the German Government and the German press has put, with good reason, the management capability of the Polish board of directors into question: The Warsaw District Attorney`s Office is presently investigating charges of bad management practices and possibly assisted or attempted embezzelment on the part of Bronislaw Wilk, Director of the Fundacja Polsko-Niemieckie Pojednanie. Wilk deposited about $ 2,5 Million of the funds monies into an account with a small private bank (not guaranteed by the State) in Warsaw, the Bank for Energy-Development and Environmental Conservation, Megabank SA. A party friend of Wilk’s, Eugeniusz S., apparantly forged Wilk’s signature to use the Funds monies in 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 loaned the money went bankrupt. The $2.5 Million disappeared. Eugeniusz S.,the directors of the bank and one of their employees are now being detained pending trial. And the district attorney’s office is also looking into Wilk’s questionable investment practices.

The German Government and the German press has been following the course of this drama with great interest. The accusations of fraud and incompetence which are making the rounds in Warsaw diminish the really important questions regarding this funds: Why was so little money paid into the funds in the first place? (500 Millionen DM divided by approximately 600,000 estimated victims entitled to this “help” leaves an average “help” of less than l,000 DM or $600 per victim. And there are many more victims who do not qualify under the present very rigid stipulations.) The real questions that need to be asked as to the size of the “help” per victim are lost in the debate about the management of the funds.

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

The interest group which represents these forced laborers, Stowarzyszenie Poszkodowanych przez III Rzeszy, have a suit going against the Federal Republic of Germany in its capacity as successor state of the German Reich at the International Court of Justice in the Haag. Their goal is to try to force the German Government to pay them a pension for the time that they paid into the German social insurance funds. They believe that even if the firms and the German Government refuse to pay them the salary which was kept from them for their forced labour, that they should at least receive a pension, as is the right of every German who worked and paid social insurance dues during the Third Reich, for the time they paid into the social insurance funds.

The question of Polish forced workers will probably remain an unanswered and very difficult one in the relations between the German and Polish peoples. Even after the last Polish victim of Nazi forced labor ceases to draw his or her last breath, this question will remain one of a number of open sores in the relations between these two peoples.

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