Extermination through labour

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The Todesstiege ("Stairs of Death") at the Mauthausen concentration camp quarry in Upper Austria. Inmates were forced to carry heavy rocks up the stairs. In their severely weakened state, few prisoners could cope with this back-breaking labour for long.
Commemorative plaque in Hamburg-Neugraben

Extermination through labour is a term sometimes used to describe the operation of concentration camp, death camp and forced labour systems in Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, North Korea, and elsewhere, defined as the willful or accepted killing of forced labourers or prisoners through excessively heavy labour, malnutrition and inadequate care.

Use as a term[edit]

The term "extermination through labour" (Vernichtung durch Arbeit) was not generally used by the Nazi SS, but the phrase was notably used in the fall of 1942 in negotiations between Albert Bormann, Joseph Goebbels, Otto Georg Thierack and Heinrich Himmler, relating to the transfer of prisoners to concentration camps. Thierack and Goebbels specifically used the term.[1] The phrase was used again during the post-war Nuremberg trials.[1]

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, historians have debated the appropriate use of the term. Falk Pingel believed the phrase should not be applied to all Nazi prisoners, while Hermann Kaienburg and Miroslav Kárný believed "extermination through labour" was a consistent goal of the SS. More recently, Jens-Christian Wagner has also argued that not all Nazi prisoners were targeted with annihilation.[1]

In Nazi Germany[edit]

The Nazis persecuted many individuals because of their race, political affiliation, disability, religion or sexual orientation.[2][3] Groups marginalized by the majority population in Germany included welfare-dependent families with many children, alleged vagrants and transients, as well as members of perceived problem groups, such as alcoholics and prostitutes. While these people were considered "German-blooded", they were also categorized as "social misfits" (Asoziale) as well as superfluous "ballast-lives" (Ballastexistenzen). They were recorded in lists (as were homosexuals) by civil and police authorities and subjected to myriad state restrictions and repressive actions, which included forced sterilization and ultimately imprisonment in concentration camps. Anyone who openly opposed the Nazi regime (such as communists, capitalists, social democrats, democrats, and conscientious objectors) was detained in prison camps. Many of them did not survive the ordeal.[2]

While others could possibly redeem themselves in the eyes of the Nazis, there was no room in Hitler's world-view for Jews, although Germany encouraged and supported emigration of Jews to Palestine and elsewhere from 1933 until 1941 with arrangements such as the Haavara Agreement, or the Madagascar Plan. During the war in 1942, the Nazi leadership gathered to discuss what had come to be called "the final solution to the Jewish question" at a conference in Wannsee, Germany. The transcript of this gathering gives historians insight into the thinking of the Nazi leadership as they devised the details of the Jews' future destruction, including using extermination through labour as one component of their so-called "Final Solution".[4]

Under proper leadership, the Jews shall now in the course of the Final Solution be suitably brought to their work assignments in the East. Able-bodied Jews are to be led to these areas to build roads in large work columns separated by sex, during which a large part will undoubtedly drop out through a process of natural reduction. As it will undoubtedly represent the most robust portion, the possible final remainder will have to be handled appropriately, as it would constitute a group of naturally-selected individuals, and would form the seed of a new Jewish resistance. Wannsee Protocol, 1942. [4]

Jewish forced labourers, marching with shovels, Mogilev, 1941

In Nazi camps, "extermination through labour" was principally carried out through a slave-based labour organization, which is why, in contrast with the forced labour of foreign work forces, a term from the Nuremberg Trials is used for "slave work" and "slave workers".[2]

Working conditions were characterized by: no remuneration of any kind; constant surveillance of workers; physically demanding labour (for example, road construction, farm work, and factory work, particularly in the arms industry); excessive working hours (often 10 to 12 hours per day); minimal nutrition, food rationing; lack of hygiene; poor medical care and ensuing disease; insufficient clothing (for example, summer clothes even in the winter).

They also used torture and physical abuse. Torstehen ("Gate Hanging") forced victims to stand outside naked with arms raised, like a gate hanging on its hinges. When they collapsed or passed out, they would be beaten until they re-assumed the position. Pfahlhängen ("Post Attachment") involved tying the inmate's hands behind their back and then hanging them by their hands from a tall stake. This would dislocate and disjoint the arms, and the pressure would be fatal within hours. (Cf. strappado.)

Concentration camps[edit]

Gate in the Dachau concentration camp memorial.

Imprisonment in concentration camps was intended not merely to break, but to destroy inmates. The admission and registration of the new prisoners, the forced labour, the prisoner housing, the roll calls—all aspects of camp life were accompanied by humiliation and harassment.

Admission, registration and interrogation of the detainees was accompanied by scornful remarks from SS officials. The prisoners were stepped on and beaten during roll call. Forced labour partly consisted of pointless tasks and heavy labour, which was intended to wear down the prisoners.[2]

At many of the concentration camps, forced labour was channeled for the advancement of the German war machine. In these cases, excessive working hours were also seen as a means to maximizing output. Oswald Pohl, the leader of the SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt ("SS Economy and Administration Main Bureau", or SS-WVHA), who oversaw the employment of forced labour at the concentration camps, ordered on April 30, 1942.[5]

The camp commander alone is responsible for the use of man power. This work must be exhausting in the true sense of the word in order to achieve maximum performance. […] There are no limits to working hours. […] Time consuming walks and mid-day breaks only for the purpose of eating are prohibited. […] He [the camp commander] must connect clear technical knowledge in military and economic matters with sound and wise leadership of groups of people, which he should bring together to achieve a high performance potential.[5]

Up to 25,000 of the 35,000 prisoners appointed to work for IG Farben in Auschwitz died. The average life expectancy of a slave laborer on a work assignment amounted to less than four months.[6][7] The emaciated forced labourers died from exhaustion or disease or they were deemed to be incapable of work and killed. About 30 percent of the forced labourers who were assigned to dig tunnels, which were created for weapon factories in the last months of the war, died.[8] In the satellite camps, which were established in the vicinity of mines and industrial firms, death rates were even higher, since accommodations and supplies were often even less adequate there than in the main camps.

The phrase "Arbeit macht frei" ("work shall set you free"), which could be found in various places in some Nazi concentration camps, e.g. on the entrance gates, seems particularly cynical in this context. The Buchenwald concentration camp was the only concentration camp with the motto "Jedem das Seine" ("To each what he deserves") on the entrance gate.

Deadly labour outside Nazi Germany[edit]

In the African slave trade[edit]

Some scholars refer to the slave trade as a Holocaust.[9] though many prefer the neologism Maafa which means 'great disaster'.[10][11][12]

The Arab slave trade is estimated to have killed around 19 million Africans, mostly in slave raids.[13]

Likewise, the Atlantic slave trade resulted in a vast and as yet still unknown loss of life for African captives both inside and outside America. Approximately 1.2 – 2.4 million Africans died during their transport to the New World.[14] More died soon after their arrival. The number of lives lost in the procurement of slaves remains a mystery, but it may equal or exceed the number of Africans who survived only to be enslaved.[15]

Estimates by Patrick Manning are that about 12 million slaves entered the Atlantic trade between the 16th and 19th century, but about 1.5 million died on board ship. About 10.5 million slaves arrived in the Americas. Besides the slaves who died on the Middle Passage, more Africans likely died during the slave raids in Africa and forced marches to ports. Manning estimates that 4 million died inside Africa after capture, and many more died young. Manning's estimate covers the 12 million who were originally destined for the Atlantic, as well as the 6 million destined for Asian slave markets and the 8 million destined for African markets.[16]

In Leopold II's Congo Free State[edit]

In the period from 1885 to 1908, a number of well-documented atrocities were perpetrated in the Congo Free State (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo) which, at the time, was a colony under the personal rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. These atrocities were sometimes collectively referred to by European contemporaries as the "Congo Horrors", and were particularly associated with the labour policies used to collect natural rubber for export. With the majority of the Free State's revenues derived from the export of rubber, a labour policy (known by critics as the "Red Rubber system") was created to maximise its extraction. Labour was demanded by the administration as taxation.[a]

This created a "slave society", as companies became increasingly dependent on forcibly mobilising Congolese labour for their collection of rubber.[18] Workers who refused to supply their labour were coerced with "constraint and repression". Dissenters were beaten or whipped with the chicotte, hostages were taken to ensure prompt collection and punitive expeditions were sent to destroy villages which refused.[17] The policy led to a collapse of Congolese economic and cultural life, as well as farming in some areas.[19] Together with epidemic disease, famine, and a falling birth rate caused by these disruptions, the atrocities contributed to a sharp decline in the Congolese population. The magnitude of the population fall over the period is disputed, but it is thought by multiple historians that 10 or more million[20][b][21] Congolese perished during the period, mostly due to disease.[23]

One of the enduring images of the Free State was the severed hands which became "the most potent symbol of colonial brutality".[24] The practice of hacking the hands off corpses in the aftermath of punitive expeditions became common as evidence (pièces justificatives) that government supplies had not been misused.[25] When soldiers did misuse their equipment, they cut hands from living people to cover their activities.[26]

In the Soviet Union[edit]

The Soviet Gulag is sometimes presented as a system of death camps,[27][28][29][30] particularly in post-Communist Eastern European politics.[31] This controversial position has been criticized as Holocaust trivialization, considering that with the obvious exception of the war years, a very large majority of people who entered the Gulag left alive.[32] Alexander Solzhenitsyn introduced the expression camps of extermination by labour in his non-fiction work The Gulag Archipelago.[33] According to him, the system eradicated opponents by forcing them to work as prisoners on big state-run projects (for example the White Sea-Baltic Canal, quarries, remote railroads and urban development projects) under inhumane conditions. Roy Medvedev comments: "The penal system in the Kolyma and in the camps in the north was deliberately designed for the extermination of people."[30] Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev expands upon this, claiming that Stalin was the "architect of the gulag system for totally destroying human life".[34] Writer Stephen Wheatcroft argues that the scale and nature of the Soviet Gulag repressions need to be looked at through the perspective of the greater populations of the USSR.[35]

Hannah Arendt argued that although the Soviet government deemed them all "forced labor" camps, this in fact highlighted that the work in the camps was deliberately pointless, since "forced labor is the normal condition of all Russian workers, who have no freedom of movement and can be arbitrarily drafted for work at any place and at any time." [36] The only real economic purpose they typically served was financing the cost of supervision. Otherwise the work performed was generally useless, either by design or made that way through extremely poor planning and execution; some workers even preferred more difficult work if it was actually productive. She differentiated between "authentic" forced-labor camps, concentration camps, and "annihilation camps". In authentic labor camps, inmates worked in "relative freedom and are sentenced for limited periods." Concentration camps had extremely high mortality rates and but were still "essentially organized for labor purposes." Annihilation camps were those where the inmates were "systematically wiped out through starvation and neglect." She criticizes other commentators' conclusion that the purpose of the camps was a supply of cheap labor. According to her, the Soviets were able to liquidate the camp system without serious economic consequences, showing that the camps were not an important source of labor and were overall economically irrelevant.[37]

According to formerly secret internal Gulag documents, some 1.6 million people must have died in the period between 1930 and 1956 in Soviet forced labour camps and colonies (excluding prisoner-of-war camps), though these figures only include the deaths in the colonies beginning in 1935. The majority (about 900,000) of these deaths therefore fall between 1941 and 1945,[38] coinciding with the period of the German-Soviet War when food supply levels were low in the entire country.

These figures are consistent with the archived documents that Russian historian Oleg Khlevniuk presents and analyzes in his study The History of the Gulag: From Collectivization to the Great Terror, according to which some 500,000 people died in the camps and colonies from 1930 to 1941.[39] Khlevniuk points out that these figures don't take into account any deaths that occurred during transport.[40] Also excluded are those who died shortly after their release owing to the harsh treatment in the camps,[41] who, according to both archives and memoirs, were numerous.[42] The historian J. Otto Pohl estimates that some 2,749,163 prisoners perished in the labour camps, colonies and special settlements, although stresses that this is an incomplete figure.[43] Though the death toll is still widely debated, no state or national institution has recognized the Gulag system as a genocide.[citation needed]

In Maoist China[edit]

Likewise to the Soviet system, Mao Zedong's rule of China also installed an extremely deadly forced labor and prison system known as the Laogai or "reform through labour". According to Jean-Louis Margolin during the Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries, the harshness of the official prison system reached unprecedented levels, and the mortality rate until 1952 was "certainly in excess" of 5 percent per year, and reached 50 percent during six months in Guangxi.[44] In Shanxi, more than 300 people died per day in one mine.[44] Torture was commonplace and the suppression of revolts, which were quite numerous, resulted in "veritable massacres".[44] One Chinese priest died after being interrogated for over 100 hours. Of the 20,000 inmates who worked in the oilfields of Yanchang, several thousand were executed.[44]

In Mao: The Unknown Story, the Mao biographer Jung Chang and historian Jon Halliday estimate that perhaps 27 million people died in prisons and labor camps during Mao Zedong's rule.[45] They claim that inmates were subjected to back-breaking labor in the most hostile wastelands, and that executions and suicides by any means (like diving into a wheat chopper) were commonplace.[45] Frank Dikötter estimates that 1 to 3 million Chinese citizens committed suicide[46] during the Great Leap Forward, likely referring in part to suicides in the labor camps.

Writing in The Black Book of Communism, which describes the history of repressions by Communist states, Jean-Louis Margolin claims that perhaps 20 million died in the prison system.[47] Professor R.J. Rummel puts the number of forced labor "democides" at 15,720,000, excluding "all those collectivized, ill-fed and clothed peasants who would be worked to death in the fields."[48] Harry Wu puts the death toll at 15 million.[49]

Other deadly labour systems[edit]

In Africa[edit]

  • Likewise to the Leopold's Free State Portugal also used brutal forced labour in their African resulting in 325,000 deaths over the first quarter of the 20th century.

[50]

  • France's colonies have meet similar scrutiny with estimates of forced labour deaths ranging from under 200,000 by Rudolph Rummel to almost 800,000. Adam Hoschild estimated half the human population of rainforests within French African colonies perished. Tom Conner goes as far as to posit a population decline in the millions or essentially that most of French Equatorial Africa's populace perished during the Colonial period of 1900 to the early 1920s partially as a result of forced labour. 14 to 20 thousand are estimated to of perished in the building of the Congo Ocean railroad under French administration.[51]
  • Putting an end to most foreign trade relationships, Ranavalona I pursued a policy of self-reliance in Madagascar, made possible through frequent use of the long-standing tradition of fanompoana—forced labor in lieu of tax payments in money or goods. Ranavalona continued the wars of expansion conducted by her predecessor, Radama I, in an effort to extend her realm over the entire island, and imposed strict punishments on those who were judged as having acted in opposition to her will. Due in large part to loss of life throughout the years of military campaigns, high death rates among fanompoana workers, and harsh traditions of justice under her rule, the population of Madagascar is estimated to have declined from around 5 million to 2.5 million between 1833 and 1839, and from 750,000 to 130,000 between 1829 and 1842 in Imerina.[52] These statistics have contributed to a strongly unfavorable view of Ranavalona's rule in historical accounts.[53]

In Asia[edit]

  • Forced labour was used in Japan's construction of the Burma Railway. More than 180,000—possibly many more—Southeast Asian civilian labourers (Romusha) and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Javanese, Malayan Tamils of Indian origin, Burmese, Chinese, Thai and other Southeast Asians, forcibly drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army to work on the railway, died in its construction — including 100,000 Tamils alone.[better source needed][54][55] 12,621 Allied POWs died during the construction. The dead POWs included 6,904 British personnel, 2,802 Australians, 2,782 Dutch, and 133 Americans.[56]
  • The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that during the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies, between 4 and 10 million romusha (Japanese: "manual laborer"), were forced to work by the Japanese military.[57] About 270,000 of these Javanese laborers were sent to other Japanese-held areas in southeast Asia. Only 52,000 were repatriated to Java, meaning that there was a death rate as high as 80%. (For further details, see Japanese war crimes.)[58] A later UN report stated that four million people died in Indonesia as a result of the Japanese occupation.[59] About 2.4 million people died in Java from famine during 1944–45.[60]
  • Hundreds of thousands to millions of Cambodians were worked to death during the Cambodian genocide which killed around 1,700,000 or more than a fifth of citizens in Cambodia.[61]
  • 400,000[62] to 1,500,000[63] have perished in camps similar to the Soviet Gulag and Chinese Laogai that are operating in North Korea. They resulted in the death of at least 20,000 political prisoners in 2013 alone, with at least 130,000 held therein.[64][65]
  • Foreign observers of the Chinese government's ongoing persecution of Falun Gong, starting from 1999, have estimated that hundreds of thousands—and perhaps millions—of Falun Gong practitioners have been held extra-legally in reeducation-through-labor camps, prisons, and other detention facilities.[66] 3,700 named Falun Gong practitioners have died as a result of torture and abuse in custody, typically after they refused to recant their beliefs.[67] In 2006, allegations emerged that a large number of Falun Gong practitioners had been killed to supply China's organ transplant industry.[68] These allegations prompted an investigation by former Canadian Secretary of State David Kilgour and human rights lawyer David Matas. In July 2006, the Kilgour-Matas report[69] found that "the source of 41,500 transplants for the six year period 2000 to 2005 is unexplained" and concluded that "the government of China and its agencies in numerous parts of the country, in particular hospitals but also detention centres and 'people's courts', since 1999 have put to death a large but unknown number of Falun Gong prisoners of conscience". In 2016, the researchers published a joint update to their findings showing that the number of organ transplants conducted in China is much higher than previously believed, and that 60,000 to 100,000 could be harvested from political prisoners per year.[70] The 789-page report is based on an analysis of records from hundreds of Chinese transplant hospitals.[71] In 2009, courts in Spain and Argentina indicted senior Chinese officials for genocide and crimes against humanity for their role in orchestrating the suppression of Falun Gong.[72][73][74]

In Europe[edit]

  • Over 10,000,000 Slavs across Southern Europe, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Grand Duchy of Moscow are estimated to have perished from the Arab Slave Trade and Ottoman Slave Trade.[75][76]
  • Separate from the GULAG, estimates of German POW in the Soviet Union casualties (in both east and west and cumulative for both the war and peace-time period) range from 600,000 to 1,000,000.[77] According to the section of the German Red Cross dealing with tracing the captives, the ultimate fate of 1,300,000 German POWs in Allied custody is still unknown; they are still officially listed as missing.[78] The capture and transfer of civilian ethnic Germans to the Soviet Union began as soon as countries with a German minority began to be overrun in 1944. Large numbers of civilians were taken from countries such as Romania, Yugoslavia, and from the eastern parts of Germany itself. For example, between 27,000 and 30,000 ethnic Germans (aged 18–40) were sent to the USSR from Yugoslavia after Christmas 1944. Women made up 90% of the group. Most were sent to labor camps in the Donbass (Donez basin) where 16% of them died.[79] After the war, many Germans in what would become East Germany were forced by the Communist authorities to work in German uranium mines producing the majority of the raw material of the Soviet atomic bomb project.[80] Beginning in the summer of 1946, the Soviets began explorations in the Erzgebirge, sealing off the old radium hot springs by September of the same year. The work was dangerous and stressful, and the Soviets made no effort to improve it; as a result the mines became filled with forced labor conscripts and has been compared to a death march and the Gulags of Kolyma.[81] An additional 200,000 ethnic Germans died in the Soviet-run slave labour camps in Poland.[82][83]
A photo of enslaved Amazon Indians from the 1912 book The Putumayo, the Devil's Paradise

In the Americas[edit]

  • The conditions of haciendas and chattel slavery in Mexico has been compared to those of a Soviet Gulag by R.J. Rummel, an analyst of what he calls democides, estimating 69,000 Mexicans or 0.5 percent of Mexico's population perished annually from the system or 825,000 deaths overall.[84][85]
  • Like the rubber boom in the Congo, the Amazon rubber boom also utilized extremely inhumane forced labour. The rubber boom and the associated need for a large workforce had a significant negative effect on the indigenous population across Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. As rubber plantations grew, labor shortages increased. The owners of the plantations or rubber barons were rich, but those who collected the rubber made very little as a large amount of rubber was needed to be profitable. The rubber barons rounded up all the Indians and forced them to tap rubber out of the trees. One plantation started with 50,000 Indians and when discovered of the killings, only 8,000 were still alive. Slavery and systematic brutality were widespread, and in some areas, 90% of the Indian population was wiped out. These rubber plantations were part of the Brazilian rubber market, which declined as rubber plantations in southeast Asia became more effective.[86]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Demanding taxation in the form of forced labour was common across colonial Africa at the time.[17]
  2. ^ Hochschild's estimate of a population decline of 10 million is based on early research by the historian Jan Vansina, and follows a 1919 estimate which stated that a 50 percent fall had occurred under colonial rule, which he couples with the 1924 census records.[21] Vansina has since revised down his own estimate.[22]

References[edit]

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