In this interview, Roman Fröhlich talkes about who benefited from the system of forced labor during the second world war and explained why and how Germany still profits from it.
Roman Fröhlich is the paedagogical leader of the wannseeFORUM. In his PHD theses he wrote about forced laborers in concentration camps. He also has a personal connection to the issue of forced labor: his grandparents employed two civil forced laborers.*
For your PHD theses you wrote about forced labor in concentration camps. Could you briefly summarize what the Nazi’s used forced laborers for?
It was not only the Nazis that took advantage of forced laborers, it was the whole society. That’s why it was nothing special that my grandparents as employed two forced laborers. You have to remember that forced laborers were quite common in Germany, especially after 1942. But they were not called ‚forced laborers‘ at that time. My grandparents used to call them „the belgium“ and „the french“. In my family, we never talked about that being an injustice. These people just were there. That they did not volunteer to work form y grandparents, that they had to work for hem, that was not a subject of discussion in our family.
What had the biggest impact on you while writing your PHD theses? What shocked you the most?
For my PHD, I wrote about the history of a german company connected to forced labor. What shocked me was that, although I already knew about the issue, I learned that this company operated ten subcamps near concentration camps, where camp-inmates had to work for them. The more I learned, the more I noticed the dimensions of the system of forced labor. After the war the company’s founder denied everything. He was even seen as a role. I think that it is inaccaptable that even today there are streets named after that person.
I‘d like to talk about your family. Why did your grandparents employe foreced laborers?
My Grandparents owend a farm and they just told the state that they needed some help with it. From 1937 onwards Germany was in a state of full employment. That was compensated by „guest workers“, for instance from Italy or other allied states. But then more and more people had to join the army, others died during the war. Simultaineously the Nazis started the deportation of jewish people who had been forced to work before. So by the end of the 30s, civil forst laborers were desperately needed. My grandparents probably just went to the office, asked for help and got two forced laborers assigned to them.
How did you cope with the fact that your grandparents employed forced workers?
For a long time I felt angry, even after my grandparents died. Then I looked at my grandparent’s denazification file. My grandfather had been sued after the war for being a member of the SA equestrian squadron for a couple of weeks. The forced laborer actually testified for my grandfather, stating that he was an integer man and had treated him nicely all the time. That discharged my grandfather. So on the one hand, he was a perpetrator, using what the system gave him. He engaged in the injustice oft the system. On the other hand, he tried to deal with the system in a way that he felt comfortble with.
How did people become forced laborers?
To give a rough outline: first the Wehrmacht invaded a village or town. Then the SS followed, organized the deportation of jewish citizens and eliminated officials. And already after that the german employment office searched the town, looking for people that are able to work and sending them to Germany where they were forced to work. The Nazis even had an official department just for that, led by Fritz Sauckel.
When Germany was defeated in Stalingrad 1943, that system did no longer work. The German Reich did not expand anymore. From then on, thing become even more brutal. Increasingly people in occupied countries were just randomly assigned as forced laborers. If someone went to the cinema, he or she might not return home, because all the visitors were captured and deported to Germany.
How did you cope with you family’s guilt? It does not concern you anymore, because you – personally – did no injustice.
I disagree, it does concern me. The wealth of Germany is based upon the Nazi era – especially on forced laborers. First of all the state invested huge amounts during that time. The machines and capital goods that were built had a positive impact on the german economy after the war. Beside that companies profited from the fact that they did not have to pay wages (or only very small wages). The money they saved and earned through that was a huge advantage. Also, forced laborers had to pay for pension funds – but they never got any pensions in return. Again, the Germans profited from that money – even until long after the war.
So still today there is a connection to us personally – because we profited (in)directly from forced labor during the nazi time. How do we deal with that responsibly?
The first thing would be to acknowledge the fact that there has been injustive. A lot of people do not see that. Secondly, we need to make sure that this never happens again. We need to be sensible even for small signals.
Do you observe a tendency towards forced labor today?
Yes. I think there are few people who are aware of the amount of slavery that goes into the production oft the things we consume. The best examples for that are tea and coffee. Very few people buy transfer fair trade-coffee, the market share is extremely small. That’s disappointing, considering the living conditions of workers in the production.
* In contrast to prisoners of war the civil forced laborers have not been in the army but have been brought to Germany directly from their native countries.