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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".
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
Translated from German: Pat Binder
Dr. phil. Constanze Jaiser
Literature scholar and theologian
Publications on the subject, include:
Poetische Zeugnisse. Gedichte aus dem Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück. Stuttgart/Weimar 2000
Europa im Kampf 1939-1944. Internationale Poesie aus dem Frauen-Konzentrationslager Ravensbrück. Berlin 2009
Ein Schmuggelfund aus dem KZ – Erinnerung, Kunst und Menschenwürde. Berlin 2012