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Nazi forced labor. Learning with interviews

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Historian, born in 1965, is a research assistant at the Center for Digital Systems at the Free University of Berlin, Interview Archives, Online Archive "Forced Labor 1939-1945".

Former forced laborers had to wait many years for compensation. In the form of so-called global agreements, the Federal Republic only made compensation payments to individual states. After lengthy negotiations, the “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” foundation was founded in 2000 to compensate for forced labor.

Compensation payments to states (1950 to 2000) and to individuals (2000 to 2007). Interactive map with years and total sums of survivors and beneficiaries. (& copy Center for Digital Systems at the Free University of Berlin, 2010)

Between 2001 and 2007, the survivors received a one-off payment of between 500 and 7,700 euros. Prisoners of war and Western European civilian slave laborers were excluded from the compensation.

Denied responsibility

After their liberation, many forced laborers suffered the psychological and physical consequences of forced labor, especially in old age. In many Eastern European countries, after the collapse of socialist societies, some are living on the edge of the subsistence level. They were denied individual claims for compensation or at least wage back payments; the German governments and the companies profiting from the forced labor rejected - with a few exceptions - all responsibility.

The Federal Compensation Act, which came into force in 1953, largely excluded those living abroad and those who were not racially or politically persecuted from its benefits. In the London debt agreement concluded at the same time, the Federal Republic succeeded in legally defining the compensation of foreign forced laborers as "reparation claims" and thus postponing the negotiations for a final peace treaty. Isolated complaints from survivors were unsuccessful.

Global agreements with other countries

To promote integration with the West, the Federal Republic only made payments to individual states in the form of so-called global agreements, namely in 1952 to Israel (3.5 billion DM as material construction aid) and between 1959 and 1964 to several Western European countries (a total of 900 million DM). During this phase, several large companies also paid several million DM to the Jewish Claims Conference.

Because of its self-image as an anti-fascist start-up, the GDR rejected any kind of compensation for foreign victims of National Socialism.

After the reunification of Germany in 1990, global agreements with Poland (500 million DM) as well as with Belarus, Ukraine and Russia (together one billion DM) followed in the course of the 2 + 4 treaty. Russia and Belarus also had to take into account the Nazi victims in the now sovereign Baltic states. With these payments, government and business saw their responsibilities at that time fulfilled.

The compensation debate

Sticker for a protest campaign for faster compensation for the forced laborers, May 2001. (& copy archive: DHM / Central Documentation)
It was not until the end of the 20th century that the national and international public were concerned again with the compensation of forced laborers. The first political initiatives of the Greens in the Bundestag, the European Parliament or the Action Reconciliation for Peace Services were still unsuccessful.

It was not until 1998 that the parliamentary groups in the Bundestag agreed to set up a foundation for the compensation of forced labor with the financial participation of German business. At the same time, class actions and threats of boycott in the USA led to the establishment of the "Foundation Initiative of the German Economy": Above all, the large export-oriented companies offered to participate in the foundation without admitting guilt. As a condition they demanded the assurance of "legal security" for the companies before further lawsuits in the USA.

The Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future"

After lengthy international negotiations, the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” (EVZ) was founded on August 12, 2000 by federal law. German companies contributed around DM 5 billion to the DM 10 billion fund to compensate former forced laborers and other victims of National Socialism and to set up a special “Remembrance and Future” fund. After the Bundestag had established "legal certainty" on May 30, 2001, the payments could begin.


Interview: On the creation and work of the "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" foundation

(FU Berlin, CeDiS) License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de /
Günter Saathoff has been on the board of the "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" foundation (EVZ) since 2003. In the interview he talks about the creation and goals of the foundation. He explains the payment practice to former forced laborers and goes into the educational projects supported by the "Remembrance and Future" fund. He also explains why the payments for the forced laborers came so late and what the forced laborers did with the money. Further...

The regulation of the compensation by means of a foundation should be unbureaucratic and spare the companies, but also the elderly victims, individual legal proceedings. In fact, very few survivors would have seen the end of such protracted trials. Nevertheless, the compensation of various groups of victims in different countries was a rather complicated procedure, which was implemented in cooperation with seven international "partner organizations". They were responsible for accepting applications, determining entitlement to benefits and making payments. Their respective financial framework had been determined in advance in the international negotiations.

The individual payouts

From the total fund of over 4.6 billion euros, the Foundation EVZ paid compensation in particular to former concentration camp prisoners and to deported Central and Eastern European civil workers. Over 1.6 million survivors received one-off payments that differed depending on the country of origin and the severity of the storage conditions.

Concentration camp and ghetto prisoners received the maximum amount of 7,669 euros (category A), prisoners in labor education camps and so-called “other detention centers” received between 3,068 and 7,669 euros, forced laborers in industry generally received 2,556 euros (category B).

Thanks to an opening clause, the partner organizations were able to consider other groups of victims as part of their financial resources. As part of the opening clause, those employed in agriculture and child prisoners received between 536 and 2,235 euros. If those affected died after 1999, the relatives were entitled to the benefit. Separate compensation was paid out of the other funds of the foundation for insurance, financial and “other personal injuries”.

Not compensated

Members of the OSTARBEITER theater group protest against an exhibition by the industrialist heir and art collector Friedrich Christian Flick. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)
Prisoners of war received no payments unless they were imprisoned in concentration camps. This also applied to Soviet prisoners of war who had to do forced labor under the harshest conditions if they had not already starved to death in the Wehrmacht camps. It was not until 2015 that the Bundestag decided to pay, but this only reached a few survivors. The Italian military internees captured in 1943 did not receive any compensation despite their later classification as civilian workers and their particularly bad treatment. Their complaints before German and European courts were just as unsuccessful as the Soviet prisoners of war.

Western and southern European forced laborers were only recognized if they had to work under prison conditions. Most of those abducted from France, Belgium or the Netherlands therefore received no compensation. People who had been forced to work by the Germans in their own homeland were only partially taken into account in the Czech Republic, Poland and Belarus.

Those who died before 1999 as well as those who could no longer prove their forced labor after 65 years, or at least make it credible, also received nothing.

Historical meaning

The financial aspect of the compensation was extremely important for those affected in view of the depressing poverty of many elderly people in Eastern Europe. In addition, the debate about compensation, the verification and payment procedure itself, as well as the following activities of the foundation and other initiatives (meeting programs with survivors, exhibitions on the subject of forced labor, etc.) have contributed to bringing the long-forgotten victims of forced labor back into public memory to call, in their home countries as well as in German municipalities, companies and “big politics”.

Related Links

Background film Forced Labor and Compensation with additional materials in the online application learning environment "Learning with Interviews: Forced Labor 1939-1945" (registration required)

With stamp and sign. Digital workshop for source interpretation from the foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future"