Wartime Berlin – an international city, underground

The production of German munitions and armaments, including many of her secret weapons programmes was now heavily dependent on foreign labour.

The production of German munitions and armaments, including many of her secret weapons programmes was now heavily dependent on foreign labour.

Foreign workers in a munitions factory being addressed by Dr Robert Ley, head of the Nazi labour organisation in August 1944.

Foreign workers in a munitions factory being addressed by Dr Robert Ley, head of the Nazi labour organisation in August 1944.

Berlin had been transformed in many ways by the war. The city already lay in ruins and the threat of further bombing was ever present.

As the Nazis tried to find every last German to send to the front, the war economy was sustained by millions of forced labourers, brought from every corner of occupied Europe. Journalist Ursula von Kardorff was still keeping her diary, noting every aspect of life in wartime:

30 November 1944

The Friedrichstrasse station, with its broad stairways, which lead to a kind of underworld, is supposed to be bomb-proof. It is all rather as I imagine Shanghai to be.

Ragged, romantic-looking characters in padded jackets, with high, Slav cheekbones, mixed with fair-haired Danes and Norwegians, smartly turned-out Frenchwomen, Poles casting looks of hatred at everybody, fragile, chilly Italians — a mingling of races such as can never before have been seen in any German city.

The people down there are almost all foreigners and one hardly hears a word of German spoken. Most of them are conscripted workers in armaments factories. All the same they do not strike one as being depressed. Many of them talk loudly and cheerfully, laugh, sing, swap their possessions and do a little trading and live in accordance with their own customs.

As a matter of necessity – and not out of kindness — canteens have been set up for them, they have stage shows and even their own newspapers.

Everybody knows everybody else. Girls go from table to table and young men, wearing bright scarves and their hair long, wander to and fro. Here and there a few people are given the cold shoulder, probably because they are spies or detectives.

They say that the foreign workers are very well organized indeed. It seems that there are agents among them, officers sent in by the various resistance movements, who are well supplied with arms and have wireless transmitters.

Otherwise how could the Soldatensender [ a propaganda radio station broadcast from Britain] be so up to date with its news and how could ‘Gustav Siegfried Eins” be able to interlard its rubbish with so much that is true? They end their news bulletins with the words, ‘That was the Chief speaking.’

These stations are far more eagerly listened to by us here than all the broadcasts from the House of the German Radio. There are twelve million foreign workers in Germany — an army in itself.

See Ursula von Kardorff: Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945.

 A Nazi propaganda picture of a creche in a 'Ostarbeiterlager' - camp for easterners - filled with 'zwangsdeportierten' - forced deportees - women brought from the Soviet Union.

A Nazi propaganda picture of a creche in a ‘Ostarbeiterlager’ – camp for easterners – filled with ‘zwangsdeportierten’ – forced deportees – women brought from the Soviet Union.

Most Germans living in towns and cities had had some experience of bombing by now.

Most Germans living in towns and cities had had some experience of bombing by now.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Editor December 3, 2014 at 6:46 pm

Probably the best book on how the people of the occupied nations were affected by the war is Mark Mazower: Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe. For a comprehensive study of what happened after the end of the war Keith Lowe: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II.

a.gray December 1, 2014 at 12:16 am

At war’s end, what happened to all of the foreign labors who were in Germany? How were they separated from Germans? How were they returned to their respective countries and how were they treated upon their return. But most importantly, how many of these laborers were truly forced to go to Germany to work and how many voluntarily went to make money? Can you suggest any books or studies that would answer these questions?

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Earlier in the war:

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