Back to the homepage

Background information on documents relating to forced laborers

The Arolsen Archives hold millions of documents relating to forced laborers. The War Time Card File alone (Collection contains 4.2 million documents, some of which are original documents, and some of which are copies from other archives. In order to better understand the documents relating to forced laborers, the following introduction explains who was forced to work, what regulations applied to the registration of the individual groups, and what should be borne in mind when looking at the documents today. The focus here is on documents relating to civilian forced laborers. Information on forced labor performed by concentration camp prisoners can be found here.

There is no such thing as a typical forced laborer. The people we now refer to as forced laborers were very diverse. The Nazis created many groups and defined different rules for each one. Forced laborers differed greatly in their origins, their daily work, their experiences, and their chances of survival. The Nazis did not actually use the term “forced laborers.” They spoke disparagingly of “foreign workers” (“Fremdarbeiter” or “fremdvölkische Arbeiter”), or, in the case of people from the Soviet Union, of “Eastern workers” (“Ostarbeiter”). The term “civilian forced laborers” or “civilian laborers” is deliberately used in the e-Guide to differentiate them from other groups, such as concentration camp prisoners and prisoners of war, who were also used for forced labor.

Research indicates that a total of around 13 million people from at least 21 countries across Europe were coerced into forced labor in the German Reich. In addition, the Nazis also forced millions of people to work in the occupied and controlled territories. Today, a distinction is made between four groups of forced laborers in the German Reich: (1) Jews engaged in segregated compulsory labor (geschlossener Arbeitseinsatz), (2) prisoners from concentration camps, re-education camps, and prisons, (3) prisoners of war, and (4) the largest group, foreign civilian laborers. Jews, or those people defined as such by the Nazis, formed the smallest group in terms of numbers. They were coerced into forced labor before being deported to the ghettos, concentration camps, and extermination camps. From 1942 onwards, more and more prisoners from concentration camps, labor re-education camps, and prisons were forced to work for the German economy. In return, the employers paid a daily rate to the camp or prison administration. Apart from a few exceptions, the prisoners received nothing. The same was true for prisoners of war. German companies, local authorities, and private individuals could have these prisoners “on loan” in exchange for a fixed amount. The treatment of prisoners of war was laid down in the Geneva Conventions. They were not allowed to be employed in production that was important for the war effort. However, the Nazi government only abided by these and other rules in the case of individual national groups. Soviet prisoners of war, and from 1943 onwards, Italian prisoners of war, so-called Italian military internees (IMI), were treated in a particularly appalling manner. Many did not survive forced labor. The fourth and largest group of forced laborers were the millions of civilian laborers from across Europe: men, women, and children who came to the German Reich or were deported there. Among them were hundreds of thousands of former prisoners of war whose status had been changed to that of civilian laborers, in some cases against their will. While the documents relating to concentration camp prisoners are described separately in the e-Guide, and hardly any documents on prisoners of war have survived, the Arolsen Archives hold two million documents on civilian forced laborers in Collection Group 2. Consequently, the following description focuses on their fate. A more detailed description of the different groups of forced laborers can be found here.

Further information on forced labor in the German Reich can be found on the websites of the Federal Archives, the Leipzig Forced Labour Memorial, and the Nazi Forced Labour Documentation Centre in Berlin-Schöneweide. The “Digital Workshop for Source Interpretation” from the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” (EVZ) provides learning units on this topic in German. Interviews with former forced laborers and in-depth information have been compiled by the “Forced Labor 1939–1945” archive. The fate of Soviet civilian laborers in particular is the subject of the dekoder online exhibition “OST” on Soviet forced laborers in the German Reich (available in German and Russian).

The treatment of civilian forced laborers depended mainly on their origin or nationality. Although civilian forced laborers came from all over Europe, there were two main groups: Soviet and Polish civilian laborers. According to one Nazi statistic, 2.1 million Soviet and 1.6 million Polish civilian laborers were employed in the German Reich in August 1944 alone. The Nazis established a system that discriminated against “Slavonic” civilian laborers in particular for racist reasons. How different the rules could be can be seen, for example, in whether and how freely they were allowed to move around outside work. Western European civilian laborers were not restricted, whereas Polish civilian laborers were only allowed to travel within specific boundaries. For a long time, Soviet civilian laborers, who were known as “Ostarbeiter,” were forbidden to go anywhere apart from their place of work or the fenced-in and guarded camp accommodation where they were usually housed in barracks. The restrictions placed on forced laborers could be life-threatening, as Polish and Soviet civilian laborers were not allowed to use air raid shelters during bombing raids. A further aspect was the strict system of rules and punishments that applied to civilian forced laborers depending on their origin. Polish and Soviet civilian laborers in particular were detained in company-owned camps, labor re-education camps (Arbeitserziehungslagern), or even concentration camps for even the most minor transgressions, such as leaving the workplace or not wearing their badges correctly. The huge differences were also reflected in wages, and particularly strongly in food rations.

In addition to their origin, the timing of when they started work also had a decisive influence on the situation of civilian laborers. In the first few months after the war started and the occupation of the Soviet territories began, workers were frequently still volunteering. They believed the promises made by the German recruitment commissions and hoped for a better life outside their native countries. However, many of them were not allowed to return to these countries when their employment contract expired. At this point at the latest, they became forced laborers. Since not enough people were volunteering to work in the German Reich, the Nazis resorted to forced recruitment particularly in the occupied eastern territories from 1942 onwards, and even earlier in Poland. They deported people against their will and used force. The timing of the forced labor is also important because the rules for foreign workers kept changing. Decrees were introduced specifically for Polish and Soviet civilian laborers; there were relaxations, but also tightenings.

Finally, the situation of civilian forced laborers was also dependent on where they were employed. There were differences between individual Nazi districts, between rural and urban areas, and between the various economic sectors, where working conditions were more dangerous in some than in others. In principle, civilian forced laborers were employed everywhere: Initially, Poles worked mainly in agriculture, but later more and more people were coerced into forced labor in the armaments industry. Some even worked as nannies in families, for the church in cemeteries, or in municipal services, such as garbage collection. It was only because they replaced the missing workforce – German men who had been conscripted for military service, for example – that production could be maintained for so long during the war. But their working conditions and accommodation varied widely. Civilian forced laborers employed in the armaments or mining industries were often forced to work with hazardous substances without protective clothing, and they were housed in large, insanitary barracks. In contrast, conditions on farms were very much influenced by how individual families treated and looked after the civilian laborers. However, there was leeway too in the factories, and the situation of the civilian forced laborers there also depended on the behavior of the Germans around them.

Right at the beginning of the war, and in the first few months after the occupation of the Soviet territories, those responsible at the Reich Ministry of Labor – from March 1942 onwards, the General Plenipotentiary for Labor Deployment (GBA) Fritz Sauckel – initially focused on recruiting volunteers. The employment offices and so-called recruitment commissions (Werbekommissionen) touted the benefits that a job in the German Reich would allegedly have. This approach was initially successful in the areas ravaged by war, and workers did volunteer. But gradually their number decreased. Once workers started telling their families and friends about the actual working conditions, in letters, during visits, or if they were sent back to their native countries having been designated as “unfit for work,” more and more people in the occupied territories tried to avoid being conscripted to work in the German Reich. However, as workers were still needed there, the German authorities stepped up their approach. They conscripted entire cohorts, demanded that a fixed number of people be provided by villages, or arrested them against their will in raids and deported them to the German Reich. Among them were an above-average number of women and minors. Following a medical examination, the civilian forced laborers arrived by train at transit camps in the German Reich. Here, they underwent another medical examination, were registered by the police, and were deployed to workplaces by employment office staff.

For the registration of foreign civilian laborers, the Nazis adopted many of the regulations that had already applied in the period before the war to the registration of non-German workers. Many of the rules published in January 1933 in the “Regulation on Foreign Workers” continued to apply, but were amended over the years and tightened, particularly for individual groups. These included mandatory registration and deregistration at the residents’ registration offices of the municipalities to which they had been assigned, as well as registration for health insurance schemes and with the foreigner police. Foreign civilian laborers were also obliged to register for pension and disability schemes – at that time still referred to as invalidity insurance.

After the war, information about civilian forced laborers, mainly in the form of lists, came to Arolsen in the course of the foreigner tracing campaign (Ausländersuchaktion). German authorities, such as district administrations, employment offices, or police authorities also passed on some original documents, such as receipt cards or work book cards. However, many authorities stated in correspondence of the time that no or only very few documents of forced laborers had been preserved, as they had been destroyed in fires during the final days of the war, for example, or had been destroyed deliberately shortly before the end of the war. In the early 1980s, a targeted effort was made to acquire documents. Staff at the International Tracing Service (ITS), the predecessor institution of the Arolsen Archives, copied and scanned millions of documents on the subject of forced labor in German and international archives, or acquired originals. This was how more documents on civilian forced laborers came to Arolsen.

The so-called War Time Card File (Collection, in which many of these different documents were collected together, has 4.2 million documents and constitutes the largest collection in the Arolsen Archives. ITS staff sorted the documents alphabetically according to the names of the forced laborers for tracing purposes. However, the many different contexts in which these documents were created and preserved (provenances) were lost in the process. In contrast to the collections on concentration camp prisoners and Displaced Persons, the forced labor documents are primarily scans, copies, and microfilms from other archives. No complete card files came to the ITS after the end of the war like those from the liberated concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald, for example. Whilst more than two million DP 2 cards have been preserved in the Arolsen Archives relating to Displaced Persons, there is no such large quantity of any single document relating to civilian forced laborers. Indeed, individual companies and local and state authorities actually used very different forms for the same purposes.

It is important to note that the Arolsen Archives mainly hold documents on civilian forced laborers who were coerced into forced labor in the German Reich. There are hardly any documents in the Arolsen Archives on forced labor in the occupied territories or on non-civilian prisoners of war who were forced to work. This is linked in part to the places that handed documents over to Arolsen or other state and regional archives after the war: Local authorities and insurance companies were responsible for civilian forced laborers in the German Reich and therefore possessed only their documents.

As well as the registration documents that were held by the authorities, there were also documents that the civilian forced laborers used as identity cards. Since they were required to carry these documents with them, they have very rarely ended up in archives. However, the Arolsen Archives hold such documents in their collections, e.g. in the Gestapo Würzburg Collection ( or among the personal effects from the concentration camps. Forced laborers who were arrested by the Gestapo or sent to concentration camps had to hand these documents over to the Gestapo or camp administration. A small number of these documents came to Arolsen after the war.

A special collection in the Arolsen Archives includes scans of documents that liberated Soviet civilian laborers carried with them when they returned to their native countries. “Eastern workers” were suspected of being collaborators in the Soviet Union and were interrogated in screening and filtration camps set up by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), the interior ministry of the Soviet Union. Some of the documents that were confiscated at these camps are now preserved in archives in Kiev and are also available as scans in the Arolsen Archives.

Numerous documents that were used to register civilian forced laborers also existed for German workers. With the exception of special foreigner card files and labor cards, most forms were used for both groups. Companies, for example, used the same forms for the administration of both their civilian forced laborers and their German workers. Consequently, many of the documents include questions about memberships of Nazi organizations, or empty fields that did not apply to civilian forced laborers.

One special feature can be the dates of birth of Russian civilian laborers. Due to the calendar reform in Russia in February 1918, when the Julian calendar changed to the Gregorian calendar that was generally prevalent in Europe, the date “jumped” forward, and 13 days were lost. However, both calendars continued to be used in Russia, as the church in particular followed the previous calendar. In addition, a decision had to be made about which system to use to indicate dates of birth prior to 1918. So it is possible that different information appears on the documents of Russian civilian laborers.

As the documents of civilian forced laborers were issued by many different authorities, there are hardly any standardized stamps that can be found on all cards and forms. The stamps of the International Tracing Service (ITS), the predecessor institution of the Arolsen Archives, are an exception. ITS staff put stamps on printouts of microfilms and scans to indicate which archives or companies they originated from. In most cases, company personnel cards or residents’ registration cards issued in towns and cities do not show the name of the company or the place name. Therefore, it is always worth checking whether there are any stamps on the back or in the margin indicating where the person had to perform forced labor. This is all the more important as, due to the alphabetical sorting of the War Time Card File, the origin of a document and the contexts in which a document was created and preserved (provenance) are often not apparent from information in the archival description.