Reckoning with the Slave Empires of WWII
James Walvin on the Forced Labor of
Concentration Camps and Gulags
The Slavery Convention, agreed by the League of Nations in September 1926, was the first time both slavery and the slave trade were defined in international law. Although the Convention accepted the existence of forced labor, it denied the right to remove that labor from its home territory. There remained, however, the perennial problem of how to enforce the rules.
Britain argued that slave trading should be linked to piracy, thus allowing navies to board and seize offending vessels. Other member states felt this smacked too strongly of Britain’s 19th-century gunboat diplomacy, and the matter was left to individual states to strike their own bilateral agreements against slave trading. The League asked two committees, in 1933 and 1934, to report further on slavery, but their efforts yielded no real change.
Even so, it is generally accepted that the Convention, and the efforts of the League in the 1920s and 1930s, marked an important diplomatic step forward in the global campaign against slavery. That work was to be picked up, after the Second World War, and incorporated into the new United Nations. By then, much more urgent, by the catastrophe of the war and the widespread use of slave labor by the combatants.
The new Soviet Union had refused to join the League of Nations, had not ratified the Slavery Convention of 1926 and felt no obligation to join the Western condemnation of slavery—not surprisingly, perhaps, because the Soviet regime soon began to use forced labor as an integral feature of the transformation of Russia. The various Soviet economic experiments of the 1930s increasingly relied on forced labor, the most severe, and the most feared, emerging under the supervision of the Soviet secret services. We know of them as the Gulag.
From 1928 onwards, the Gulag system’s prison camps filled up with prisoners spawned by the various Five Year Plans. Hundreds of thousands of peasants, for example, uprooted by collectivisation, were driven into camps in remote regions where free labor would never tread, to form a new army of servile labor to tap the enormous economic potential of Russia’s inhospitable expanses. The Gulag swallowed millions of people: displaced peasantry, conquered peoples and those deemed to be political enemies. About five million peasants and one and a half million Muslims were relocated vast distances in this fashion.
Events in Russia soon attracted outside critics, drawn by the system’s inhumanities—which were well known and widely discussed in the West in the early 1930s. They were debated in legislatures, in the press, and there were even boycotts of Soviet imports produced by unfree labor. Criticisms of the Soviet Union were stilled, however, by the rise of fascism, and finally and effectively silenced by the German onslaught on Russia in 1941. Henceforth the Soviet Union became a vital ally, and the main land-fighting against Germany (with suffering on a staggering scale) was undertaken by Russia.
All the nations drawn into that war imposed tight control over their labor force, but in Russia the war accentuated a process already underway, with a massive increase of penal labor and an expansion of labor camps to cope with the huge numbers involved. The real numbers remain unknown. The 476 known camps formed a formal tip of a massive network of satellite camps. In 1930, there had been an estimated 179,000 people in the Gulag; by 1941 that had increased to just short of two million. Although about one million prisoners left the camps to join the Red Army during the war, the overall number in penal servitude continued to rise.
By the time of Stalin’s death in 1953 there were almost two and a half million people in the camps. Throughout Stalin’s years in power, forced labor—and the Gulag—remained central to his plans for the Soviet economy, but within three months of his death, 60 percent of the Gulag’s prisoners had been released. Throughout the years of Stalin’s dominance—years of domestic revolutionary upheavals, ferocious warfare followed by difficult post-war reconstruction—slave labor had been basic to the Soviet economy.
This story of slave labor in the 20th century took an even more shocking turn in Germany. A mere decade after the League of Nations had adopted the Slavery Convention, one of Europe’s most sophisticated and advanced societies turned its back on all that. Not only did Nazi Germany repudiate all its prior diplomatic commitments to abolition, but it embarked on a violent process of mass enslavement of conquered foreigners, including many Slavs and Jews. In the process—and very quickly—the numbers of people enslaved by Nazi Germany dwarfed the slave systems in the Americas in the previous three centuries.
Even before the outbreak of war in 1939, the pronouncements and theories of Nazi leaders had hinted at what might happen, though the reality that unfolded was far beyond the imagination and understanding of an outside world for whom slavery was viewed as the ultimate evil: something from Europe’s distant and forgotten past. Germany’s early conquest of western Europe offered the first clues of what might follow, with tens of thousands of prisoners scooped up and transported to Germany as forced labor.
What followed in the east, however, shifted the matter to a different level. The “General Plan for the East” drafted in 1942 was a blueprint for a new and colossal system of enslavement on a scale that far surpassed anything seen before. Alongside schemes for the annihilation of millions, notably Europe’s Jews, the plan proposed the enslavement of 14 million people, and their transportation to work in Germany. In the First World War, Germany’s use of enemy civilians (notably Poles and Belgians) as forced labor, especially in agriculture, was to cost Germany dear in reparations imposed by the victors after 1918. But all that seemed trivial compared to what Nazi Germany imposed on its conquered territories after 1940.
Even before the attack on Russia in June 1941, Germany was using 1.2 million French POWs and 1.3 million “civilian workers” (mainly Poles) as laborers. At the height of the war, when 11 million Germans were under arms in conflicts that stretched from Norway to North Africa, the German economy was functioning with the labor of more than 13 million foreign workers. Without them, the German war effort would have faltered. The Nazi regime had in effect become a modern slave system. This time, it took the largest and mightiest military effort the world had ever seen to bring it down. There is no evidence that the Nazi slave regime would have ended without being crushed by warfare.
Though the Nazis had devised a hierarchy of inferiorities, which defined the nature of their slave labor gangs and the treatment they received, these grand schemes began to disintegrate as the war advanced. As the allied armies closed in on Germany, captives were driven to ever-greater exertions to maintain the flagging war effort. Finally, the captives found themselves either driven from their camps to flee the advancing allied armies—this was the last and most appalling migration of prisoners and slave labor, especially from the east—or deserted in their camps.
The abiding images of the Third Reich in its death throes are of millions of skeletal figures, more dead than alive, liberated by the allied armies. These diseased and tormented masses overwhelmed the relief organizations in 1945 and afterwards: there were millions of enslaved survivors of a regime that had used labor systems that the Western world had abandoned in the previous century.
The existence of forced labor in Nazi Germany is beyond dispute. But was it slavery? That question continues to nag critics, largely because of our understanding of what constitutes slavery. Slavery has come to mean the institution that evolved in the Americas. Understandably, perhaps, critics have been at pains to illustrate the distinctions between slave labor in the Second World War and African slavery in the Americas. Some regard 20th-century slave labor as more akin to Roman slavery than American slavery. It is surely important, however, to note that, when peace settled on Europe in 1945, the people most closely involved in securing post-war justice (lawyers, judges, academics) felt comfortable with the label “slavery” for what they encountered in the ruins of Europe.
The historian and critic, Gitta Sereny, spoke of her life, for two years after 1945, “working with displaced persons, Hitler’s slave workers’ and other victims. One of the major relief agencies (the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration—UNRRA) was confronted by five million displaced slave laborers—most of whom simply wanted to go home.
The shadow of slavery lingered over Europe long after the war had ended. Millions of survivors of Nazi slave labor remained locked for years in dispute with German governments (first in Bonn, then Berlin), and with a large number of German industries, demanding compensation for their time as slave laborers. The problems were immense.
For a start, the major German industries—the giants of the economy—were infamous employers of slave labor. By 1943, for example, Auschwitz, in the words of Gitta Sereny, was “the largest slave-labor camp the Nazis had.” Its enslaved occupants were put to work building and then operating the synthetic fuel and rubber factory built for I. G. Farben. They also constructed the gas chambers at Birkenau close by. But slave labor in addition, was widely scattered across Nazi Germany, from small local bakeries to farms
The post-war legal, moral and personal complexities involved were enormous, often made worse by the fact that large numbers of victims had no material or written proof of their ordeals. In this legal and moral minefield, one central issue stands out. No one doubted that millions of people had been used as slaves. The word itself—slave—was used (though a number of distinctions were drawn between slavery and other forms of penal labour used by the Nazis). Early efforts to agree compensation for the slave laborers failed to resolve the matter and it took a number of class actions in the USA in the 1990s to prompt the German government to establish a foundation and a fund to compensate people forced into slave labor.
Billions of dollars were allocated by the German government and by German industries: some 6,500 businesses contributed, though many refused. Even by the early 21st century more than half a century after the end of the war—there were 2.5 million survivors of Nazi slave labor, and many were still pressing their case for compensation. Both at the time and since, the imagery and vocabulary of slavery were widely used to describe these events—although it tended to go unnoticed that in the space of a mere five years the Nazis had enslaved more people than were ever enslaved in the Americas.
When the surviving Nazi leadership was called to account at Nuremberg, their actions were deemed to have been “crimes against humanity.” The term had been inserted into the trials at the suggestion of Professor Hersch Lauterpacht of Cambridge University. After much debate between law officers from all four allied powers, the final charter drafted to govern the trials adopted Article 6(c). This granted the judges of the impending tribunal the power to punish people who had committed crimes against humanity.
Those crimes included “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war.” In the words of Philippe Sands, this clause formed a major shift in legal opinion. It was “a professional and intellectual leap” that laid the basis for much of the debate not only at the Nuremberg trials, but also, in the years since those trials, about modern slavery.
Excerpted from Freedom by James Walvin. Published by Pegasus Books. © James Walvin.