Foreign Workers and Slave Labor in the Aviation Industry

The most obvious solution to the manpower shortage was to recruit non–German workers. Although Germany’s general manpower crisis came to a head after Stalingrad, the aviation industry started looking for alternative workforce long before the 6th Army was lost. The manpower shortage was generally the main reason for the use of foreign and slave labor, but the context was more complex than just this single problem. Business considerations and corporate interests played a role in the decision-making process leading to a widespread introduction of slave labor. Structural developments within the Nazi system were yet another important element contributing to the emergence of this trend. There are several central questions regarding the use of slave labor in the aviation industry. Why, for instance, did specific firms choose to use slave workers earlier than others, and why did one specific firm, namely Heinkel, lead the way in this regard? Were there any alternatives to the use slave labor or could foreign labor alone have fulfilled the demands? How did this practice spread further within the industry? Finally, how much was initiated by top-level decision-makers and how much was initiated from below by the industry? After the war, Milch, a key figure in this story, denied any involvement in the allocation of forced labor to the aviation industry. He also argued that this was agreed upon by Hitler and Himmler in 1944 independently of the Jägerstab and that subsequent slave labor allocations were carried out exclusively by the SS.87 At the time of Milch’s trial in Nuremberg, his interrogators knew little about the early use of slave labor and restricted their questioning to the events of 1944. This neglect improved Milch’s situation, because he could easily shift the blame to others by arguing that he was sidelined and had nothing to do with workforce allocations. With hindsight, Milch’s role was crucial, but he was not alone. In order to understand the heavy late-war reliance on foreign and slave labor, it is necessary to take a closer look at the origins of this phenomenon and at the way it evolved.

Early Enterprises

As the aviation industry began to expand after Hitler came to power, the RLM established in 1934 a special office to organize the training of aviation industry workers. This office, the Büro für Luftfahrtindustriepersonal(Office for Aviation Industry Personnel—BfL) was directed by Otto Mooyer and organized the professional training of new workers required by the expanding industry. This “employment office of the aviation industry,” as Göring referred to it in 1938, sought upon the outbreak of the war to solve the manpower shortage also by studying new manpower resources. After the outbreak of World War II, Mooyer became well aware of the fact that the traditional manpower reserves available to the aviation industry were largely exhausted. In April 1940, he informed industry chiefs for the first time that massive use of foreigners was going to be the solution to the manpower crisis. At that time the use of foreigners as industrial workers was only a faint idea in the mind of several Nazi leaders. The Germans employed large numbers of Polish civilians and POWs after the conquest of Poland, but only as agricultural workers.88 Mooyer’s note should be therefore regarded as a farsighted notion. General change of policy indeed occurred after the conquest of France and the Low Countries in May-June 1940 as the Germans sought a solution to a general manpower shortage in the industrial sector. After the victory in the 1940 campaign in the West, Mooyer’s office listed potential groups of foreign workers and offered them to the industry. In July and August 1940 Heinkel and other firms were offered a choice of foreigners from a catalog-like list: “Scores of diamond cutters from Antwerp, native Flemish men (Belgians); 200 white French POWs” or “280 untrained Danish workers.”89 Other firms also received the same offers and were asked to select the groups they liked. As a result of this initiative, foreigners—both recently captured POWs and civilians— started to enter the aviation industry in increasing numbers. This move was an exception at a time when most foreign workers and POWs were employed in non-industrial sectors. In December 1940, 54 percent of the foreigners worked in the agriculture, 23.4 percent in construction and 2 percent in mining.90 Besides Heinkel, Junkers also accepted a large number of foreigners. By September 1940, Junkers employed some 3,100 foreigners, among them 2,100 Dutch and Flemish, 415 Poles, 360 Danes, 75 Frenchmen, 50 Italians and 100 men of other nationalities.91 One year later the number of foreigners employed by Junkers grew to around 7,400—8.8 percent of the firm’s entire workforce. In August 1941 alone Junkers received 1,300 foreign workers, including 457 Flemish trainees, 52 Frenchmen, 188 Italians, 454 Hungarians, 33 Croatians and 6 Danes—all registered as skilled workers. Ninety Croatian women also arrived.92 Most of these workers came voluntarily to Germany and enjoyed different rights. We do not know how Junkers selected its foreign workers, but we know that in summer 1940 Heinkel selected right away the POWs it was offered, because it was simpler to arrange living quarters for them and because they were immediately available. This sort of practical reasoning influenced the decisions of other firms. The Mansfeld firm, a rather small but expanding aviation systems manufacturer, which produced (among other devices) landing gear for the He 111 and He 177 bombers, also chose POWs. This firm rapidly expanded its business following increasing orders. One way to obtain extra workers was through a training scheme for the unskilled. The other way was through the employment of POWs. By February 1941 around 100 Belgian POWs—some of them listed as skilled workers—were employed in the firm’s Prenzlau factory. In a report prepared for the firm’s directorate in September 1941 it was noted: “The experience with the prisoners can be described without exception as good. Since the employment office cannot allocate us other workforce anymore and since we are ready to receive more workers after finishing some construction work, we will employ more POWs. We expect to obtain shortly an allocation of around 300 POWs and hope that their employment will prove itself, as happened with those employed by us in the last 6 months.