Forgotten Forced Labour in First World War Germany | History Hit

Forgotten Forced Labour in First World War Germany

Tom Brown

27 Jul 2021
German General Headquarters, General Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Wilhelm II, General Erich Ludendorff.

The First World War is known for its harsh warfare and abysmal conditions – battles such as the Somme live long in the memory of history thanks to the destruction and death that ensued. But it was not just the battlefields of the Western and Eastern Fronts that are filled with tales of woe: the Home Front also suffered.  

As the war entered 1917, it became clear that war would be won in materials and how much a country could mobilise in the name of total warfare. By this point, Germany had suffered nearly as many casualties as their Western Front enemies had taken combined – just under one and a half million men – and the war looked just as bleak on the Home Front too.

The nation was becoming quickly aware that it was facing the risk of being out-produced by their opponents, and if the country faced another year like the one it had experienced in 1916 it was on the brink of complete economic collapse and subsequent surrender.

The interior of the Krupp Factory in Essen, Germany

Image Credit: Rock Island Argus / Public Domain

Economic Crisis

The nation’s de facto military dictatorship that would dominate German politics for the last few years of the war turned to Paul von Hindenburg and his policy chief Erich Ludendorff for a solution to their economic crisis which would see Germany down a dark and often overlooked aspect of the First World War.

Their plan would emerge in two distinct stages. It was clear to the German leadership that they required more materials and ammunition for the frontline so sought to increase their production targets by three times, but in order to achieve these lofty goals they needed more manpower.

They turned initially to forced labour through conscription, any men who were either too young or too old to be sent to the frontline were forced into munitions factories alongside women who were deemed to be working in non-essential jobs.

However, despite these vast conscription efforts amongst the German population, this was still not enough workers to achieve the targets set by Hindenburg and Ludendorff with Hindenburg believing he needed another 3,000,000 workers in order to combat their economic deficiency.

French peasants with a German guard

Image Credit: The Library of Congress / Public Domain

A Solution Through Occupation

This desperation led to Germany using their occupied territories to advance their forced labour programme to enslave their newly occupied populace not just in Eastern Europe but also in the West.

In the occupied Eastern countries, a lot of this forced labour was used to drain the resources of their own nations to be sent back to Germany who would exploit the agricultural and forestry industries of their occupied territories. 

In occupied Belgium and France, prisoners of war and locals were either put to work on railways and infrastructure for the frontlines or deported to Germany to be forced into slave labour for the German War Machine.

In Northern France, around 20,000 women and girls are dragged from their towns by the German Army and forced to work in agricultural jobs in Northern France. However it is the use of the men of France and Belgium including prisoners of war that is the most abhorrent example of the forced labour policies employed by Hindenburg and Ludendorff.

Over 180,000 Belgium men were forced to work in often horrific conditions in labour camps and German factories to contribute to the German war economy. Their wellbeing was in no way considered: their output and production were all that interested the Germans.

Out of these 180,000 men forced into work, over 7,500 of them would die as a result of their treatment, the majority of these deaths came from starvation. When these workers were liberated at the end of the war some of the men would weigh as little as 35kg as damning evidence of their mistreatment faced during their forced slave labour.

Forced labour at Neuengamme Concentration Camp during the Second World War.

Image Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of KZ-Gedenkstatte Neuengamme

The Legacy of the Forced Labour Policy

The German forced labour policy in the First World War would serve as a blueprint for the subsequent Nazi forced labour many faced during the Second World War. The kind of forced labour policy that was implemented during the First World War was widely considered in Germany to have been an economic failure rather than a moral one.

While international conventions after the war failed to implement strict and decisive rulings to prevent this kind of devastating slave labour from being repeated. These national and international failures to realise the human cost of forced labour policies would play into the mindset that saw it built upon during the Second World War.

To find out more about this topic, as well as other detailed statistics and stories from the First World War, watch the series The Great War in Numbers on the Timeline World History YouTube channel.


Tom Brown