How did labour camps sustain the Nazi war machine?

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Death marches

Towards the end of 1944, to escape the Russian advance, the SS began moving prisoners from camps in the East by way of the so called ‘death marches’.

Thousands of prisoners were marched and then transported on railway trucks towards work camps within Germany in order to support the failing German war effort.

By 1945 more than 14 million people had been exploited in the network of hundreds of forced labour camps that stretched across the whole of Nazi-occupied Europe.

After the war the millions of displaced persons included may thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish survivors who had been victims of the Nazi forced labour regime.

Punishment and re-education

The Nazis believed that hard manual labour was the most appropriate way to punish opponents and re-educate them to the ideals of National Socialism.

From the establishment of Dachau, forced labour, often pointless, without proper equipment, food and sleep formed the basis of the camp regime. As the prisoners subjected to this harsh treatment included criminals and ‘asocials’, a large proportion of the general public either turned a blind eye or supported the use of hard labour. 

Labour shortages

As the German economy developed, the country began to suffer labour shortages. The concentration camp population was used to fill this void. After the Anschluss, thousands of Austrian Jews recently forced out of employment, non-Jewish ‘asocials’ and opponents of the Nazis were rounded up and used as a freely available source of forced labour. Many of these would provide the much-needed human resources to produce weapons, vehicles and goods for the German war effort.

After the invasion of Poland the Nazis decreed that all Jewish and Polish men must perform unpaid forced labour. During the war the development of camps across Europe provided a plentiful supply of free labour for work in the German war effort. The Nazis also deported many hundreds of thousands of civilians for forced labour throughout the Reich.

Worked to death

From 1942, the SS reorganised the concentration camp administration to mobilise the millions of prisoners within the camps. The Nazis established hundreds of sub-camps across Europe. The Auschwitz camp complex contained over 40 sub-camps that housed thousands of Jewish prisoners to work as forced labour in the coalmines, various munitions factories and the I.G. Farben synthetic rubber plant at Buna Monovitz. 

Many thousands of German convicts were literally worked to death; living and working in the unhealthiest of conditions and denied adequate food, rest and healthcare. Jewish and non-Jewish concentration camp prisoners were subjected to these same conditions with the same end goal of death through work.