Marked with the letter 'P'

The deportation of Poles to the Third Reich for forced labour (1939-1945)

by Czesław Łuczak

Following the outbreak of the Second World War and the resulting call-up of German men, as well as the accelerated arms production, the Third Reich experienced an ever increasing demand for workers. The Nazi authorities decided to satisfy this demand in the first instance by employing the greatest possible number of foreigners. The military successes in the first phase of the war allowed the relevant central authorities to carry out this policy by putting at their disposal the populations of the conquered territories. Without any compunction the authorities worked out a detailed plan for the provision of the required workforce by introducing radical measures of recruitment in the conquered territories of Poland, USSR and Serbia, with more benign ones in the conquered countries of western and northern Europe. More workers became available as a result of treaties with Germany’s satellite countries as well as with some neutral ones. The basic assumptions of this system remained practically intact throughout the war, though the terror associated with recruitment of such forced labour was either attenuated or intensified depending on the requirements of the production plans, the situation on the fronts, the intensity of partisan activity and differences of opinion within the Nazi elite as to the policy regarding individual subject nations. Methods of the relevant propaganda could be modified and the organisation of the administration apparatus concerned with employment problems could be altered as required.

Polish forced worker Berhard GrillIdentity documents for Polish forced worker Berhard GrillThrough the years of the war over 2.5 million Poles were deported from the occupied Polish territories to forced labour in Germany. To this figure must be added the 300,000 Polish prisoners of war, on whom the forced labour status was also imposed. The true total of Poles employed as forced labour in Nazi Germany was thus more than 2.8 million. Not all, however, remained in Germany for the entire duration of the war. Some spent there only weeks or months, being spared longer torment by severe illness or by premature death. This created in respective years a considerable difference between the overall number of those deported and the actual number of those employed as forced labour. In the last phase of the war the difference reached several hundred thousands.

The percentage of people who voluntarily found their way to Nazi Germany was very small. Some volunteered for work in that country due to financial difficulties, or wishing to join previously deported members of the family. Several thousands volunteered for work in adjacent German border districts to avoid deportation into the depth of that country, a long way from their home. Others were directed to Germany by the Polish underground, in order to carry out some clandestine work, including the gathering of intelligence and, in the case of clergy, to provide pastoral care. A very small number of young people looking for adventure went of their own free will, while a slightly larger number volunteered in order to avoid being entered on the Volksdeutsche list. Some decided to go to Germany in order to cover their traces and avoid arrest, others did so for humanitarian reasons, such as providing moral support to young people taken to Germany. Overall only roughly a dozen thousands Poles went to Germany of their own free will, representing thus no more than several percentage points of the total. In fact the failure of the policy of voluntary recruitment was repeatedly denounced by the representatives of the ‘General Gouvernement’, thus confirming that generally speaking Poles were employed in Germany against their wishes. The true nature of the deportation of Poles for work in Germany was thus correctly defined by the Magdeburg Regional Arbeitsamt (Labour Office), by referring to Polish workers as forced labourers (Zwangsarbeiter).

The deported Poles were employed in all the branches of German economy. Throughout the war the greatest number (over 60%) worked in agriculture, forestry, horticulture and fishery. About 24% – 33.7%, the figure varied in different years, worked in industry and in transport, while the remaining 0.4% – 1.9% in other branches of the economy, or as servants in private households. Up to the second half of 1941 workers from Polish territories accounted for up to 60% of all foreign labourers employed in the Third Reich. Only after the invasion of USSR and the mass deportations from the newly conquered territories, the ratio of Polish workers became correspondingly lower, going down in 1944 to 29% of the foreign forced labour in Germany; at this time Soviet citizens compelled to work in that country accounted for 38.7%. Thus from the end of 1941 Poles have became the second largest ethnic contingent in the forced labour force, after Soviet citizens. In September 1944 the Soviet and the Polish contingents together accounted for over two thirds (67.7%) of the total. In reality this proportion was even higher, as the statistics failed to include Polish prisoners of war and probably left out some of the deported Soviet citizens. Even these abated statistics prove that during the war the greatest proportion of forced labour in Germany derived from USSR and Poland. This workforce was also the worst treated and the most cruelly exploited one.

This statement finds its confirmation in the Nazi work legislation, enhanced after the outbreak of the war by the great number of rules and regulations issued by the German authorities and concerning Poles. These rules discriminated against Poles, as well as against Soviet citizens, not only in comparison with the German population, but also compared to foreign workers from other countries, including other occupied countries. This legislation was based on Nazi racial theories dividing populations into superior and inferior races, into superhumans (Übermenschen) and subhumans (Untermenschen). Poles were included into the latter group and the nation was thus branded as culturally inferior, of limited ability and low productivity. Hitler even stated that Poles should be considered as Asians and not Europeans, and consequently had  to be ruled with a whip hand. All the decrees and orders issued after 1940 and relating to Poles employed in Germany reflected this view of the Nazi elite and of the Führer himself. They were all aimed at maximising the productivity of the Polish workforce and minimising the cost to the employer. To this purpose a method, based on terror and on ruthlessness in the economic exploitation, was devised. The Polish forced labourer became a passive object of the latter, compelled to unquestioning obedience and adherence to all the rules and regulations, most of which applied to conditions at work.

One of the principal discriminatory rules deprived Poles of the right to negotiate any form of agreement regarding work, and of any say whatsoever in the type and contents of work or its termination. In accordance with these regulations in the Third Reich no work agreements were offered to Polish workers who were assigned by Nazi authorities to individual employers who had submitted a justifiable requirement for workers. With the exception of a small contingent of people who volunteered to work in Germany, the Polish forced labour in that country was under the absolute control of the authorities, with no say whatsoever as to the place of employment, its duration, or its discontinuation, and could be moved between individual employers at will.

The Nazi principle of total exploitation of Polish workers applied also to working hours. According to the mostly confidential instructions of central authorities, the duration of the working day was defined by the employer, depending on his requirements. This decision legalised the most widely applied grievous forms of worker exploitation. It was made use of by practically all the employers. The worst were farmers on small and medium size farms and in households, where the working day lasted from very early in the morning to late evening, often including Sundays and holidays. In agriculture, mostly on large estates and largely due to the need to co-ordinate the working hours of Polish and German workers performing the same functions, the former occasionally enjoyed more free time, particularly in winter. Similarly, in industry and in transport, the Polish worker’s working day had to be adjusted to that of German and other foreign employees not subject to discrimination.  Consequently, in the first months of the war in many enterprises the working day lasted 8 hours, extended to 9, later 10 hours, and eventually in 1943, in the weapons industry, to 12 hours. The 12-hour day was introduced in the entire weapons industry on 11 August 1944; in that year it was also applied in other branches of industry. In addition to these hours, Polish workers were often burdened with other duties, not directly related to the actual production.

The Nazi work legislation also deprived Polish forced labour of the right to a leave. Following the decree issued by the Reich’s minister of labour on 31st March 1941, all leave for Poles was temporarily suspended and thus visits to family were no longer possible. At the same time Poles were deprived of right to any indemnity. The particular requirements of the war-time economy as well as traffic congestion were officially given as the reason. At a later stage two exceptions were introduced to the relevant legislation. Firstly, the unpublished decree of the Reich minister of labour, dated 10th September 1941, allowed the possibility of granting a short leave to a Polish worker in exceptional circumstances, such as death or serious illness of a member of the immediate family, or the marriage of the employee or his children. Secondly, according to the ruling of 1st November 1941, the group of Polish workers entitled to apply for leave was enlarged by those of ‘particularly good conduct’, provided that their return to work could be fully guaranteed. Further relevant legislation of 1942-1944 stipulated the same conditions. In all cases the decision of either granting or refusing leave belonged to the Arbeitsamt. In practice, because of the difficulties created by the Nazi authorities, even these modest chances of obtaining leave were rarely made use of. In 1943, Hans Frank, the Governor of occupied Poland (General Gouvernement, or GG), pointed out that the majority of Poles working in Germany for four years had not returned home for a rest. Even in absence of relevant statistics, there is nevertheless no doubt that a great majority of Poles working in Germany, in some cases for over five years, had never been granted home leave.

Polish workers in Germany were also grossly discriminated against as regards labour law in general. The German employers were not obliged to follow conditions stipulated in the health and safety at work regulations, and even in the case of death or illness caused by the employer’s negligence, the latter was a priori excused any liability.

"Pole"Similarly, during the Second World War, German legislation foresaw no special provisions for Polish women and youths employed in Germany. Even regarding maternity leave, as from 1943, Polish women were in a worse position than German women and women of certain other nationalities. At best the Polish woman could be granted an eight week maternity leave, though in fact, after the initial eight days, she would be made to help with household duties or continue to work in a cottage industry. Provisions for child care were non-existent and she was allowed only two unpaid half-hour breaks a day for breastfeeding. Polish youngsters were made to work the same hours and in the same conditions as laid down for adults, but were paid less, according to the tariff for minors. The perfidy of the Nazi authorities thus allowed the employers to take into account the age of the worker in calculating his or her pay, but not in relation to the type of work, the working hours, leave entitlement and productivity.

Generally speaking Polish workers were treated with contempt and ruthlessness by their German employers, whether by the owners of small enterprises or by the supervising personnel in larger ones. As the Nazi authorities declared that Poles were not to be considered as members of the team or the community of the enterprise that employed them (Betriebsgemeinschaft), a climate was created in which they could be treated with utmost ruthlessness and their human needs could be neglected. Whipping was accepted by the Nazis as a legitimate method and throughout the duration of the war Polish workers were being subjected to corporal punishment.

Polish forced labourers were also discriminated against as regards their wages. Special deductions were introduced, as well as job downgrading, reduced overtime and holiday  payments, increased income tax, and a special social equalisation tax (Socialausgleichabgabe) applicable to Poles alone. In agriculture Polish workers were paid for the same work only 40% to 65% of the wages received by their German counterparts, while in other branches of economy the figure increased up to the maximum of 70%. In fact the difference was even greater, as Poles did not qualify for family allowances, marriage, death, holiday, old age, or any other allowances or grants. Consequently, the ‘take-home’ pay of Polish forced labour workers was very low indeed, and offered no surplus to be sent to the family in Poland. This was confirmed, among others, by the representatives of the General Gouvernement. The Reich’s minister of labour stated that because of their low wages Polish workers could not afford to cover the cost of travelling home on leave. The overwhelming majority of German employers kept Poles on such minimal wages out of purely selfish, class considerations. Their stand was supported by the party and government authorities of the Third Reich, which in all their actions relating to Poles invariably followed the assumptions of the fascist ideology and racial theories. This was reflected in numerous regulations and in the pronouncements of the leading dignitaries, including Hitler himself. The latter declared for instance that “from the economy’s point of view, the lowest of German workers and peasants must stand at least 10% higher than any Pole,” and that  “a Pole working even 14 hours a day must, in spite of that, earn less than the German worker”. These statements adequately clarify the wages policy of Nazi authorities towards Polish forced labour, which by wronging the latter, brought considerable material advantages to the economy of the Third Reich.

The presumed racial inferiority of the Polish forced labourers led to their different treatment, as compared with their German counterparts and certain other foreigners; that included the provision of food, clothing, other essentials, accommodation and health services. Throughout the war the Polish deportees in Germany suffered severe hunger. Their daily food intake generally did not exceed 1500 calories. They were also deprived of the right to buy fruit, vegetables, milk, eggs, confectionery, coffee, tea and many other products sold to German citizens on presentation of ration cards denied to Poles. The effects of starvation on the Polish workers, such as reduced productivity, frequent general weakness, increased morbidity and oedema were noted by the authorities and by the employers. The starvation diet was a cause of frequent complaints of Polish workers to their employers and supervisors, and on occasion the cause of escape from the place of work to which they had been assigned by the authorities. Some officials confirmed that the food ration for the Polish forced labourer was very low and would leave even a child hungry, but nothing was done to remedy this state of affairs.

Neither was the necessary clothing or footwear provided for Polish workers by the Nazi authorities. Each worker was issued with a biennial clothing card entitling him to 75 points, which in practice allowed the holder to purchase only several minor items, not even extending to a work outfit. In the face of mounting economic difficulties in the last years of the war, the Nazi authorities decided to shift the burden of clothing the Polish forced labour on to the population of Poland and repeatedly appealed to the population of the occupied territories to send clothes parcels to their kith and kin in Germany. Naturally the families of deportees responded to this appeal and help was also provided by the Polish RGO (Rada Główna Opiekuńcza, or Central Care Council), but the ability to help by those in occupied Poland was greatly limited; textiles and footwear were in very short supply, grossly inadequate in covering their own needs. Furthermore, the original deportations from the territories incorporated into the Reich were accompanied by extensive plunder of clothes in hundreds thousands of homes; frequently all personal possessions were destroyed during reprisals. Consequently, in spite of the undoubted generosity of their compatriots, in view of the great demand, the amount of clothing reaching the slave workers was a proverbial drop in the ocean. As officially stated by the Gestapo, most of the Polish workers in Germany went about in rags, deprived of leather shoes, their footwear held together by bits of wire, without warm underwear and other important items of clothing.

Arbeitsbuch Fur Auslander 1942Arbeitsbuch Für Ausländer (Workbook for Foreigner) identity document issued to a Polish Forced Labourer in 1942.Being categorised as racially inferior, Poles were also poorly housed. In that regard the official stand of Nazi authorities was formulated already at the beginning of 1940, when the decision was made to quarter Polish forced labourers whenever possible in barracks, and to observe their “full separation” from the Germans. As a consequence no Polish farm worker could be assigned a room in the farm owner’s house. In spite of it a minute proportion of German farmers provided relatively good quarters for their Polish workers, while the overwhelming majority housed them in tiny, poorly lit, usually unheated, primitively furnished closets or rooms. Some of these lodgings were parts of attics or cellars, and not infrequently in buildings shared with animals. The poor living conditions the Polish forced labour force had to endure in Germany were not dictated by an actual lack of accommodation, but by a deliberate wish to humiliate; it was an expression of the nationalistic hatred, a stressing of the slave’s racial inferiority. Often it was also simple avarice and refusal to spend even a minimal amount of money on repairs, or the purchase of an additional item or two.

Of Poles employed outside of agriculture, the  great majority were housed in larger, shared premises, such as barracks, dance-halls, fire-stations, abandoned ships. Such premises, originally not intended as mass dwellings, had inadequate sanitary and laundry facilities, no cooking appliances, heating, etc. The daily life of the overcrowded Polish workers was made still more intolerable by the presence of insects and parasites.

Exhaustion caused by the excessive work load, lack of rest leaves, miserable living conditions, homesickness, constant hunger, the ever-present terror, worries about the family left behind, all inevitably affected the health of the forced labourers. Many fell seriously ill already in the first few months in Germany. Because of the very cursory initial medical check-ups, had been deported with unrecognised diseases, rapidly deteriorating under the conditions imposed on them in Germany. Hence the high morbidity indices recorded among the Polish forced labourers throughout the war years. For instance, of those employed in agriculture, 25 thousand or 7% of the total were returned to Poland due to serious illness in the winter of 1940 -1941. Except for the exceptional cases of hospital admission, Poles had no access to medicines, which greatly limited their chances of receiving treatment. The lack of any preventive measures, combined with the minimum of medical care available, resulted in high mortality among the Polish workforce.

The method of approach to Polish labourers designed by the Nazi authorities in 1940 and modified as required during the war, greatly restricted their personal freedom. Poles deported to Germany were obliged to have a patch with the letter “P” permanently stitched to their outer garments. They were not permitted to leave the place of their assigned residence without an official pass, to frequent public premises,  participate in cultural  events, travel in fast and express trains, or in the first or second class cars of other passenger trains. In some localities even spending their free time in nearby woodlands was forbidden. They were not allowed to use public telephones for private reasons and to contract marriages. Such personal restrictions included also religious practices. The Nazi authorities were also breaking the rule of confidentiality of correspondence. These and other restrictions remained in force throughout the war. The opinion that in the final months of the war the Nazi authorities either withdrew or lessened the severity of some of these restrictions finds no confirmation in the sources available.

On the basis of several further decrees the Polish forced labour force in Germany was eventually fully subjected to police jurisdiction. As a result of the terror exercised by the Gestapo and other police formations, tens of thousands of the deportees and their children perished.

The methods of dealing with the Polish forced labour force employed by the Nazi authorities resulted in active resistance, ranging from escapes to Poland, deliberate ‘going slow’ at work and acts of sabotage, to the formation of conspiratorial politically orientated organisations. Most active in those organisations, often co-operating with German communists, were citizens of USSR and Poland.

According to the statistics compiled in 1947 by the War Restitution Bureau of the Polish Council of Ministers, 137,021 deportees died due to the dire living conditions, to the methods of extermination applied by the authorities and to military operations. To this figure must be added some tens of thousands of murdered new-born babies of Polish women deported as forced labour to Germany. Tens of thousands of deportees returned from Germany either disabled or ill, mainly with tuberculosis, mental disorders, heart diseases, rheumatic disorders, effects of rickets and dental defects. In some cases these problems undoubtedly contributed to premature deaths among the returning deportees. Deportations resulted also in a considerable reduction in the birth rate in Poland and deprived many deportees of a chance to acquire experience in their chosen occupation and of enhancing their previously acquired qualifications. This applied most of all to the intelligentsia and more generally to white collar staff, of whom barely several hundred were employed in the last phase of the war in some German offices in the lowest possible grades. The situation of blue collar workers was not much better. These were usually given the heaviest but simple tasks, not compatible with the acquisition of technological knowledge, while the ban on free movement of Polish workers within the enterprise prevented observation of technological processes and use of machinery. Only some of the agricultural or industrial workers deported to Germany had a chance of observing the more advanced methods of soil cultivation or modern industrial plant, and only a very small proportion was able to make use of it. The poor living conditions, the incessant threat to life, combined with a constant worry about the fate of the loved ones left behind in Poland, did not favour the development of interest in modern technological achievements.

Deportation to forced labour in Germany caused also irretrievable gaps in the education of Polish children and young people. Banned from German schools, they missed several years of schooling and this often led to secondary illiteracy.

To all this we must add moral losses inflicted on forced labourers, which are by their nature impossible to  quantify.

Deportation to forced labour, with the subsequent loss of life, as well as material and moral losses to the nation, criminally infringed article 52 of the 1907 Hague Convention and was condemned after the war by the International Military Court as a crime, one of many committed by Nazi Germany against the populations of occupied countries.


The author of this introduction discusses deportations of Poles to Germany  and their situation in that country in more detail (with documentation of sources) in two further publications: Polish Forced Labour in the Third Reich during the Second World War. Poznań 1974, and The Situation of the Polish Forced Labour Force in the Reich 1939-1945. Index of Sources “Documenta  Occupationis” vol.IX, Poznań, 1975