Workers' Struggles And The Capitalist Counter-Offensive Under National Socialism

Workers at a Nazi engineering labour camp
Workers at a Nazi engineering labour camp

Elisabeth Behrens writes on the Nazis' use of force and racial and national stratifications amongst workers to divide up and crush the working class.

Submitted by Steven. on November 24, 2009

Editorial Note
What follows is a new translation by Peter Martin of Section 5 of Chapter 3 of the book Die Andere Arbeiterbewegung ('The Other Workers' Movement') by Karl-Heinz Roth and Elisabeth Behrens. The whole book was first published in 1974 by Trikont Verlag, Munich. ISBN: 3-920385-55-1. In this first English publication the references have been left out, however, this should not affect comprehension of the article. References are available in the original source. This piece will also be included in a forthcoming book on 'class composition and questions of Germany - past and present', to be published by Red Notes (London).

The division of the working class through the forced-labour system.
Those German workers who were not in the army found that their conditions of exploitation relative to the pre-war situation did not substantially worsen until well into 1942. This concession to German workers had a price, though - the forced transportation of millions of people and the limitless exploitation and repression which they had to endure. The restructuring of the working class, which was effected in the shortest possible time and via highly repressive means, led to an improvement of the German workers' position in production. But at the same time, any tendency towards the political homogenisation of this European working class was fought with every available means of class division. At the top of a consciously generated hierarchy that exploited racial prejudices, wage-differentials and positions in the process of production stood the German workers, who increasingly played the role of production overseers, with a view to extracting more output from the foreign forced-labourers. Their participation, whether direct or indirect, in the repression of that broad stratum of the working class subordinated to them effectively undermined the cycle of struggles that they had embarked on before the start of the war.

Apart from German male and female workers, there were five other distinct categories of workers: "Foreigners in general, Poles, Eastern workers, prisoners of war, and Jews". All "civilian" workers from states occupied by or allied to Germany came into the first group. These foreign workers generally had a work contract of at least six months duration, and were paid the prevailing rate for unskilled workers in the relevant branch of industry. Prisoners of war from Western Europe and Scandinavian countries, who were often transferred into a labour status falling under civilian laws so that they could be directly employed in the arms industry, enjoyed more or less the same conditions as the first group. This did not apply to the Polish and Russian prisoners of war. In the case of Russian prisoners of war, the Supreme Army Command ordered that "Soviet prisoners of war are not to be employed under conditions at all comparable with those of other prisoners of war ... Only one law is to be observed: German interests, with a view to protecting the German people against Soviet Russian prisoners of war employed in work-teams and in order to exploit the Russians' labour-power ... The protection of the German people must be the main criterion when Russians are employed; putting them to work is of secondary importance". The Polish and Russian workers, the so-called Eastern workers, each came one step lower down the scale. And right at the bottom, not even regarded as human beings, came the gypsies and the Jews.

National differences between the peoples of Eastern Europe were consciously exploited, and new ones created, in order to prevent a process of solidarisation arising within this most oppressed stratum. The order of the day was "divide and rule". The German Labour Front's training material for guards and company managers mentions the importance of recognising "conflicts and enmities in dealing with the various nationalities". In its memorandum "On the Handling of Foreign Nationals in the East", it emphasises that "not only do we have the greatest interest in not uniting the population of the East, but on the contrary, it is in our interest to divide that population into as many sections and fragments as possible". This pariah-stratum among the workers already bore external stigmas; they had to wear badges bearing the words "Pole", "Eastern worker" or the star of David in such a way as to be visible to all concerned. The wearing of these badges was tantamount to putting them outside the law, and it left them without rights or protection against arbitrary excesses of treatment. They lived in ghetto camps, behind barbed wire, and eked out a barely human existence under dreadful conditions of hygiene, hunger and often sickness. Even the government commission set up by Sauckel's office was obliged to report that the big companies were ignoring even the minimum requirements laid upon them by the National Socialist authorities in the camps. In the mass lodgings, darkness reigned; there was vermin everywhere, and the camps were regularly subject to epidemics. The combination of these living conditions together with the heavy labour every day, the meagre food-rations and the constant terror meant a slow death for millions of foreign workers - in short, destruction through work. The Polish and Russian workers were maintained in a particular pariah status within this working class by means of police methods and administrative violence. Secret service "Regulations Covering the Duties of Polish-nationality Men and Women Civilian Workers during their Residence in the Reich" gives a precise account of the measures used to ensure the isolation of, and discrimination against, these lowest strata of the working class. They were not permitted to leave their place of residence; they were forbidden to use public transport; they were to sew a badge saying "Pole" firmly onto the right breast of every item of clothing; if they deserted their place of work, worked sloppily, undertook acts of sabotage or committed offences against work-discipline they risked being sent to labour-education camps; all social contact with the German population and visits to cinemas, bars, etc. was forbidden; "any person having sexual intercourse with, or otherwise making indecent approaches to, a German woman or man" was punished with death. Needless to say, the ghettoisation of foreign workers in all areas of social life was similarly mirrored in their position in production.

The process of dividing the workers in the factories began with differing levels of pay and discriminatory job allocations, and ended in the concentration camps belonging to the companies themselves, the "labour education" camps. The wage scales were designed to match the grading hierarchy imposed on the workforce. The group classified as "foreigners in general" normally received the prevailing rate for unskilled German workers in the relevant branch of industry. According to a decree issued in June 1942, they were to be paid according to the prevailing local and national rates, in order to increase their output, with the proviso that foreign workers should "not find themselves better placed than German workers". As a matter of course, they received the jobs that fell into the lowest category anyway. Prisoners of war did not receive any pay at all: they were hired out to companies by the prisoner-of-war camp managers. The only way they could earn extra cash of their own was by way of piecework or other surplus-labour. From September 1943, however, regulations were introduced permitting prisoners-of-war to receive part of their wages directly, as part of a series of measures aimed at raising labour productivity. Polish and Russian workers, however, had additional taxes which they had to pay: the "social compensation payment" was a deduction of 15 per cent from the wages of Polish workers, and the "Eastern workers' payment" rose proportionally as their earnings rose. After deductions for board, lodging, clothing and special taxes, the Polish and Russian workers often ended up without a penny of their earnings left.

Foreigners were set to work directly in the factories, and which jobs they were allocated depended on their place in the hierarchy. The Reich Industry Group had stipulated the conditions for the employment of foreign workers as early as 1940: "German-nationality manpower is not to be used for simple, subordinate and primitive jobs; jobs of this kind are to be carried out exclusively by members of the auxiliary populations (principally Slavs, etc). More dignified work of greater value is to be reserved for workers of German nationality." Thus the physically arduous, dangerous and dirty jobs were given to foreign workers, and "work of greater qualitative value" (which consisted in ensuring that no problems cropped up in production; and of acting as overseers to the foreign workers) was reserved for German workers. So, for example, the management at one of the Flick iron foundries wrote to the Reich Iron Association that "its plant needed a contingent of German employees, to oversee the Russian workers and get them to work harder." It was stated that maximum discipline and optimal control of foreign workers was achieved at the Flick plant by putting the foreign workers onto production-line work: "In order to secure higher output from these prisoners of war, groups should be put onto production-line working wherever possible." The employment of foreign labour was organised according to the same criteria. The IG-Farben officials responsible for industrial counter espionage drew up detailed plans for the employment of foreign workers: Soviet workers were to be kept constantly under the supervision of the Werkschutz (Works Security) or other specifically allocated supervisory personnel. In Mansfeld, as elsewhere in the mining industry, foreign workers were generally sent underground. W. Jonas describes the conditions of forced labourers in the Mansfeld copper mines: "The foreign workers were mainly employed where the heavy, arduous, slogging labour is, at the points where they themselves do not set the pace of work, but where the pace is set by the amount of mineral cut out by the mining team, with the latter maintaining a constant pressure on the ore-shifters to get the mineral away from the face." One last example: at AEG in 1942, the proportion of foreign workers stood at 35 per cent, and in some factories there were actually more foreign workers employed than Germans. The company management therefore proposed training the German workers so that they could "take over overseeing and training the foreigners".

The forced labour system operated along identical lines in every factory. Foreign workers got the heavy, dangerous jobs, and the German workers were promoted up the hierarchy of the organisation of labour. They were retrained, they were allocated better and more skilled work, or they moved out of the immediate process of production. They became foremen or simple supervisors to the foreign workers.

Discrimination against forced-labourers and prisoners of war, both socially and in the factories, was maintained on a daily basis by an elaborate machinery of repression. There was considerable resistance on the part of the foreign workers who were transported to Germany and forced to engage in military and arms production. It was only by means of rule of terror that the growing resistance among the foreign workers could be kept under control.

The organised nucleus of repression in the factories lay in the hands of the Werkschutz, the Works Security body. At the onset of war, the Werkschutz was reinforced by groups of "politically reliable" employees, and a subsidiary Works Security system was built up alongside the main one. In August 1940, all company police were once again granted the official status of special police. With Hirnmler's decree of February 1942 on the "Employment of Manpower from the East", repression in the factories was further extended and intensified. The Gestapo were instructed to ensure that those responsible for factory defence kept a strict watch on Soviet forced labourers. Guarding these workers was defined as a specific task of the Works Security, and the Werkschutz "should be reinforced with master-craftsmen and foremen in order to be able to maintain strict control during the labour process as well." "Corporal punishment of the workforce," which could go as far as "special treatment with the rope", was permitted and actually practised. The Gestapo headquarters in Dusseldorf instructed factories in June 1942 that they were to appoint one guard for every 20-30 foreign workers. These guards were expressly ordered "to intervene ruthlessly at the slightest sign of lawlessness and disobedience ... and to make unsparing use of firearms in order to break resistance. Escaping Russians are to be fired on immediately, with the intention of hitting them." In mid-1942, two additional bodies were established - the "Extended Werkschutz I" and the "Extended Werkschutz 2". "Extended Works Security I" was to reinforce the main Werkschutz body, and this was the principle role of its members. The activities of "Extended Works Security 2" were of a lesser order, and related to the maintenance of "labour peace" at the workplace. In 1943 it was stipulated that master-craftsmen and foremen in particular were to involve themselves with Werkschutz in order to be able to keep a particular watch on foreign workers at their place of work. Finally, in 1944 it was ordered that "in order to carry out the increased security measures necessary, the Werkschutz is immediately to be reinforced with an Auxiliary Works Security and a Works Brigade (Werkschar)". With its manifold tentacles _ Extended Works Security 1 and 2, Auxiliary Works Security, Alarm Units, Company Military Reserves, Guards, Works Brigades, foremen and master-craftsmen - the Werkschutz maintained a far-reaching hold over factory life. It was directed almost exclusively against the foreign workers and prisoners of war, and its powers were repeatedly extended as a response to the increasing resistance of these most oppressed strata of the working class. These works police were uniformed and equipped with rifles, pistols and truncheons; at Krupps they also had metal rods covered with leather. Former foreign forced-labourers who appeared as witnesses before the Nuremberg Military Court testified that these murderous weapons were used against foreign workers at the slightest provocation. The Werkschulz was responsible for guarding the foreign workers in the camps, on the way to the factory, and at their place of work. The forced-labourers were not spared the brutality and often cynical cruelty of their guards for a moment. Prison was omnipresent. But what was of decisive importance to the political behaviour of the working class as a whole was that it was not merely a small group of "inhuman works security, SS and Gestapo personnel" who were involved in this incredible system of oppression, but large numbers of ordinary German workers, who were integrated into the system and who basically benefited from it. German workers got better jobs and thus higher pay ; they were no longer right at the bottom of social ladder within the factory, because below them there were still the "foreigners in general, Poles, Eastern workers, prisoners of war, gypsies and Jews", who were much more deprived of their rights than they were.

German workers had become foremen, master-craftsmen, or "guards" of the foreign workers. A document dealing with the formation of the so-called "Factory Military Reserve" shows how an increasing number of German workers took on directly repressive functions over the forced labourers. The chief security manager of the Krupp company wrote to the State Police headquarters in Dtisseldorf: "I have received confirmation that Factory Military Reserves have been set up and sworn in at every factory as per instructions. As soon as distribution of staves, arm-bands and steel helmets has taken place, some 310 Factory Military Brigades, comprising some 2,050 employees, will be available if reserve Brigades and Reserve members are included ... Apart from these Factory Brigades, which ... are intended to maintain the security of the factories, an Alarm Unit has been set up to reinforce the Werkschutz . .. We have received from the Army, via the local armaments brigade, 250 Mannlicher rifles and 4,600 rounds of ammunition to equip both the Werkschulz and the Alarm Units ... The purpose of these units is to combat unrest among our 18,000 foreign employees, 6,000 of them Eastern workers, but in my opinion there will be little need to call on their services, since fears of unrest among the workforce or the population need not be entertained".

The German workers were not only being trained as a means for combatting possible attempts at uprising, and for suppressing armed resistance on the part of the forced-labourers and prisoners of war; they were also expected to oversee the productive output of the foreign workers in the course of the day's work. "Auxiliary guard-teams", "guards" and "reliable" German workers were there to maintain the necessary work discipline. Prisoners of war were to be subjected to "the work-discipline of German factories" during their working hours. "This is maintained by Auxiliary guard-teams appointed from among the German members of the workforce ... These teams do not have a direct working relationship with the prisoner-of-war camp, but they are subject to the regulations applying to soldiers in accordance with Article 35 of the Military Code, as regards the use of weapons." There was no squeamishness about granting additional powers to this army of factory police. Their main duty was to establish "labour peace and work discipline" among foreign workers; nobody asked any questions about how they went about doing so, and nobody called them to account for their handling of those workers. On the contrary, they were induced to act still more harshly and ruthlessly against the forced-workers, on pain of punishment. In order to counteract the decline in output, a memo sent to company managers ran: "Foremen and guard-teams are to be held responsible for failures to maintain output. Ruthless action must be taken against supervisory personnel in any case of shirking - even when grounds of ill-health are pleaded - or loafing. Company managers must not allow any slackness to develop among their supervisory personnel. Sharp punishment is assured by the police, in summary form and without time-consuming hearings."

How was resistance to be expected from this German "foreman of Europe", against the perfected system of Nazi exploitation and repression? When you consider that there was one guard for about every 20 foreign workers, it is not hard to calculate how many German workers were involved solely in the direct oppression of the forced labourers. And the privileges accorded to the German workers in this forced-labour system did not fail in their political intention of undermining any united struggle by foreign and German workers against this new form of capitalist rule. Direct repression in the factories had a whole arsenal of sanctions at its disposal. It began with the factory roll-call each morning, and could end with a worker being despatched to a "labour education" camp. In the IG-Farben factories, the morning roll-call was an undisguised intimidation of the foreign workers to achieve the required output. One set of instructions stated: "At the beginning of every working day, it is to be explained to the Eastern workers, via an interpreter, what work-task they have to fulfil on that day. They are to be told that they will only return to their camp when the work has been properly finished. Under no circumstances is there to be payment for overtime." If work was poor, or output low, wages were cut, extra work was imposed in the form of overtime, night-shift or Sunday working, or the already insufficient food-rations were reduced still further. Sauckel's office instructed all factories that: "If the output of a worker falls behind the average output of a German workers, his pay is to be cut correspondingly." In the case of Polish and Russian workers, deductions for "insufficient output", board, lodging, transport to the place of work, and for time lost due to sickness, led to their not merely receiving no pay, but actually "falling into debt with the company". In cases of offences against work-discipline, food rations could be reduced for anything from one day to several weeks. But this by no means exhausted the sanctions available. In the Wolfen film factory, for instance, a special supervisory service was set up to identify "foreign shirkers". These spies from a body called "Social Bureau II" spent their whole day seeking out so-called "shirkers" and dragging them back to their workplaces. In order to sustain work-discipline, the company management at the Leuna works recommended the following "educative measures": "Heating may be denied to the workshy, for one or more days. The work-shy can be held in a place of detention on bread and water in the camp during their free time. Persistent shirkers are to be reported to the State Police for transport to a concentration camp".

From 1940 on, there were so-called "punishment brigades" in the Leuna works for "workshy and lazy elements"; they were under the particularly strict supervision of a master-craftsman and the Works Security. In the Flick works too there were punishment brigades for workers "working carelessly and lazily". In cases where the factory workers did not themselves feel able to establish the necessary work-discipline among the foreign workers, the Gestapo was called in. The final stage of repression in the factories was the "labour education" camps. Their function was to educate "workshy elements to work discipline" and to "return them to their place of work once this goal has been achieved". Initially, the labour-education camps were attached to the State Police or the Criminal Police headquarters. But with the growth of labour resistance, the companies were losing too many men to the Gestapo and SS, so they took over the labour education camps in the vicinity of the factory with a view to disciplining the forced-labourers themselves. In IG-Farben's labour education camps, the inmates were divided into three categories. The first group was the "re-education company" and it contained mostly German workers who had drawn attention to themselves by making remarks in the factory. They were generally set lighter work, and in the evening had to attend courses in National Socialist ideology. In the second group were the shirkers. Their punishment consisted of hard labour and arduous exercises. Then came the "punishment battalion". In addition to being subjected to hard labour, these people were harassed and ill-treated in an incredible manner. The testimony of former inmates of the Krupp punishment camp, the notorious Dechen and Neerfeld School, show that the companies' own punishment camps were no whit inferior to the concentration camps for ruthlessness. At Krupps, workers were submitted to a regime of systematic torture. First they had to undergo beatings by the Krupp company police. Their private possessions were taken away, they received prison clothing without underclothes, and their heads were shaved with crude razors. "They were woken every day at six o'clock and taken to work without food. Some of the time they were put to work on heavy earth-moving, at other times they were put on munitions construction or into the cast-steel works. They were beaten to make them work harder. After twelve hours' work, they received about half a litre of warm water with cabbage leaves floating in it, about 50gr jam and 25gr sausage. Throughout their period of detention the prisoners received no washing water, no soap, no new clothing, no medical treatment and no wages." These conditions were not exceptional. One former inmate of the Siemens company labour" education camp in Radeberg wrote:

"I have spent six and a half years in German prisons. The worst I experienced was the labour-education camp at Radeberg. The conditions in Radeberg surpassed anything we had ever known. You could more or less calculate when and how you would drop dead. A prisoner who was put in with me died after two days as a result of the ill-treatment. You had to shovel muck several centimetres deep out of the barracks. There were no blankets, soap or towels, and corpses with signs of serious ill-treatment lay in the toilets. Inmates of the so-called labour education camp at Radeberg were beaten for no reason at all, and this meant being put over a stool and being held down by your head and your hands. People often got 50, 60 or 75 blows, so that within three days inmates would die as a result of the beatings".

Common Sense #10, 1991
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