The National Socialist regime constructed one of the most massive forced labor systems in history. Approximately 26 million people were forced to work in the German Reich and in the occupied territories. For a long time, they were among the ,forgotten’ victims of National Socialism – until the debate about compensation at the end of the 1990s brought their story into the public arena.
Forced labor was visible everywhere during World War II. Those affected had to carry out hard labor under inhumane conditions on construction sites, in factories and mines, in the industry, in labor and concentration camps - and thus maintained war production for the very country that exploited and destroyed them.
The effects of NS forced labor are still present today: In the (family) biographies of former forced laborers in the various European cultures of remembrance and not least at the intergovernmental level.
The digital interview archive "Forced Labor 1939-1945" defines forced labor under National Socialism as "the deportation and exploitation of over 13 million foreign concentration camp prisoners, prisoners of war, and 'civilian' laborers in Germany. Forced labor also took place in ghettos, work education camps and other camps throughout occupied Europe, affecting a total of about 26 million people. In addition, in many occupied countries, there was a general compulsion for the civilian population to work. A distinction must be drawn between this and the work duties for the German population (Reich Labor Service, compulsory service, Landjahr (one-year labor service as an agricultural work assistant) which had to be carried out under completely different conditions."
Within the academic discussion, a distinction is often drawn between foreign civilian workers, prisoners of war and prisoners.
The NS forced labor system served more than a mere economic purpose. It was also an instrument for the persecution, exclusion and oppression of precisely those groups which National Socialists regarded as "inferior". In short: NS forced labor was actually racial ideology put into practice.
With the increasing radicalization, forced labor was used for the purpose of physical extermination: it was especially concentration camp prisoners, including many Jews, Sinti and Roma as well as Soviet prisoners of war and civilian laborers (referred to as "Ostarbeiter" [Eastern Workers]) who died most frequently during work assignment.
The 1953 Federal Compensation Act largely excluded from benefits those living abroad and those who were not persecuted for racial or political reasons. Even the so-called Global Agreements – payments by the West Germany to individual states – did not provide for individual compensation payments to former forced laborers.
Demands for compensation payments were supported by the successful lawsuit filed by former forced laborer Norbert Wollheim against I.G. Farbenindustrie AG i.L. As a result, Wollheim, the Jewish Claims Conference, and IG Farben agreed on compensation for former forced laborers amounting to DM 30 million for Jewish concentration camp prisoners who had to perform forced labor for IG-Farben – and created a model case for further lawsuits.
Nevertheless, decades passed before the Federal Republic and German society would acknowledge their responsibility. Following some political initiatives that were initially unsuccessful, sustained pressure in and from the United States necessitated a serious examination of this matter in the late 1990s. In 1998, the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag agreed to establish a foundation for compensation for forced laborers with a financial contribution from German industry.
The primary aim behind the establishment of the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future in 2000 was the payment of humanitarian compensation to former forced laborers and other victims of National Socialist injustice. These payments were officially ended in 2007. 1.66 million people in almost 100 countries received payments totaling EUR 4.4 billion.
The issue of forced labor remains high on the agenda of the EVZ Foundation even after the payments have finished. This is reflected in the "NS Injustice Education Agenda" initiated by the Federal Ministry of Finance in 2021, whose funding programs are designed to support precisely those projects that "render the fates of persecuted people and groups visible, with a special focus on those who have received less public attention to date".
The importance of this is also highlighted by the MEMO study by the EVZ Foundation: On average, respondents estimated that only about four million people worked as forced laborers during the entire period of National Socialism in the "German Reich".
In the German Reich, an estimated 13 million people had to do forced labor between 1939 and 1945; another 13 million people in the occupied and controlled territories. Forced labor was ubiquitous and took place almost everywhere.
After the liberation, many forced laborers suffered physically and psychologically. Individual claims for compensation or back pay were denied. The Federal Compensation Act of 1953 excluded from its services those living abroad and those who were not racially or politically persecuted.
In order to promote integration into the West, Germany made payments to individual states (so-called global agreements) – but no individual compensations. In 1952, DM 3.5 billion were payed to Israel. Between 1959 and 1964, a total of DM 900 million went to several Western European countries.
The claim for damages by Norbert Wollheim is considered a test case and first lawsuit by a former forced laborer. In the course of the trial, IG Farben, the plaintiff and the Jewish Claims Conference agreed on compensation for former forced laborers in the amount of DM 30 million.
In the 1990s, political initiatives and pressure from the US brought the subject of compensation for forced laborers into the public discourse. In 1998, the German Bundestag agreed to set up a foundation for the compensation of forced labor with the financial participation of the German economy.
Federal President Johannes Rau announced the agreement on compensation for NS Forced Labor. In his address, he asked for forgiveness for the injustices committed. More than 25 million people were deported for the purpose of forced labor in the German Reich or in occupied countries between 1939-1945.
On July 17, 2000, Germany signed an agreement with the US Government and entered into an international agreement with Israel, Central and Eastern European states, German industry and claims lawyers. The German Government and German industry each agreed to contribute DM 5 billion to the Foundation.
On August 2, 2000, with the support of all political groups in the German Bundestag, the Law on the Creation of a Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future was passed. It provided for individual humanitarian payments to former forced laborers and other victims of National Socialism.
The Foundation’s initial capital of EUR 5.2 billion was provided by the German Government and Germany industry. A total of approximately 6,500 companies have participated in the foundation Initiative of the German industry.
On June 13, 2001, the first payment was made to the Czech partner organization (German-Czech Future Fund) in the amount of DM 55,612,425. Seven international partner organisations helped process the applications and were responsible for the payments.
In September 2001, the EVZ Foundation approved the first funding project in its history:
the association AMCHA received EUR 414,138 for humanitarian purposes. This supported Holocaust survivors in Israel by means of home visits by psychologists as well as social workers.
Up to the end of 2006, a total of EUR 4.36 billion was paid out to 1.6 million former forced labourers or their legal successors in 98 countries. Payments were also made for property losses, insurance losses and personal injury in connection with National Socialist injustice.
On June 12, 2007, the payments procedure was formally concluded at an official ceremony hosted by German President Horst Köhler and attended by the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The internet archive "Forced Labour 1939–1945" commemorates the people who were forced to work for Nazi Germany. Almost 600 former forced labourers from 26 countries tell their stories in extensive audio and video interviews.
The touring exhibition "Forced Labor. The Germans, the Forced Laborers and the War" of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation was on display from 2010 to 2017. EVZ Foundation has provided it with funding of four million euros. A permanent exhibition is planned in Weimar from 2024.
The EVZ Foundation celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2010. The anniversary was accompanied by festivities and an exhibition on the Foundation’s history.
A publication of the Working Group for the Improvement of Participation in Education and the Educational Success of Sinti and Roma appeared in September 2015. It was the first study to be produced together with experts from Roma and Sinti organizations. EVZ Foundation follows their recommendations.
With "MEMO Germany - Multidimensional Memory Monitor", the Institute for Interdisciplinary Research on Conflict and Violence Bielefeld (IKG) has been researching since 2018 what, how and for what citizens of Germany historically remember.
As part of the Agenda for the Future, new formats were developed. A core element is the Educational Agenda on NS Injustice, funded by the Federal Ministry of Finance. It aims to address current challenges with a historically aware, active communication of the lessons learned from the NS history.