The aim of the exhibition – to convey a comprehensive history of National Socialist forced labor – is a challenging one.

It is to be achieved with a concentrated selection of representative individual cases presented in all depth and translated into striking images.

Source: gewerk design, Berlin

With the aid of exceptionally close-meshed source material, it has proven possible to reconstruct historical events and fates in detail.

The exhibition presents the latter in the form of condensed scenes providing visitors access to history on the basis of original testimonies.

Source: gewerk design, Berlin

Viewed together, the spectrum of individual representative scenes forms an overall picture of National Socialist forced labor conveying its character as both a mass phenomenon and a crime of society.

Source: gewerk design, Berlin


Twenty million people – natives of almost every country in Europe – carried out forced labor for Nazi Germany in the German Reich as well as in the countries occupied or controlled by the Germans. The work extorted from these people was indispensable for the German war effort and moreover helped to ensure the living standards of the German population during the war years. The German “masterrace” granted itself the right to exploit those it had subjugated and members of allegedly “inferior races” with all ruthlessness. For racist-ideological reasons, the National Socialists initially intended to limit the forced labor of non-Germans to the occupied countries. By 1942 at the latest, however, forced labor camps as well as forced laborers of both genders were an integral part of everyday life in Nazi Germany. The workers were recruited from all parts of Europe and deployed throughout the German economy: in armament factories, on construction sites, in agriculture and the trades, in public institutions and private households. Whether a soldier in the occupying forces in Poland or a farmer’s wife in Thuringia, every German encountered forced laborers; virtually everyone was involved. The deployment of forced laborers was no secret. For the most part, it was a crime committed in public.

The aim of the exhibition “Forced Labor. The Germans, the Forced Laborers, and the War” is to present the history of forced labor – a crime and an unprecedented European experience – in all its preconditions, developments and forms. A large proportion of the previous exhibitions on this subject were realized in the 1990s in the context of the first public debates on the history and compensation of forced laborers ever to have been carried out on a broadscale. Despite the undisputed importance of those shows, however, they were for the most part limited in scope. They shed light on local history or focused on individual companies or forced laborer groups – foreign civilian workers of varying legal statuses, prisoners of war, concentration camp inmates, Gestapo and “work education camp” prisoners, Jewish forced laborers or Sinti and Roma. In contrast, the exhibition integrates these various sub-aspects into an overall history of National Socialist forced labor carried out both in the German Reich and in the areas under German occupation or control. It moreover draws a connection between that history and the history of the remembrance of forced labor and the efforts to come to terms with it after 1945, especially in Germany, but also beyond that country’s borders – a history of the refusal to acknowledge and indemnify, sometimes over decades. The exhibition accordingly concludes with the past- and future-oriented question as to the appropriate means of remembering, addressing, examining and coming to terms with the topic, and of attaining justice.

The first section of the exhibition is dedicated to the period before the beginning of World War II, i.e. the years 1933 to 1939. It seeks primarily to uncover the racist-ideological roots of National Socialist forced labor. On the one hand, work supposedly ennobled the members of the self-appointed “master race”; on the other hand it was employed as a means of humiliating and excluding persons designated inferior by the National Socialists. From the very beginning, forced labor was thus a core element of the Nazi social order, and accordingly far more than just a side effect of war. The concepts propagated, legally codified and put into practice by a large proportion of the society in the pre-war years formed the point of departure for the subsequent radicalization of forced labor in occupied Europe to the point where it served as an instrument of annihilation. That expansion and radicalization is the subject of part two of the exhibition. Part three focuses on forced labor as a mass phenomenon in the German Reich from 1941/42 onward and ends with the massacres of forced laborers in the final phase of the war. Section four is concerned with the period from liberation to the present. It addresses the immediate consequences of liberation, the endeavors to take legal action and come to terms with the theme, and finally the long road from denial and suppression to the public discussion and recognition of forced labor as a crime. In part five, former forced laborers themselves have the last word.

The exhibition directs special attention to the history of the relationship between Germans and forced laborers. As already pointed out, that history cannot be limited to a small group of Nazi regime functionaries. Every German was confronted with the decision as to how he or she would encounter forced laborers: with a last vestige of humanity, or with the allegedly imperative, racialistically justified frostiness and inexorability of a member of a supposedly superior people. There was scope for action, and the manner in which a person availed him/herself of that scope said something not only about him/her as an individual, but also about the power and appeal of Nazi ideology and praxis in general. The exhibition accordingly goes beyond the history of forced labor in the narrow sense to convey an important aspect of the broader context: the degree to which German society was permeated by National Socialism. The show ascertains that the history of National Socialist forced labor can by no means be reduced to a crime committed by a regime; on the contrary, it makes forced labor perceivable as a crime committed by an entire society. The profiteers and protagonists of forced labor were not only genuine Nazi institutions and large-scale (armament) enterprises, but also millions of craftsmen, farmers, private households and even charitable church organizations.

In other words, forced labor shaped the “people’s community” propagated by the National Socialists – based, as it was, on inclusion and racist exclusion – as a “community of gain”. The gain was more than just material in nature: the racist degradation and exclusion of allegedly inferior human beings and the distinction between “members of the master race” and “worker peoples” also served to raise the self-esteem and status of the “Aryan” Germans in a manner concretely experienceable for them in their everyday lives, however low their rung on the inner-German social ladder. To avoid any misunderstandings: in shedding light on the degree to which National Socialism permeated German society, the exhibition does not aim to put the case for collective guilt, but it does endeavor to allow a focus on the Nazi state – and thus on the most radical conceivable form of racist social order– with the greatest possible depth of field. To that end, the well-differentiated depiction of the protagonists and the choices they made within the spectrum of possible action and behavior– actively participating in the crimes, passively condoning them, secretly empathizing with the victims, open refusal to go along with the mainstream or active resistance against it – is indispensable.

In keeping with the aims of the show as outlined above, and as a way of imparting this extremely complex, multidimensional topic in a manner comprehensible and vivid even for laypersons, more than sixty representative cases form the core of the exhibition. Like the majority of the documents and images shown, these case studies were meticulously researched especially for the exhibition in a large number of archives all over Europe and beyond. Thematically the studies cover a wide range of different experiences, for example the demeaning work performed by victims of political persecution in Chemnitz after the National Socialist seizure of power, the grueling slave labor carried out by Jews in occupied Poland, or everyday life as a forced laborer on a farm in Lower Austria. Various points of reference served as a basis for choosing these cases as representative or typical. On the one hand the concern was to give expression to all of the victim groups and their specific experiences. On the other hand, the various forms and geographical areas as well as the chief economic sectors of forced labor deployment were to be clearly delineated. Finally and not least of all, in the selection of these examples, particular emphasis was placed on providing insight into the development of forced labor and the forced labor regime in its radicalization.

Among the surprises we encountered in conjunction with the extensive international archive research carried out in preparation for the show was the discovery of unexpectedly broad and thorough photographic documentation of significant events. From the point of view of content, design, and educational considerations, their source-critical presentation in connection with the case studies forms the exhibition’s second mainstay. On the one hand, it proved possible to reconstruct entire photo series which – to express it as cautiously as possible – provide virtually scenic access to various aspects of the history of forced labor. This presentation form not only accommodates the needs and expectations of many exhibition visitors – not least of all young people – in the present-day age of visuality. The serial photographic visualization of situations and persons in an action context also corresponds to our aim to present the history of forced labor as a history of relationships, and to make it comprehensible as such. Photographic imagery moreover facilitates access to the question as to how Germans exercised the liberties they enjoyed with regard to forced laborers. The challenge the curators faced was to present this source material, these visual representations of history, in such a way as to arouse interest and set cognitive processes in motion, as opposed to merely treating them as self-explanatory reflections of the past. To this end, not only were the individual photos in the series investigated to the greatest possible extent, but also the photographers, the situations and persons photographed, the history of the photos’ utilization and how they came down to the present. Visuality in the form of enlargements of photos or photographic details arranged in virtually cinematic manner is thus not an end in itself, is not intended to overpower the senses or create superficial attractions. Rather, it forms the point of departure for the more in-depth and far-reaching critical examination of history. The photos, or details thereof, presented in enlarged form are accordingly also encountered again in the display cases, where they are shown in their original format within the context of other sources. At the same time, this source-critical approach to the utilization of historical photography is a reaction to another problem related to the material which has come down to us in relation to National Socialist forced labor. Not only is this material redundant or its significance limited in many respects – here the similarity of products of forced labor such as weapon parts and ammunition comes to mind – but it can also be misleading, for example if the many handmade keepsakes related to forced labor were to be considered an indicator of the true character of that phenomenon.


We would hereby like to extend our very special thanks to the Foundation “Remembrance, Responsibility and Future” – represented by Dr. Martin Salm and Günter Saathoff of the board of directors – and its board of trustees. This foundation initiated and funded the project to draw up a comprehensive exhibition on the history of National Socialist forced labor from 1933 to the present. In the realization of this undertaking it supported the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation with unwavering commitment. The exhibition curators are likewise highly indebted to the many former forced laborers who kindly accompanied the project during its three-year preparation phase and contributed their experiences to the exhibition. Again and again, our conversations with them confirmed how important it is to make the transnational experience of National Socialist forced labor a living core of a collective European memory. The conception of the exhibition “Forced Labor. The Germans, the Forced Laborers and the War” as an international traveling exhibition was therefore entirely deliberate.

(Excerpt from the companion volume to the international traveling exhibition “Forced Labor. The Germans, the Forced Laborers and the War”, published by Volkhard Knigge, Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau, Jens-Christian Wagner, Weimar 2010, pp. 6-11.)