Technological Expertise that caused Slave Labor

Technological, industrial and organizational aspects of the German aviation industry has stood so far at the focal point of this research, but now it is time to turn to some social issues. One of the most striking features of late-war German aviation industry was a sharp shift from the industry’s traditional manpower. Large proportions of highly proficient German personnel has been replaced by late 1944 with foreign manpower composed of, among others, large numbers of Jewish housewives and teenage schoolgirls picked up in places like Auschwitz. This change formed a major break from the national-community-building aspirations so widespread in the aviation industry before the war. It was also a major break from the guild-like character of aircraft manufacture. The massive use of slave labor became within months a central characteristic of this branch. Historians, like Constanze Werner, noted: “Therefore, forced labor and concentration camp inmates were employed so massively, so early and so unscrupulously in the aviation industry like in no other industral branch.”1 Even before modern historians started pondering over this peculiar phenomenon, it bewildered American technicians and engineers surveying the German aviation industry after the war. One of the intelligence teams described it in a technical report dealing with production techniques of the German aviation industry: An outstanding feature of German production methods was the extensive use of slave labor. Among these people were relatively few possessing skills. The “Auslander” (sic), as they were called, were handled in various ways, ranging from extreme cruelty and neglect to attempts to secure cooperation and good work by more favorable treatment. In the larger government-controlled plants, such as the Mitteldeutsch (sic) Motoren Werke and the Nordhausen V-plants, the slave laborers were badly mistreated; in the small, privately-controlled plants their lot was comparatively good and efforts were made to properly feed and house them. In smaller plants, some elementary training was provided, particularly in the instrument manufacturing works.2 A maze of general structural factors and firm specific interests contributed to the deeply rooted practice of slave labor in Germany’s most technologically advanced industry. In order to understand the background of this change and the way it enabled the Germans to increase their production rates in 1944, we need to look first at the way modernity affected industrial production. Basically, industrial modernization, as applied by German industrialists, could appear in two forms, which were different types of production lines:

1. Automating the production process by replacing humans with production machines and automated production lines. That method usually reduced manpower, but still required skilled workers to operate the complicated machinery in a proper way. This was basically the system used in the modern car industry and implemented partially unsuccessfully in aircraft production—mainly in the USA.

2. Employing output-multiplying machines or processes, which still needed the human touch. Here workforce was not necessarily reduced; the output of each worker was simply multiplied.

3 The main difference between these methods, as applied to aircraft production, can be exemplified by the type of riveting machines used in them. In the first method, automatic and complicated riveting machines were used. In the second method, improved hand-held riveting machines enabled workers to complete more riveting than with older machines or by using manual riveting.
Both methods relied basically on the mechanization of the production process, but the first method was difficult to implement in the production of complicated machines like aircraft and their engines. Therefore, the second method was more suitable for a rapidly expanding industry, which employed a large number of employees with little or no training. This method also perfectly represented production-line-based industries, such as started to appear in Germany from 1942. Ford used this strategy in his “Willow Run” factory to produce bombers. Ford’s engineers used machinery and fixtures that had accuracy built into them. The workers simply needed to load the machines and quickly attach the parts.4 Automatic production machines replaced in several cases complete production processes by combining in their mechanism several different functions of the manufacturing processes. Such complicated machines were, however, rare even in the American aviation industry, and most available machines were just designed to improve the performance at certain stations along the conveyor belt. Hand-held riveting machines had not changed much, but became easier to operate and enabled faster riveting. Their operation also required less training than was required for the operation of complicated automatic machines. These types of output-multiplying machines and the production method associated with them perfectly suited the type of workers that started to appear on German production lines in 1942. These changes in the production process enabled the Germans to seek some extraordinary solutions to a growing manpower shortage. Initially, German industrialists viewed the conveyor belt system merely as an interim solution to the demand for an ever-increasing output. Few viewed it as a way to solve the manpower shortage affecting all of German industry, and particularly the aviation industry.5 This shortage represented one of the biggest structural problems of the German aviation industry. Solving this shortage represented one of the only ways to boost aviation production, particularly after the outbreak of World War II. National-Socialist ideology, which defined certain human groups as inferior, provided the ideological motivation for a radical solution of this industrial problem.