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Forced Labour & Subcamps

The Ravensbrück women's concentration camp was initially a camp in which the labor of the prisoners was primarily exploited. Construction of the "industrial yard" began as early as 1940. Between 4,000 and 5,000 women were forced to perform heavy daily shift work here. They also had to work in the "Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke" (German Equipment Works - DAW) near the camp, in the "Deutsche Versuchsanstalt für Ernährung und Verpflegung GmbH" (German Experimental Station for Nutrition and Food Service - DVA) and in other, non-SS-owned agricultural enterprises to which the women were "rented out".

Forced labor in the concentration camp

A larger part of the imprisoned women were tasked with keeping the camp running, and providing food and clothing. For the expansion of the camp complex, the women had to perform heavy labor. Roads were built by them as well as the SS housing. Often groups of prisoners were occupied with completely nonsensical work - for example, transporting sand back and forth merely to demoralize them. In this way, the SS demonstrated its power and took pleasure in the defenselessness of its victims.

Utilization in the armaments industry

In mid-1942, the deployment of women in the armaments industry began. A major role was played here by the Siemens & Halske Group, which built workshops right next to the camp grounds. There, the women had to produce parts for the armament machinery, such as electrotechnical equipment for submarines, bomb time fuses or parts for the so-called "V2" rocket production. Many girls under the age of 15 were put to work here. From the end of 1944, the women working at Siemens were housed in 13 sleeping barracks right next to the plant in order to keep downtime low due to walking time, but also due to infection with diseases that the women contracted in the main camp. However, the poor sanitary conditions for the estimated 2,000 to 3,000 women led to many of them dying from the forced labor and the factory had to train new prisoners again and again.

More and more, the SS began to send the women to so-called "Außenkommandos," external labor units, where they were housed in "satellite camps" near armaments factories, some of which were then administratively subordinate to other concentration camps. After the head of the SS-Economic-Administrative Main Office, Oswald Pohl, announced in March 1942 that the labor force must be "exploited to the utmost possible limit so that labor can yield the greatest return," working hours at Ravensbrück increased from the original eight hours, six days a week, to eleven hours, seven days a week. In the final months of the war, two twelve-hour shifts were the norm in the armaments industry.

Subcamps of the Ravensbrück women's concentration camp

In 1969, the International Red Cross published a preliminary directory of concentration camps and their external commandos, listing 38 external commandos that were subordinate to the Ravensbrück women's concentration camp. The historian and Ravensbrück survivor Wanda Kiedrzyńska speaks in her study of 63 satellite camps that were administratively subordinate to the Ravensbrück women's concentration camp, whereby larger sites officially called "Außenkommando" were counted here as well.

Many subcamps were established starting in March 1943. For example, prisoners from the Ravensbrück concentration camp had to perform hard forced labor for the Polte-Werke in the Grüneberg subcamp (Brandenburg). A subcamp was also established in the Brandenburg town of Velten, where more than 700 prisoners had to assemble aircraft parts in armaments production for the Heinkel-Werke, among others. (see also the project: überLAGERt – Local youth history work at sites of former concentration camps in Brandenburg des Landesjugendrings Brandenburg.)

Relocation of arms production from endangered areas

On June 28, 1943, Adolf Hitler officially instructed Albert Speer, as Reich Minister for Armaments and Ammunition, to organize the relocation of armament production from the endangered areas. Subsequently, numerous subcamps of the Ravensbrück concentration camp were created.

The example of the various concentration camps in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania can be used to show the close links between the subcamps and the armaments industry, in this case the history of the aviation industry in Mecklenburg.

Subcamp Retzow-Rechlin

As early as 1933, the National Socialists had begun the rapid expansion of the so-called E-Stelle Rechlin, the testing station of the German Air Force. Fighter pilots and aircraft of the leading German aircraft companies were tested here. By 1939, the E-Stelle's real estate covered more than 6,000 hectares. Rechlin thus became the most important testing site of the German Air Force.

Immediately after the beginning of World War II, construction of a barracks camp began in Retzow. Partly used by the Reich Labor Service (RAD), later Italian forced laborers were housed in the barracks, it finally became a concentration camp. It is certain that in the summer of 1944 male prisoners from a subcamp of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, the Heinkel-Werke, were transferred to Retzow. The men were most likely transferred to Ellrich, a subcamp of Mittelbau-Dora, in early February 1945. Shortly thereafter, female prisoners were transferred to the vacant camp - most of whom had previously been in Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. Many were French and Hungarian, many Jewish, but Sinti and Roma and other persecuted groups also had to perform forced labor under brutal conditions. Their numbers varied between 1,500 and 3,000 women and girls.

Subcamp Neustadt-Glewe

In 1942, a branch of the Norddeutsche Dornier-Werke (Wismar) was located near Neustadt-Glewe next to the air base and the Nazi flying school. Parts of the Fw 190 fighter aircraft were built and assembled there. By September 1944, a subcamp of the Ravensbrück concentration camp for 300 prisoners had been built on the east side of the airfield on Fliegerchaussee. By the end of 1944, there were already about 900 women and girls, most of whom came from Poland and Belarus. They had to perform hard forced labor in aircraft production. Starting in January 1945, so-called evacuation transports from concentration camps to the east brought up to 5,000 prisoners to the subcamp.

Subcamp Barth

In 1943, the Barth subcamp of the Ravensbrück concentration camp was established on the grounds of the Barth air base. There, about 6,000 prisoners from 18 nations had to perform forced labor under difficult conditions in the aircraft factories of the Heinkel company. In addition, a prisoner-of-war camp (Stammlager Luft I) was set up at Vogelsang for Allied prisoners of war, housing a total of around 9,000 prisoners.

Subcamp Malchow

Starting in January 1943, a subcamp was built for Dynamit AG, an ammunition and explosives plant in Malchow. Workers had already been conscripted into wartime production since 1939. The production was spread over dozens of relatively small reinforced concrete buildings embedded in the ground in the forest. It was thus well camouflaged, and if explosions occurred, the disaster was confined to the building in question. About half of the workers were foreign forced laborers, and later about 1,200 women prisoners from the Ravensbrück concentration camp were put to work along Lagerstraße, the camp road still named in this way today. They lived crowded together in so-called readiness camps in the northwest of Malchow, whose stone buildings are still preserved in the West-Siedlung neighborhood. After the war, the camps were mainly used as living quarters. In the former men's camp, the VEB Menswear Leipzig was located for a long time. The communal house of the women's camp today houses a youth hostel.

Subcamp Neubrandenburg

A very remarkable subcamp history emerged in the Mecklenburg city of Neubrandenburg. As early as March 1943, the Neubrandenburg company Mechanische Werkstätten Neubrandenburg GmbH used the first 200 female concentration camp prisoners from the Ravensbrück concentration camp "on an experimental basis" in the production of aircraft equipment. Historian Dr. Natalja Jeske was able to prove that the increasing use of concentration camp prisoners, who were "rented" by the SS for some money and who received no wages, led to enormous increases in production and profits. The factory management as well as the SS emphasized how favorable female hands proved to be in the sometimes difficult assembly work.

In the same year, the armaments factory received an order from the Aviation Ministry to produce large numbers of supplier parts for the V1 rocket, which was described by Nazi propaganda as a "wonder weapon" or "retaliation weapon". These were rudder machines, elevators and attitude gyros, which were important for the self-steering mechanism of the Fieseler Fi 103 (called V1). It is possible that parts for the rocket called "V2" were also built. Initially, production was carried out at the Ihlenfelder Strasse site, but since it could be assumed that this would not remain unknown to the Allies for long, an alternative base was soon sought and found.

The choice fell on a forest area of over 50,000 square meters in Nemerower Holz. At the latest since January 1944, probably as early as autumn 1943, work began in Neubrandenburg to build a semi-underground camp in the forest (KZ "Waldbau"). Without heavy equipment, the female prisoners had to build underground production halls. They also dug the accommodation barracks into the ground. Large trees were to protect the view of the war production. Several production halls, dozens of high-quality machine tools and at least 2,000 women from the Ravensbrück concentration camp were located there under the most difficult production conditions. The former concentration subcamp "Waldbau" at the gates of the city is one of the few places that have been preserved in their basic historical substance and could in the meantime be made accessible as a memorial site in the forest.

At both sites, Ihlenfelder Vorstadt and Nemerower Holz, a total of at least 7,000 female prisoners were housed. Neubrandenburg was thus the largest subcamp of the KZ Ravensbrück.

Mass murder through "extermination by labor"

It is not only the Waldbau concentration camp in Neubrandenburg that stands for a development whose dimensions are still too little part of the collective memory: on the backs of concentration camp prisoners and supported by Hermann Göring's ministry and later by Reich Minister Albert Speer, factories were able to carry out corporate restructuring and profit maximization in the course of the war. The Neubrandenburg plant must be seen in close connection with, for example, the Reich-wide planning and organization of the Luftwaffe, the optimization of fighter aircraft, the Rechlin aeronautical testing center, and also the Peenemünde army testing facility with its research into the cruise missiles known as "V1" and "V2". Last but not least, with the numerous work details and concentration camp locations, war production could be maintained and even maximized.

The decentralization of production sites was the result of the unfavorable course of the war for the German Reich. On the backs of women and men who had been deported to forced labor and concentration camps, a program took effect that the National Socialists called "extermination through labor" and for which they even abused the still living Jewish population of Europe: Under inhumane conditions, they, together with the management of the factories, exploited the usually already completely exhausted and maltreated people. Starvation and death by epidemics, by forced labor and by violent treatment were consciously accepted. And this was done in front of the eyes of many civilian factory employees, sometimes even with their active assistance.

Forced labor - a crime against humanity

In total, more than 20 million people from many European countries performed forced labor for Nazi Germany. Although forced labor was classified as a crime against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials, it was not prosecuted in Germany. Only in the mid-1990s, following massive international pressure, did Germany begin to pay symbolic compensation to some 1.66 million former forced laborers. However, many groups were left out of the equation. It took until May 2015 before the Budget Committee of the German Bundestag approved compensation for the few Soviet prisoners of war still alive.

Constanze Jaiser
Translated from German: Pat Binder