Today, the term ‘slavery’ is still the subject of heated debate. Slavery has been formally abolished in all countries worldwide, and this can be seen as one of the greatest achievements in the history of mankind. Yet, at the same time, a wave of works on ‘new slavery’ has hit the market over the past fifteen years, and all of these books suggest the continued existence of slavery on a large scale. The authors of these works estimate that there are between 27 and 200 million slaves in the world today, depending on the definition of slavery used. The discrepancies in these numbers alone provide an indication of the far-reaching consequences of the various definitions of this term.
This alone shows how important it is to hammer out a workable definition of slavery and to question the reasons for the persistence of unfree labour conditions in the twentieth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many people surmised that the presumed onward march of democracy and capitalism around the globe would spell the end of unfree labour conditions, because their coercive nature was widely viewed as ineffective. Although most leading industrialised nations still relied on systems of forced labour in their colonies, starting in the 1920s an increasing number of international regulations were passed with the aim of eventually abolishing these practices. It was the two great political opponents of liberal democracy – National Socialism (or, in a more general sense, fascism) and Stalinism (or, in a more general sense, communism) – that reverted back to various forms of unfree labour on a wide scale from the 1930s onwards. As the main types of camp systems introduced by the leading countries representing these political movements, Nazi concentration camps and Stalinist gulags occupy a particularly prominent and notorious position that is deeply engraved in the collective memory of mankind. Both these types of internment camp began as a system of punishing political opponents, without much emphasis on exploiting their labour. But as time passed, the labour deployment of prisoners in both camp complexes increasingly gained in importance, hence the growing tendency among historians to designate both systems as types of slavery.
Towards a definition
The enormity of the challenge of precisely defining slavery – despite its universal prohibition – reflects the great political significance of this endeavour. If we set out to attach a fixed definition to the term, we must keep in mind that slavery is not a static entity but rather has appeared historically in a multitude of forms and is mutable. This is precisely what makes it so hard to define. As Nietzsche said: ‘All terms which semiotically condense a whole process elude definition; only that which has no history can be defined.’
A common way of avoiding this problem is to refer to the respective expression used in a particular locality and describe what it means. For a term that now carries such blatantly negative connotations as slavery, however, this solution is not an option, as it would simply reproduce the silence that – at least on the part of the slaveholders – still holds sway over the domain. In the scholarly research literature on slavery, there are three primary orientations, each of which has put forward a different definition of the term. The cultural studies approach defines slavery as a system of exclusion and social death that is associated with humiliation and vulnerability. The juridical definition comprehends slavery above all as a private situation of ownership involving an unlimited authority to dispose over persons. The third definition stems from economic and social-historical research contexts and focuses on the economic aspect, according to which the disenfranchised person who has been cut off from any form of possession is exploited in the interest of the utmost profit maximisation. Each of these approaches has its justification and is in itself coherent. However, it is also clear that no one of them has the power to explain all historical forms of slavery.
A further possibility would be to use the working definition of Elisabeth Hermann-Otto, which she herself describes as the lowest common denominator that can account for all the various forms of slavery. According to this definition, slavery is a ‘relationship of domination between a subject (master, trader, keeper) and an object (a person who has been robbed of his or her freedom and/or freedom of movement), which refers, either temporarily or for an unlimited time, to the entire person or alone to his or her manpower (including the body as an object of desire). This fundamental relationship of dominance can be exercised by one or more private persons or an economic enterprise, but also by a political regime, whereas in the latter case the boundary with the political exercise of authority, under which free citizens and subjects can also fall, is difficult to draw but must be preserved.’
I regard this definition as too general and too narrowly tailored to the aspect of repression. For this reason, I would broaden the definition to include cultural and sociological aspects. In particular, it is important to stress the exclusion of slaves from society and their degraded status. Often slaves weren’t seen as humans by their masters but as animals.
With the exception of the legal definition, all the definitions thus far put forward would, in my opinion, indicate that concentration camp and gulag prisoners could be called slaves.
The historical contexts of the three slave systems
Any serious treatment of the question of whether concentration camp or gulag prisoners were slaves should begin with a brief overview of the history of slavery in the modern period – something that nearly all previous researchers investigating this question have neglected to do. This would enrich our understanding of how a particular slaveholding society should be categorised both temporally and economically and what role the slave system played within the broader organisation of labour.
US southern slavery
Plantation slavery in the southern US was introduced around the beginning of the seventeenth century. It persisted through the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and survived up to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. The entire phenomenon thus encompasses a time span of about 250 years, although the period of the system’s greatest significance and expansion fell within the final 50 years. The first slaves reached North America when the region was under British rule. Here slavery gradually replaced a system of unfree labour that had been based primarily on indenture.
While in several northern as well as southern states one can initially speak of societies with slaves, in the northern states free labour relations increasingly took hold. In contrast to this, some of the southern states transformed themselves from societies with slaves into slaveholding societies. This was based on the one hand on the fact that the major export products of the southern states – tobacco and later cotton – required extensive tending year-round, which made the expensive, one-time investment in slaves cost-effective. On the other hand, supplies of new contract workers from Europe gradually petered out as the economy in the Old World experienced an upturn. In the southern states slavery thereby gradually replaced another form of unfree labour as the dominant mode. In North America – as previously in the Spanish colonies of the Caribbean – this development was accompanied by efforts to annihilate or displace the indigenous population, who were rarely enslaved by Europeans.
In general, it is evident that the slavery system in the southern US can hardly be viewed in isolation, but rather must be seen in close connection with processes unfolding in other regions of the world. The need for slaves was associated with the ebb of European immigration. The treatment of the aboriginal population was also shaped by the experiences of other colonial powers in the New World, just as the development of the plantation system was bound up with experiments in the Caribbean and in Latin America. Correspondingly, a good deal of the literature speaks of an ‘Atlantic’ system of slavery.
The basic stages in the development of slavery in the southern states took place as a result of private initiatives. The state did not play a leading role here but merely set out the framework. In integral parts of the apparatus of persecution, it provided the legal basis for the ownership and punishment of slaves. The capture and transport of slaves was carried out by private slave-hunters seeking potential financial yields. The slaveholders likewise sold the agricultural goods they produced predominantly according to market mechanisms. Uniquely in the history of slavery, the slave population in the southern states at the end of the eighteenth and above all in the nineteenth century was maintained through sexual reproduction. A major reason for this was the ban on the transatlantic slave trade that came into force on 1 January 1808, which reduced the influx of slaves from abroad to a limited, illegal trickle.
With the end of the overseas slave trade and its newly won independence from Great Britain, the American slavery system partially broke away from the colonial model. Slavery became part of an intricate process of building an economic system for an aspiring nation that was independent while still remaining connected to world markets. The proportion of slaves in the general population provides an index for measuring the importance of slavery for society as a whole. For the period around 1690, slaves made up 15 per cent of the population in the entire southern region. Thereafter this figure rose steadily, peaking at 40 per cent in 1780, but then dropping again to fluctuate between 33 per cent and 35 per cent in the years between 1800 and 1860. However, in a few especially profitable agricultural regions in the South, the proportion of slaves exceeded 50 per cent by 1860.
Slavery in the southern states ended with the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War. Thus, its demise was forced from outside and did not come about through changes within society or the economy, nor as a result of slave uprisings. Furthermore, the majority of the research today presumes that at the time of its abolition, slavery in the southern states was still highly profitable. In fact, older studies maintain that the antebellum South had a remarkably flexible and capitalistic economy. Since the northern states did not restructure the ownership of land in the South after the American Civil War, the theory is that the capitalist plantation owners had the flexibility to retain their hold on power in the South and were largely able to maintain the status quo without the institution of slavery. By contrast, the authors of a number of recent studies maintain that the end of slavery in the southern states ushered in a fundamental transformation, which admittedly had little impact on the distribution of power and influence, but led to considerably more modern and more capitalistic structures that altered social structures over the long term.
From private to state slavery
The situation in which a system of slavery developed in Germany and the Soviet Union in the 20th century was entirely different. The industrial revolution had taken place in some parts of Western Europe and North America and had made it possible for the countries in these regions to become the leading powers in the world. Over the course of industrialisation, the system of free wage labour had gradually established its dominance in these nations. Sven Beckert notes that these countries began to shift from the period of war capitalism, with its dependence on slave labour, to the period of industrial capitalism. Parallel to this development, the abolitionist movements in Europe and North and South America had gained momentum and extended the range of prohibitive legislation.
However, these successes led not, as many people expected, to the establishment of free wage labour as the dominant economic model but rather to the rise of new forms of unfree labour and of slavery. This rise was closely associated with the division of Africa among the European powers, which they portrayed as a battle against slavery. Thus, the condemnation of slavery in Africa represented the prelude to its reshaping. The urgent need for manpower in the building of the colonial infrastructure was decisive for the emergence of new forms of forced labour. The development of inhospitable swathes of land in Africa began with the massive deployment of indigenous forced labourers and evolved into a nearly classical form of forced labour in the first half of the twentieth century. In Africa, indigenous labourers were compelled to participate in the erection of the colonial infrastructure via different methods: forced recruitment by the colonial administration, alliances with village elders on the mustering of labourers, the raising of taxes and the broadening of colonial criminal law, and the use of forced labour as punishment for indebtedness and vagrancy. Especially significant for further developments was the fact that the strongest criticism of the conditions of forced labour in Africa was voiced in opposition to exploitation by plantation owners and private companies, while forced labour by the state was seen as a comparatively lesser evil.
In the German colonies, as well, the deployment of the colonised in forced labour was widespread. At the heart of German colonialist ideology was the view that the indigenous population had to be shaped into compliant workers through harsh discipline. In German East Africa (today Tanzania), the German authorities outlawed slavery but not, as in most of the other colonised regions, because this was perceived as indispensable to secure the collaboration of the regional elites. Instead, it was movements among slaves that led to abolition. It was also in this German colony that a sector of state forced labour emerged. In 1905, a tax ordinance was enacted which stipulated a sentence of tribute labour for non-payment of taxes. As the tax was very high, the bulk of the indigenous population had to perform this work. Such tribute labour was conceived with the aim of public road building in mind, yet the colonial state frequently sold the workers on to plantation owners. This form of forced labour was a major cause of the Maji Maji Rebellion, which was brutally suppressed by the German colonial army and claimed 75,000 lives.
Subsequently, the German colonial administration tried to curb the use of forced labour, but the simultaneous expansion of the plantation economy prevented this. To satisfy their need for manpower, the plantation owners in the coastal areas resorted to the blatant abduction of indigenous people from the colony’s interior by means of recruiters. A mortality rate of 7‑10 per cent prevailed on most of the plantations, although on the Prinz-Albert plantation it reached 26 per cent.
The most murderous form of forced labour, however, was in German Southwest Africa, in today’s Namibia. The uprising of the Herero and Nama peoples that began in the spring of 1904 led to a genocidal colonial strategy on the part of the German Schutztruppe under the leadership of Lieutenant General von Trotha. In October 1904, Trotha ordered all prisoners of war to be shot. However, his most notorious act of genocide was when he drove the Herero into a waterless desert, leaving them to a slow death. Out of tactical necessity, Berlin amended its genocidal strategy in late 1904, when the decision was made to deport the Herero to POW camps and deploy them there as forced labourers. Between 21,000 and 24,000 Herero and several hundred Nama were subsequently interned in such camps. Due to insufficient food and harsh working conditions, the mortality rate in the camps was horrendous; for this reason, their existence is sometimes described as a continuation of the strategy of extermination. In the literature, the POW camps are therefore also described as concentration camps.
After the suspension of war captivity in 1908, a free labour market should actually have arisen, at least according to the plans of the colonial administration. However, once again a system of forced induction quickly developed which violated the principle of free choice of employment for Africans. Beatings that were meted out as punishment, prompting many forced inductees to stage escapes. Despite its criticism of especially brutal employers, the colonial administration arranged for escapees to be returned to their employers, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the system.
In recent years a debate has arisen on the question of the extent to which continuities can be drawn from German policies in German Southwest Africa to National Socialism. However, the attention here has focused less on concentration camps and forced labour policies than on strategies of extermination and racist exclusionary procedures. In the meantime, the discussion has veered away from talk of a direct continuity and more towards transfers, chains of effects and parallels. Direct continuities can most readily be found in the National Socialist colonial planning for the African continent.
Yet colonial forced labour and the building of concentration camps in the colonies of Cuba, South Africa, and Southwest Africa did not fail to have an impact on Europe. The experiences with colonial forced labour often led to discussions in major European cities on the reintroduction of forced labour to keep the working class in check. These debates only became virulent during World War I, when the densely populated cities were again plagued by labour shortages. In many countries, a system of mandatory service was set up in response and, especially in Germany, prisoners of war were extensively deployed in the war economy, a formative experience for developments in World War II. Indeed, when analysing the return of forced labour to large European cities, it is important to bear in mind the military aspect and especially the tendency of war to expand into total war during global conflicts, with all of the upheaval of civil society that this entails. Ultimately both world wars were ‘the culminations of state systems of forced labour in countries around the world.’ The POW camps were much more important in this respect than colonial concentration camps. Alan Kramer sees them as an important part of a ‘cultural revolution of the state’ during the First World War.
An additional development driving the increased implementation of state systems of forced labour was the growing criticism of free wage labour as exploitative, along with condemnation of individualism and liberal contract theory in general. Instead, the right and/or duty to work were emphasised, and ‘higher interests’ demanded that the importance of work contracts be curbed. Right-wing critics justified this restriction in the name of national interests, whereas those on the left did so with reference to social interests. Such criticism was by no means limited to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Indeed, it was widespread among all parties in Great Britain, for example.
The Soviet Gulag system
After seizing power in 1917, the Bolsheviks ended the freedom of the individual labour contract and introduced a compulsory labour service. In their collectivist approach they introduced on the one hand a right to work and on the other hand an obligation to perform work that benefited society in general. They also established camps for political rivals. These were used primarily for the interment of hostile parties during the Russian civil war (including peasant insurgents); afterwards, most of these camps were closed. In 1923, however, the Soviet secret police, the GPU (State Political Directorate), acquired a monastery on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea to erect a camp for political prisoners. The camp mainly served to suppress political opposition, but before long the camp administration began to rely on prison labour to reduce the costs of internment. The administration also introduced a new principal that linked food with work performance. They divided the inmates into three tiered groups with correspondingly sized food rations depending on how hard they worked.
But it wasn’t until 1928 that the introduction of the First Five-Year Plan with its focus on forced industrialisation and collectivisation led to the rapid expansion of the forced labour system. The Five-Year Plan also served as a means of preparing for war. Indeed, the fear of a new war was widespread among Soviet leaders by 1927 and this had a significant influence on the development and the nature of industrialisation in the Soviet Union. Hence, the inception of the Soviet war economy dates back to the early 1930s. Two separate developments contributed to the growth in the number of gulag prisoners: First, within the scope of collectivisation, Stalin ordered the arrest of some 1.8 million members of the peasantry. These people were deported to ‘exile settlements’ in remote regions of the Soviet Union, particularly the Urals region and Siberia. The idea was for them to make inroads into new regions and, if possible, pave the way for the exploitation of natural resources. This was a policy that had unmistakable similarities with the czarist habit of banning undesirables to Siberia to develop the eastern limits of the Russian Empire, but was now pursued on a far wider scale and under horrendous conditions. The banished farmers found no infrastructure in the wilderness and were forced to build everything from the ground up to survive. There were generally no guards in the exile settlements and, at most, they were supervised by a commander from the OGPU, the Joint State Political Directorate, which was the successor to the GPU. It was thought that the enormous distances to civilisation would prevent escapes, but some 600,000 deportees did not allow that to deter them from fleeing. Escapes and high mortality rates caused a continuous decline in the number of homesteaders in the settlements. Since government agencies did not view the project as a success, they decided against building new exile settlements or filling existing ones with new deportees.
Second, from 1931 Stalin began to deploy gulag prisoners for large infrastructure projects. From 1931 to 1934, some 170,000 prisoners were forced to build the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal and approx. 14,000 of them died in the process.It soon became clear that the canal was not of much particular economic value, but for Stalin and the OGPU leadership the project was nevertheless a success because the Soviets had managed to complete a gigantic construction project with prisoner labour by the intended completion date.
This constituted the justification for substantially expanding the system of gulag slave labour. There was no lack of megaprojects to pursue, including the Baikal Amur Mainline – a railway traversing Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East – and a range of additional ambitious objectives, such as the exploitation of natural resources in remote regions of Siberia, the polar circle and Central Asia. By 1937, many of these projects – such as a nickel ore mine in Norilsk – had made remarkable progress. The three key areas of labour deployment for prisoners at this time were the construction industry, the lumber industry and nonferrous metal mining industry. The Great Terror of 1937/38 brought a halt to the economisation of the gulags. Even a number of representatives of the economic gulag administration became victims of persecution themselves. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or NKVD, in which the OGPU was integrated in 1934, was fully occupied with mass internments and shootings of prisoners. As a result, the gulag briefly morphed once again into a site that primarily served to persecute perceived enemies of the state.
After the end of the Great Terror, Stalin and his economic advisers sought to overcome the production crisis that had emerged back in 1936 and endeavoured to take great strides to boost, once again, the militarisation and industrialisation of the Soviet Union.In late 1938, labour books were introduced as a measure to prepare for war and markedly limit workers’ opportunities to change jobs. By the beginning of the war, Soviet authorities had also introduced draconian punishments for tardiness and absenteeism, where even minor infringements could result in a one-way ticket to the gulags. A number of researchers have interpreted this tightening of labour laws to mean that there was a minimal difference between the gulags and conditions for the average Soviet worker from 1938.Some have even gone so far as to maintain that the entire working population was enslaved under Stalin.In my opinion, there are two reasons why these interpretations go too far. First, the mortality rate in the gulags was considerably higher than it was among the general Soviet workforce. Second, very similar measures were introduced shortly thereafter in Nazi Germany, yet researchers in that field do not speak of a blurring of the difference between normal working conditions and concentration camp slave labour in the Third Reich. Furthermore, similar measures were enacted in many countries during the First World War. Likewise, the results of research into workers under Stalinism belie such an interpretation and reveal that the general workforce definitely enjoyed a modicum of freedom and rights of codetermination in defence of their own interests – even under growing pressure to increase output and despite increasingly coercive tactics at the workplace.Furthermore, the often highly chaotic situation meant that legal restrictions – particularly during the war – could only be enforced to a limited degree.
Starting in late 1938, there were also renewed efforts within the gulag system to increase economic output. The man behind this development was Lavrentiy Beria, who was appointed to head the NKVD in late 1938. Beria decided to increase the pressure on camp commanders. What’s more, he imposed a ban on early releases, thereby removing the prisoners’ main incentive to work.From this point in time onwards, the camps relied more heavily on threats and violence to force the prisoners to work harder. Furthermore, Beria created special zones in which large numbers of engineers and technicians in the gulags were to pursue research work.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, the Soviet Union began to deport national groups to the gulags, starting with certain members of the population of eastern Poland, and followed by Russian ethnic Germans from 1941, along with other national groups that Stalin suspected were likely to cooperate with the enemy. By 1941, the number of individuals in the custody of the NKVD had reached an interim high of approx. 3 million – 2 million of whom were imprisoned in gulags and 1 million were detained in exile settlements. Afterwards, the number of inmates declined, in part because many were drafted into the military, and in part due to the catastrophic food supply in the gulags during the war, which led to record mortality rates. Between 1941 and 1945, it is estimated that roughly 1 million people died in the gulag.
Despite these catastrophic conditions, and the fact that illness prevented large numbers of prisoners from being deployed as slave labourers, the NKVD system gained in economic importance. One reason for this was that the necessities of war had forced the Soviet Union to do everything in its power to maximise economic output. Given these circumstances, the threat of food deprivation for low work performance represented a mortal danger for workers. Likewise, large-scale army recruitment meant that labourers had become much more scarce. As with Nazi concentration camps, during the course of the war gulag prisoners were loaned to industrial companies that were outside the immediate area of responsibility of the NKVD. In 1941, the NKVD loaned out 350,000 gulag prisoners and 400,000 exile settlers.At the same time, the NKVD sector contributed to the war economy, above all in the production of ammunition (roughly 10-15% of total Soviet output), nickel (13%) and gold.In 1942, when the German offensive on populous parts of the country had resulted in a decline in the working population to a war-time low of 54.7 million people, prisoners and exile settlers made up roughly 5% of the Soviet labour force.This meant that their proportion of the total labour potential was nearly twice as high as that of concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany, but six times less than the entire forced labour complex in the Third Reich. Gulag work was generally unproductive. Indeed, 5% of the total working population produced less than 2% of the average GNP in 1941-1943. These figures concur with widespread assessments that gulag prisoners were not even half as productive as the average Soviet worker.
Towards the end of the war, the trend reversed itself and there was a renewed increase in the number of people incarcerated by the NKVD. Stalin feared resistance by national groups above all in the Caucasus region, the Baltic republics and Poland, and, as a preventative measure, he had thousands of individuals from these regions deported to exile settlements, where the population rapidly rose to 2.5 million. Political persecution after the war also led to a further increase in the population of the gulags, which reached their final peak in 1953 at roughly 2.5 million prisoners.At the same time, outside the camps the regime increasingly relied on forced labour to deploy peasants in the push towards industrialisation.
From 1929 to 1953, an estimated 18 million people passed through prisons and camps of the Gulag, 6 or 7 million people were sent to internal exile and at least 1.76 million died in the camps, colonies and prisons of the Gulag. Additionally from 1930 up to 1953 approximately between 1 and 1.2 million deported special exiles died.Soon after Stalin’s death in March 1953, an initial amnesty was proclaimed, which sparked a rapid decline in the number of inmates. Additional detainees were released over the following years, leading to a further decrease in the camp population. The camp administration of the secret service was officially disbanded in 1960. Labour colonies, however, continued to exist. There were still also Gulag-like camps, now called corrective-labour camps, but they contained far fewer inmates and no longer had such horrendous mortality rates.
The German forced labour and concentration camp system
In the 1930s, Germany was among the most technically industrialised countries in the world. The German elite, however, believed that this position was not adequately reflected on the international stage. They burned for a rectification of the outcome of World War I and were prepared to accept even forms of unfree labour to achieve this end. In the wake of the global economic crisis and the shift to the right under Hindenburg’s presidential government, the first forms of unfree labour were introduced in 1931. However, it was only with the political victory of Nazism that the extensive expansion of various systems of unfree labour began. Initially, labour policy pursued the goal of overcoming the economic crisis with the help of channelled labour. Later, the system of unfree labour served to decouple wage policy from the economic boom. Parallel to this, from 1936/1937, increased numbers of contract workers entered the country from abroad. With the beginning of the war and the conscription of German men into the Wehrmacht, the recruitment of foreign workers under conditions of increasing compulsion grew in importance.
At first, the labour system in the concentration camps developed largely independently of the German labour market. Initially, the main purpose of the camps was to break the spirit of resistance of the imprisoned cadres of the German workers’ movement. At the same time, however, it is worth noting that a tendency had existed since 1933/1934 for residents of workhouses to be transferred to concentration camps, where they were deployed as forced labourers. Already in 1934 all prisoners had to perform compulsory labour. Until 1938 the SS used the manpower of prisoners above all to build the camps and a system of logistical support for the SS. However, prisoners were still also required to do meaningless work that served only to torment them. From 1938, the work in the concentration camps began to be more tightly interwoven with the rest of the German labour market. Following an agreement between the SS and the Inspector General for Construction, Albert Speer, concentration camp prisoners were deployed in the manufacture of construction materials to advance the new building plans of the Reich. In so doing, the SS harboured hopes of establishing its own economic empire.
These plans failed due to the incompetence of the SS and above all on the progress of the war. The end of the German advance on Moscow in the winter of 1941 led to an aggravation of the situation in the German labour market and to an extensive mobilisation of all resources for the war economy. Under pressure from the military and economic elites, the SS had to make the concentration camp prisoners available for deployment in armaments production. Until the spring of 1944, however, this deployment remained limited to a few projects, as the essential needs of the German labour market could be met through the coercive recruitment of foreign forced labourers. This situation changed with the collapse of the recruitment system for forced labourers in the spring of 1944. At this point, concentration camp prisoners became the last contingent that could be called upon to satisfy the requirements of the German war economy. The SS extended its system of arrest and capture, leading to an abrupt rise in the prisoner population in the camps.
The provision of prisoners to industry was carried out according to a leasing system. In the majority of cases it took place at the request of industry itself, so that it is safe to assume that industrialists saw an advantage in engaging the workers. For the enterprises, it was first and foremost a question of whether the profits derived from the sale of the goods produced by the prisoners exceeded the costs involved in employing them. These goods were not sold on the open market but were intended exclusively for the use of the German military. Slavery in the concentration camps only came to an end with the military defeat of Nazi Germany. There is no indication of either an internal move to abandon this system or of a serious revolt on the part of the prisoners.
Due to its destructive radicalism, the slave labour of the concentration camp prisoners represented a qualitatively significant phenomenon for the evaluation of labour conditions under German fascism. Quantitatively, however, the work of the concentration camp prisoners was, even at its zenith just before the end of the war, a relatively insignificant phenomenon when compared to forced labour or to American slavery. At no time did camp prisoners provide more than 3 per cent of the manpower employed in the German Reich. In contrast, at somewhat over 30 per cent of the work force towards the end of the war, all forms of unfree labour combined made up a similar proportion of the working population as had slaves in the American South.
As a rule, the poorer a nation was, the less its people were respected and admired. The Third Reich differed only slightly from other prosperous countries in this respect. The dominant idea in Nazi Germany at the time was that a country’s prosperity level could be traced back to a more or less openly racist anthropology of the different capabilities of a nation’s inhabitants. Moreover, the degree of violence that the Germans inflicted upon other groups could often be linked with the prosperity level of that group.Hence, the question against whom the Germans could exercise physical force with no fear of retaliation represents another important evaluation criterion.
Order patterns for working conditions in Nazi Germany
According to a statistic compiled by Karl Heinz Roth in the Second World War, the following groups were put to work in Nazi Germany:
Table 1: Dependent labour in Nazi Germany 1939-1945(millions of people)
If, with Roth, we were to record the German wage earners listed in the upper column here as voluntary labourers – although in the second half of the war there definitely tended to be a transition towards forced labour – the working conditions of citizens of Nazi Germany in the following four columns should certainly be recorded under the term forced labour.
Mark Spoerer and Jochen Fleischhacker record all the remaining categories as forced labourers and then divide them into four groups. The differentiation is made especially in terms of the criteria voice and exit (Albert O. Hirschman), and as final category serves the chance of survival.With slight changes in some categories – for example instead of less-than-slaves, I would prefer to speak of slavery with a high mortality rate (SwhM) – my updated version of Spoerer and Fleischhacker results in the following table:
Table 2: Forms of labour in Nazi Germany (1939-1945)
The different chances of survival show that the groups under the categories “slave labour” and “slave labour with high mortality rate” were treated differently and that they also differed seriously from all other groups of labourers.
Table 3: Chances of survival in relation to the type of forced labour
In sum, slave labour from concentration camp prisoners represented a quantitatively marginal phenomenon, which, moreover, only developed into a bona-fide slavery sector in the final years of the war, in many cases barely extending beyond the experimental stage. Of much greater importance for the German war economy were civilian forced labourers from occupied territories in Europe and POWs who had been captured during the course of the war. Whereas Western European forced labourers largely entered the Third Reich under free working conditions with the possibility of exit and voice, their working situation increasingly developed into a coercive system in which they retained a voice, but an exit had become legally almost impossible. By contrast, right from the outset, the Germans deported Soviet and Polish forced labourers to the Third Reich, where they were treated as slaves. They had neither an exit nor a voice. The German labour administration developed special symbols for Eastern European forced labourers so that they could be readily recognised by the German population and identified as such. Germans who beat Soviet or Polish forced labourers generally had no reason to fear that they would be punished. In fact, they might even expect to be praised and rewarded for their actions.A German woman who submitted a complaint to a department head at the Armaments Ministry concerning the brutalisation of Polish workers received the following response from this government official: “I cannot imagine that a German woman can rise to the defence of the representatives of such an inferior grade of people as the Polish subhumans have proven themselves to be in recent years. … The aversion of the Poles to the dictates of cleanliness that are a matter of course for us would have long since led to the spread of disease if the utmost strict supervision had not forced them to respect camp rules. Unfortunately coaxing and providing information will achieve nothing with these foreigners.”
In summary, in addition to a comprehensive and highly diverse system of unfree labour in the Third Reich, within one year after the German invasion of the Soviet Union there also existed an extensive system of slave labour that the German war economy increasingly relied upon. The deployment of concentration camp prisoners served as a measure of last resort for a ruthlessly driven, overheated armaments industry in a system whose downfall was ever more likely in view of the hopeless state of the war. In contrast to the American slave system, in which slavery was intended by the slaveholders to exist in perpetuity, the mobilisation of the German war economy was oriented towards the short-term goal of winning the war with all the means the state could muster. In view of this goal, even the ruthless exploitation of the prisoners to the point of exhaustion made sense for the leading Nazis, as it seemed that only through criminal exertions victory in the war could be achieved, and the survival of the state depended on this victory.
Monument to the Fallen and Murdered in the East. Warsaw, Poland.
The re-privatization of slavery
After the military defeat of Nazism, the Soviet Gulag system and the older forms of slavery in Arabia and in parts of Africa became the focus of the criticism of the anti-slavery movement and of discussions within the corresponding bodies of the UN. With the release of many prisoners after Stalin’s death, however, the heyday of state-sponsored slavery systems – which can roughly be dated from 1880 to 1960 – came to an end.Henceforth, criticism of state-sponsored slavery played a more marginal role in the battle against slavery, even if the continued existence of the Chinese Laogai system belies a real end to the phenomenon.
Moreover, with the outlawing of slavery in Saudi Arabia in 1962,the old system of slavery increasingly disappeared and today is still found only in Mauritania.Since 1975, however, in the wake of globalisation, new forms of slavery have developed. According to Kevin Bales, three major factors have spawned this new slavery: (1) population growth; (2) the continuing modernisation of agriculture in the developing world and the land dispossessions associated with it; and (3) the incredible speed with which developing countries are changing and the chaotic conditions that this yields.
If we compare these new forms of slavery with US southern slavery, a host of differences immediately becomes apparent. In the southern states, the right of ownership was legally safeguarded, while today in general no such formal protection exists. In contrast to the southern states, the sale price of a slave today is, relatively speaking, extremely low, as only very limited capture and transport costs are involved. In contrast to the general paucity of slaves in the American South, today there tends to be an oversupply of people who have no work and therefore swell the ranks of potential slaves. The scarcity of slaves and their high purchase price in the southern US resulted in a long-term relationship of ownership, and in most cases in the slave being looked after until his or her death. Due to the large supply today, it is short-term relations that dominate, in which the slaveholder gets rid of the slave after he or she has reached a certain age or degree of exhaustion. Moreover, the importance of ethnic differences in slavery has noticeably decreased. While in the southern states, a ‘two-colour system’ with a dividing line between ‘black’ and ‘white’ dominated, today in most cases the slaveholders are members of the same ethnic group as the enslaved people. Therefore, social forms of racism have become more significant than ethnic racism. The great commonality consists in the fact that in both cases we are dealing with forms of private slavery.
The term slavery describes an ongoing process that can by no means be consigned to the past. It is politically highly charged and is today still used in international bodies to designate current phenomena. Historians should not turn away from these debates and represent slavery as part of a lost era. It is also unhelpful to regard American slavery as the textbook case, as has often been done in previous attempts to compare the forced labour in concentration camps with slavery. If one regards slavery in all its complexity, then much speaks in favour of also designating the work deployment of concentration camp and gulag prisoners as a form of slavery. Yet what does this mean?
Comparison & conclusion
Today, slaves have comparatively little value. They are seldom bought but are rather driven into slavery by debt or abducted by force. If they are sold, the price is significantly lower than was the case in the American South. The question of price is linked to that of whether there is an oversupply or an undersupply of labour and how the slaveholder/entrepreneur judges this. The beginnings of slavery in the southern US states were closely associated with the temporary ebb in the supply of indentured labour from Europe. To this extent, American slavery was based on an insufficient supply of labour in a land that remained to be conquered and cultivated.
This is also true for some parts of the Soviet gulag, but by no means applies to the situation in which the German satellite concentration camps arose. Germany was a densely populated country in which hardly any land remained to be developed. Rather the use of camp prisoners became necessary because the conscription of German workers into the Wehrmacht had led to temporary shortages in the labour market.
Present-day slavery also rests more on the idea of a large free potential workforce than on the idea of labour as a rare and valuable commodity. To this extent, the history of slavery in the modern period appears to have developed more from the value to the non-value of slaves, although the extremes of these two categories were never reached. Slaves in the South were never so valuable that they could not be beaten or killed; and while the value of the concentration camp prisoners was surely low, it was still a factor in the calculations of those in power. The question of the diminishing significance of slaves on a value scale is doubtless closely associated with the extensive development of the world and with the fact that there are hardly any fertile places left on Earth that are not already densely populated.
My overview of the history of slavery in the southern United States, Nazi concentration camps and the gulags has shown that – in spite of certain similarities – there were significant differences between the systems.The following observations summarise the key differences between US slavery and both camp systems: A) The US system established itself over a long period of time and was eventually viewed by the majority of the white population in the South as the natural order of things. By contrast, both camp complexes only existed for a highly limited period of time and, accordingly, were less strongly naturalised. The exclusion of prisoners thus needed to be constantly justified. B) Slavery in the US was generally of a permanent nature. By contrast, in the camp system the status of being a prisoner was generally for a limited time only, although this was more so the case in the gulags than it was in Nazi concentration camps. C) Slaveholders in the US either purchased their slaves or relied on natural reproduction to enslave new generations of African-Americans. In both camp systems, though, the state captured the slaves. Since slaves in the US were considered property and could be bought and sold, slaveholders had a greater interest in maintaining them than was the case in the camp systems. This is also reflected by the fact that slaves in the southern US tended to be better nourished than camp inmates. D) The products produced by slaves in the US were principally destined to be sold as exports to generate profits for the slaveholders. Indeed, pricing mechanisms played a key role in the profit margins of slaveholders, both in terms of the purchase of slaves and sales of tobacco and cotton. The goods and services produced by concentration camp inmates pertain primarily to the domestic market and were chiefly designed to enhance the ability of the benefiting countries to wage war. Achieving high production targets was generally of greater importance than generating any profit. The system of slavery in the US best functioned as an economy in times of peace, and the slaveholders favoured the greatest possible degree of free global trade, whereas the two camp economies were subcomponents of war economies that fuelled independent national aspirations. In both war economies, the pricing mechanisms were highly regulated by the state and played much less of a key role.
Even though a comparison with slavery in the southern United States reveals similarities with both camp systems, there were a number of significant differences.Generally speaking, the Stalinist system developed more consistently towards an ever-growing forced labour complex. The Nazi concentration camp system, however, developed according to three clearly different phases. During the first phase, from 1933 to 1939, the camps predominantly served to quell domestic opposition. Following the establishment of the Nazi regime in 1933/34, the majority of the inmates were released and, in comparison to the Stalinist camps, there were relatively few prisoners at the beginning of the war. Furthermore, the mortality rate in the camps was low and the labour provided by the prisoners played a comparatively minimal role. The situation changed drastically during the second phase, after war was declared. The outward expansion of the Third Reich also triggered an explosion of violence within its territory. The incarceration of foreign prisoners swelled the concentration camp population and led to an extreme rise in mortality rates. The labour of inmates became more important, but was primarily used by companies owned by the SS. 1941/1942 marked the third turning point. The end of the German advance before it reached Moscow heralded the demise of the blitzkrieg tactic and sparked a new phase in the war. Labour shortages became a key problem in the German war economy. This was solved by recruiting forced labourers from regions of Europe occupied by Germany. The number of foreign prisoners in concentration camps rose further and German inmates became a minority in the camps. At the same time, more and more prisoners were deployed in the war economy by loaning them out to construction and production firms. The mortality rate remained high. It was not until this phase that the deployment of prisoner labour gained the importance that it had already reached in the gulag system by the mid-1930s.
Right from the beginning, the gulags targeted the domestic population to a greater and harsher degree, and affected far wider circles among the general populace. In Germany, on the other hand, it was first and foremost political opponents, Jews, homosexuals, prostitutes and the homeless who had to fear that they would be placed in a concentration camp. The majority of the German population – and the German elite in particular – was not threatened with incarceration and it was extremely unlikely that they would be deported to a concentration camp.
By contrast, the definition of who was an enemy of the Soviet Union was so flexible and variable that virtually everyone could feel jeopardised. Engineers, company managers and Soviet functionaries were often sent to the gulags, although the majority of prisoners came from the peasantry and the urban lower classes.The gulag also helped make it possible to suppress any possible consumer desires among the population. This allowed Soviet leaders – to a far greater degree than their German counterparts – to divert almost the entire industrial production towards meeting the needs of the war effort, and to maintain the consumption of the population on the edge of the subsistence minimum.Indeed, in 1941/42 the Soviet Union was able to produce more weapons than the Third Reich, although the Germans had access to more raw materials and a greater potential for industrial output at this point in time.
Since broader segments of society were transferred to the gulags, the border to the rest of society was more permeable than in the Nazi concentration camps during the war. Prisoners in the gulags were generally released in accordance with the sentences that had been handed down to them. From 1935 to 1945, the annual release rate fluctuated between 17% and 47%, and was at times even higher, because amnesties were not completely taken into consideration in calculating these rates.By contrast, the release rates in Nazi concentration camps were low from 1939 onwards and continued to decline. During the final two years of the war, hardly any prisoners were released.
The gap between prisoners and guards was considerably larger in Nazi concentration camps than it was in the gulags. The main reason for this was that in the gulags many inmates became guards after they were released. In some of the gulags, roughly 50% of the guards and administrators were former prisoners.By the same token, guards and administrators could quickly find themselves among the prisoner population if they committed any offenses. Such exchanges of roles – in either direction – were not intended to take place in Nazi concentration camps. Long-serving SS men in particular saw German political prisoners as enemies and foreign inmates often as ‘subhumans’ and ‘animals’. Although German camps increasingly suffered from a lack of personnel during the course of the war, and the ranks of the SS were replenished with ethnic Germans and older Wehrmacht soldiers, these new arrivals were often more than willing to accept the opinions that the SS held of the prisoners. If one adopts a definition of slavery in line with what is commonly used in cultural studies, then the inmates of Nazi concentration camps could more appropriately be described as slaves than gulag prisoners because their exclusion from society was more complete and the naturalisation of their existence as social pariahs was advanced to greater degree.
The economic definition of slavery states that the disenfranchised person who has been cut off from any form of possession is exploited in the interest of the utmost profit maximisation. This definition is met with regard to the situation of slaves in both camp systems, although it should be noted that in both cases it was less a matter of profit maximisation than production maximisation. In accordance with a number of different definitions of slavery, in my opinion, it is possible to call both concentration camp and gulag prisoners slaves, especially when the term slavery is used to compare and contrast these institutions with other systems of slavery. Nonetheless, when exclusively focusing on either the concentration camps or gulags, it would be expedient to refer to forced labour or convict labour,as these terms more strongly reflect the fact that neither system was initially designed to enslave individuals and both types of camps developed in this direction over the course of time. Indeed, both systems were originally intended as a place of banishment to exclude individuals from society and, to a certain extent, to re-educate the enemies and opponents of each state.