German universities used forced labour

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Academic institutions in Germany used thousands of forced labourers during the Second World War, according to evidence emerging from some universities and the Max Planck Society.

Victims of the practice, and in some cases their relatives, are eligible for compensation from a DM10 billion (US$4.3 billion) fund created last year by German industry and government. But time is hardly on their side: only about 2.4 million of the estimated 11.3 million forced labourers who worked in Germany between 1939 and 1945 are thought to be still alive.

Discussions in the press about large-scale forced labour in industry have tended to overshadow the actions of universities, which were also major employers at the time. But some universities have searched their archives for evidence of culpability.

The University of Tübingen, for example, has admitted that it used 150 forced labourers, 120 of whom were eastern European women working in kitchens or as nurses in the university clinic. The men, mostly prisoners of war, worked as handymen or gardeners.

Captive workforce: forced labourers in the University of Stuttgart's library in 1943. Credit: UNIVERSITY ARCHIVE STUTTGART

The University of Heidelberg's records from 1944 list 23 'eastern workers', as well as 17 Russian civilians, seven French workers and one Croatian. The University of Stuttgart's list of alien workers and prisoners of war, drawn up in 1946 at the request of the local government after the war, contains 56 names.

These lists are almost certainly underestimates of the true number of forced labourers. Dieter Speck, head of the archive of the University of Freiburg, which lists more than a dozen cases there, says that investigations are “very difficult and frustrating”, as many records have been destroyed or handed over to the occupying forces. Extrapolating from surviving documents, he estimates that academia as a whole must have exploited several thousand forced labourers.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the predecessor of the Max Planck Society, employed a “large number of forced labourers, maybe up to a thousand individuals”, says Jens-Christian Wagner, a historian and member of an independent research group investigating the episode. Its findings will be published next month.

Researchers have found that a class system operated among the forced labourers. Those from the west were often considered capable of being 'Germanized' and received preferential treatment. For example, three French prisoners of war worked at the University of Freiburg in their own professions as librarians and archivists, and remained at the university after the war.

Most universities have taken few steps to contact forced labourers or their relatives. One exception is the University of Tübingen, which some years ago invited 30 former forced labourers from Poland to a reception as a gesture of apology.

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