Between 1939 and 1945, National Socialists forced more than 20 million of men, women and children from all over Europe to work for the German economy. Nearly 13 million of them performed forced labour in the German Reich, while the remainder worked in countries occupied by Germany. Toward the end of World War II, when the lack of manpower grew steadily, almost every fourth worker within the German economy was a forced labourer. Their employment became part of the German population’s everyday life – interactions were unavoidable and a daily occurrence. Forced labour in Nazi Germany was an overt and visible crime.
Forced labourers had to work against their will and were unable to terminate their employment contract. The majority of forced labourers came to the German Reich as civilian workers. In the occupied countries, they were strong-armed by the military units of the German employment offices, enticed with false promises or recruited by force. In addition, enemy soldiers captured by the Germany army had to perform forced labour as prisoners of war. Prisoners and concentration camp inmates were likewise abused as cheap labour.
The living and working conditions of the forced labourers varied depending on the country of origin, employer and “racial identity”. They worked in agriculture and construction, in the industrial and public sector, in handicraft businesses and private households – in all areas of commercial life. They lacked proper nourishment and medical care, were accommodated in barracks and camps, prevented from returning and faced racial discrimination.