"Annihilation through work"

Auschwitz-Birkenau (State Museum Auschwitz)

The number of prisoners in the concentration camps increased dramatically after the beginning of the war. Many came from the occupied territories. The system of concentration camps was continuously expanded and extended to the conquered territories, in order to supply the arms industry with forced labour.

Since 1942 the organization and use of concentration camp prisoner labour had been under the supervision of the SS Economic Administrative Main Office, which had been formed in February of that year. More than 1,000 sub-camps were set up, usually in the direct vicinity of manufacturing plants. A number of the deported Sinti, Roma and Jews also had to perform slave labour for the German arms industry. The people were ruthlessly exploited as workers before they were ultimately murdered. Forced labour up to twelve hours a day and more, hunger and terror meant that the average life expectancy of the concentration camp prisoners was only a few months. Barbaric punishments and torture were part of everyday life in the camp. Even children and women were not excluded from forced labour and often had to work just as hard as grown men. Anyone who was no longer capable of work was murdered.

"The work in tunnels was hard and cruel beyond words. At the beginning, I only rarely saw daylight, we were confined in the tunnels almost all of the time. In spite of the hard physical labour - there were 12-hour shifts, day and night -, the food and the hygienic conditions were simply appalling. A bowl of soup as thin as water and a piece bread with some margarine and jam for breakfast and evening meal - that was all the food for 12 hours of hard physical work.

The prisoners were mercilessly driven and mistreated during work. I can still remember two civilians who supervised the lining of the shafts with masonry in Dora. If things weren't going quickly enough for them, they beat us with cables. They were employed by companies which were responsible for the work in the tunnels. The overseers, who mistreated us day in, day out, were also only henchmen of the SS. It is not for nothing that the term 'annihilation through work' is used. We were regarded as so-called 'Muselmänner' [a term for prisoners who were like "walking dead"], because we were completely undernourished, sick and sometimes emaciated to the bones. Today it seems like a miracle that I survived Dora concentration camp. I never thought I would come out of the tunnels alive. Many fellow prisoners were shot by the SS or killed themselves out of sheer desperation. We never knew if we would survive the next explosion. Each day could be our last." (Ewald Hanstein talking about his forced labour in Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp)

The Buna-factories in Schkopau were an associated company of the "I.G. Farben" (State Museum Auschwitz)

The German arms industry, which reaped the largest possible profit from the enslavement of the concentration camp prisoners, was the beneficiary. Companies such as IG-Farben, Siemens or AEG could request prisoners from the SS for a few reichsmarks per day, provided that they were guarded. Private companies had an influence on the food and living conditions of the forced labourers and were jointly responsible for the deaths of thousands of prisoners.

At the end of 1944, the SS was generating a monthly profit of up to 50 million reichsmarks from the slave labour of the concentration camp prisoners. Their exploitation was total: even the hair and teeth of the dead were centrally collected and made use of.