Eastern Convicts

27 February 2012, 13:22

National-socialist arbeiteinsatz (labor deployment – ed.) during WWII was the largest employment of foreigners in the economy of a separate country in history since the times of slavery. If one takes into account the fact that 50% of these soviet laborers were from the territory, now occupied by modern Ukraine, then our compatriots made up one of the largest groups of foreigners, working in the Reich. During the occupation of the Wehrmacht, just about every Ukrainian family experienced the calamity of labor deployment. Forced labor in Nazi Germany and the post-war Soviet repatriation policy had tragic consequences on the fate of millions of people in our country, radically changing the course of their lives.


The first Ukrainians already found themselves in German forced labor in the summer of 1939. These were the residents of Zakarpattya (Transcarpathia) which at that time was occupied by Hungarian forces, who were liberated and sent to work in Austria. The next wave to be sent to the Reich in early September 1939, were servicemen from Halychyna (Galicia) serving in the Polish Army, who were captured and subsequently joined the ranks of civilian laborers. The first civilian laborers from Ukrainian territories, occupied by the Wehrmacht, voluntarily left for Germany in the summer of 1941 from the “Halychyna” district.

Prior to the German-Soviet war, the Nazi leadership had not planned to use work forces from occupied territories in the USSR (particularly Ukraine) in the industry of its own country. On the contrary, schemes had been developed for the mass destruction of millions of local residents (Generalplan Ost – General Plan East) and the German colonization of captured Soviet lands. The failure of the “blitzkrieg” in autumn 1941, the necessity to conduct positional military action and mobilize ever more German peasants and laborers to the army, forced Hitler to partially change his extermination plans and use the labor resource of his occupied Eastern territories in the economic interests of the Third Reich.

First of all, Nazi functionaries pinned their hopes on several million Soviet prisoners of war. However, by the end of 1941, of the 3.5mn captured Soviet servicemen, 60% did not survive the hunger of the winter of 1941/1942. The main efforts of the Germans on captured Soviet territories were subsequently directed towards recruiting civilian laborers.

The Nazi propaganda campaign in Ukraine began in the winter of 1942. Its top priority was to target large cities: Kharkiv, Kyiv, Stalin (now Donetsk) and Dnipropetrovsk. In view of the unemployment and hunger, the population of large industrial centers became the desired catch of Nazi propaganda.

At the peak of the winter hunger of 1942, an appeal by the General-Commissar of Kyiv, Kvitcrau was published on the pages of the Kyiv-based newspaper, “Nove Ukrayinske Slovo” (“New Ukrainian Word”): “Ukrainian men and women! Germany is giving you the opportunity to have useful and gainful work. The first transport trains are setting off for Germany in January 1942. You will have good provisions during the journey and in addition, there will be hot food in Kyiv, Zdolbuniv and Przemysl. In Germany, you will be well taken care of and will find good living conditions. Wages will also be good: you will receive money according to the tariff and your productivity. Your families will be taken care of for the duration of your work in Germany”.

It’s no wonder that a lot of unemployed city-folk, exhausted by hunger and hopeless existence in half-ruined cities, believed the promises of the German recruiters. The first echelon, comprised of 1,117 laborers-specialists, set off from Kharkiv to Koeln on January 18, 1942, the second to Brandenburg– on January 21. The first train of labor resources from Kyiv to Germany, comprised of 1,500 people, departed on January 22, 1942, and from Stalin – on February 24. A specific feature of the initial German labor recruitment, was the clear-cut specialization of laborers according to their professions (preference was given to men specializing in construction, metallurgy, mining, etc), as well as their largely voluntary nature.

By February 1942, German officials were already demanding an additional 290,000 farmworkers and 80,000 qualified specialists for German industry – 30,000 from Kyiv and 50,000 from Stalin, from Ukraine. However, the flow of volunteers did not satisfy the ever-increasing demand for a labor force, and after the first letters from “free Europe”, it ground to a complete halt. An extensive forced deportation campaign was begun, in which even local authorities and the police participated.

After the introduction of the position of General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment in March 1942, which was filled by Fritz Sauckel, the scale of the work of recruitment commissions increased significantly in the East. In his telegram to the Reich Commissars in occupied regions, dated March 31, 1942, he openly demanded the use of forcible measures: “I am asking you to force recruitment, for which you, together with the commissions, are responsible, using all possible measures, including the strict application of the forced labor principle, in order to treble the number of recruits in as short a time as possible”.

The Germans began mass raids on the local population, engaging local police and soldiers of the Wehrmacht, as of September 1942. The implemented system of promises, social pressure and brutal terror allowed them to deport more than 1mn civilian laborers from the occupied Eastern territories, most of them (714,000) from Ukraine.

For Ukrainians, 1943 was marked by a new campaign on the part of the Nazis: the mobilization of able-bodied laborers aged between 16 and 50. There was no mention of free will, even in the propaganda notices. In 1943, the Germans deported almost 1.09mn people from Ukraine and in 1944 – an additional 600,000. 


Regardless of whether they went to the Reich under voluntary or forcible conditions, Ukrainians had the same social and legal status, or to be more accurate, they had no rights. In order to ensure the “purity of German blood”, prevent the spreading of the influence of “Soviet propaganda” on Germans and attain the productive use of people from Eastern occupied territories, the Reichssicherheitshauptamt – Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) was tasked with drafting a complex of special documents, which would regulate this process. Bernhard Baatz, an official of the RSHA, proposed an identifying sign for this multi-national category of laborers in the form of a triangle with the letters OST on a blue background (similar to the sign for Polish laborers from the General Governate, which contained the letter Р). In time, people from Eastern occupied territories wearing this sign came to be called Ostarbeiters, in other words, laborers from the East. Not all the newcomers from Ukraine were called Ostarbeiters. People from Halychyna had a different legal status in the Reich.

The main principles regarding the use of Eastern laborers were set forth in so-called Decrees on Ostarbeiters, prepared by a special RSHA commission and signed by Heinrich Himmler on February 20, 1942. They provided for the supervision of their work, relocation, leisure and even sex life. Ostarbeiters were housed in special camps under strict guard. At production facilities, they were segregated from Germans and other foreign laborers, were given pay, which was half, or even a third of the salary of Germans, from which their living expenses were deducted. Nutrition standards were the lowest among the other categories of foreign laborers in Germany. Penalties for labor and political transgressions included a wide range of measures from corporal punishment to being sent to penal or concentration camps. For sexual contact between an Ostarbeiter and a German woman – capital punishment for the partner and concentration camp for a woman.

Legislation regarding Eastern laborers changed throughout the war. At year-end of 1942, they were allowed to write to their families (two postcards per month), from November 1943 – they could leave the camp at the discretion of the camp leaders, and towards the end of 1944, the nutrition standards for people from the Soviet Union were made comparable to those of other foreigners. However, before the conclusion of the war, Eastern laborers remained the most oppressed and the one lacking the most rights in the Third Reich.

Chances for survival largely depended on where a person ended up: at a state production facility, where working and living conditions were the most difficult, or on a private farm, where it was easier to subsist. One third of the Ostarbeiters worked on farms, 45% in industry. According to gender-age composition indices among Eastern laborers, the largest was that of women (51%) and the largest number of minors (almost 41% among men and 60% among women).

Poor living conditions, inadequate nutrition, hard work, catastrophic sanitary and hygienic conditions in the camps and the spread of various parasites and vermin led a situation whereby the highest percentage of injuries and mortality from infectious diseases and exhaustion was observed among the Ostarbeiters (compared to other foreigners). Most deaths were caused by tuberculosis, cardiovascular problems, consumption, industrial accidents and typhoid.

According to statistical data, average monthly mortality among Ostarbeiters in 1943 was up to 1,210. However, in 1944–1945, it was even higher, as a result of allied air strikes. According to detailed calculations, 80-100,000 Ostarbeiters died in the Reich.

The living conditions of Ukrainians differed from camp to camp and from farm to farm. Many years after the war, a lot of the forced laborers were able to talk about the help and compassion of their German colleagues at work and humane treatment on the part of the “Bauers” (German farmers). For some of them, this was the first, and sometimes their only trip, not only abroad, but also beyond their own village. And through barbed wire, many of them were able to see a significantly higher standard of living, not only of average Germans, but also Czechs, Poles, the French and their brothers in captivity. For some, it was an opportunity to escape from the former Soviet reality, not to return to the USSR.


Once military operations came to an end in Europe in 1945, for a certain period of time, most forced labor from the East lived in displaced persons’ camps in West Germany. According to international treaties between the allies and the anti-Hitler coalition, approved at the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences in 1945, return (repatriation) to the USSR was declared to be mandatory for all the citizens, who had lived in the Soviet Union prior to 1939. There were 1.850mn such people, of which, a large proportion was made up of former forced labor. Those who did not wish to return to the Soviet Union and were able to avoid mandatory repatriation became one of the elements of the so-called third wave of emigration from Ukraine.

Hundreds of different camps and stations were established on the territories of East European countries and on the western borderland of the USSR in record time, in order to ensure the return from abroad of millions of Soviet citizens. Their priorities, in contrast to those of the relevant entities of Western allies, were the political filtration and statistical registration of people who had been abroad for an extended period, not medical and material aid to Nazi victims. Most repatriates were examined and filtered at front-line and army camps or temporary-transit stations of the People’s Defense Commissariat and examination-filtration stations of the NKVD, which were conducted by Chekists (Cheka agents). According to the results, only 58% were returned to their families at their former place of residence. 19% of men were mobilized to the Red Army, a further 14% – to so-called work battalions, 6.5% were handed over to the NKVD, in other words arrested, while 2% worked in temporary camps or other Soviet military units abroad. But even those who were allowed to return home had to undergo another examination in state security agencies, on the results of which, a so-called filtration case was opened on each person.

Thus, regardless of the rights and freedoms of repatriates, that were declared by the Soviet government, in real life, the political status of these people actually differed little from the status of criminal offenders (interviews with NKVD-KGB officers, the opening of special cases, mandatory registration with the police and not being able to live in capital cities).


In 1946, the International Military Tribunal in Nurnberg recognized the Nazi practice of expatriation and the forced labor of foreigners as a crime against humanity and a gross violation of the standards of international law. However, the issue of the determination of forced laborers as victims of Nazism and their right to compensation remained beyond the limits of international-legal and internal state regulation for a prolonged period of time.

In was only towards the end of the 1980s that negotiations began between the USSR and West Germany regarding the paying of humanitarian aid to former forced laborers from the Soviet Union, which were concluded in 1993 with the signing of a Russian-German treaty. For its implementation, the FGR allocated DEM 1bn for distribution to the “Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation” funds, which were established in Kyiv, Moscow and Minsk.

In September 1993, during trilateral negotiations in Minsk, this sum was divided between Russia, Ukraine and Belarus in a ratio of 40%, 40% and 20% accordingly. As of September 1, 1999, humanitarian payments in Ukraine were received by 631,375 people, for which DEM 377.407mn was allocated. 

In September 2000, the “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” foundation was established in the FRG, the participants of which included not only the state of Germany, but also its industrial circles. Its task was not the provision of humanitarian aid, but compensation for forced labor. According to the results of its activities, by June 2007, when payments were officially finalized, 1.6mn people in more than 100 countries of the world received a total of EUR 4. 37bn. In Ukraine, the “Mutual Understanding and Reconciliation” Fund paid out a total of EUR 867mn to 471,000 claimants, including former Ostarbeiters and their heirs.

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