Monday, February 25, 2019

A Short History of Forced Labor by Ethnic Germans from South Eastern Europe in the USSR

“Reparations through Labor”: The Mass Deportation of Ethnic Germans from Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia to Forced Labor in the USSR


J. Otto Pohl, PhD

Near the end of World War II the Soviet Union began the deportation of ethnic Germans from the Balkans to the USSR as forced laborers. In particular the Soviet Union targeted the ethnic German population of Romania and to a lesser extent Hungary and Yugoslavia for these "reparations through labor." In total GUPVI (Main Administration for the Affairs of POWs and Internees) mobilized and interned a total of 112,480 ethnic German civilians in the Balkans and Central Europe for labor in the USSR between 24 November 1944 and 2 February 1945. This institution of labor camps for foreign citizens represented a second archipelago of forced labor projects parallel to the GULag (Main Administration of Camps) which housed Soviet citizens. The largest number of these men and women came from Romania at 69,332 followed by Hungary at 31,923, and then Yugoslavia at 10,935. Only a couple hundred came from Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria combined. They were divided between 61,375 men and 51,105 women (Polian, 249-260). The Soviet government used these workers in coal and iron mines located primarily in eastern and southern Ukraine. Over a fifth of them perished due to poor material conditions during the next four years. The last of the surviving men and women were not repatriated until after 1956 although the vast majority had been either sent back to their home country or East Germany by 1950 (Polian, 285-297).  This round up and transfer of ethnic Germans from the Balkans to the USSR for forced labor at the end of World War II involved the permanent removal both through deaths and repatriation to East Germany of tens of thousands of ethnic Germans from the Balkans. In particular it reduced the ethnic German communities of Romania.

The Soviet Union suffered a severe shortage of labor by the end of the Second World War. One way to compensate for this deficit was to forcibly conscript civilian workers in the countries it occupied after the defeat of Nazi Germany (Polian, 244). In particular ethnic Germans were considered by the Soviet regime to be a source of potential laborers to rebuild the USSR. Both Germans from Germany and those from the Balkans would be subject to being rounded up and shipped to the Soviet Union for forced labor (Polian, 244-248). This provided the USSR with a substantial labor pool. It also provided a means of implementing a punitive revenge against the German people for the crimes of the Nazi regime.

The German population in the Balkans was concentrated in Romania and Yugoslavia. Bulgaria had a very small ethnic German population and Greece and Albania almost none. Adjacent to the Balkans, Hungary also had a substantial ethnic German population. It is from Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia that almost all ethnic Germans from the Balkans and Central Europe sent to the USSR for forced labor came from. Other ethnic Germans mobilized for forced labor in the USSR during this time came from East Prussia and Silesia in Germany proper and from the ethnic Germans with Soviet citizenship. This article, however, will not be addressing either of these groups and will instead concentrate on the ethnic Germans sent to work in the USSR from Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary.  These men and women share the common traits of being ethnic German minorities living outside of Germany and having citizenship in a state other than Germany. The Soviet targeting of these populations for forced labor thus had an ethnic rather than a state basis.

The German population of Romania was the largest and oldest one in the region. In 1930 it totaled 745,421 people or 4.1% of the population. Most of this population lived in territories acquired by the Romanian state after World War One. The largest settlements were in Banat with 275,369 Germans followed by Transylvania with 237,415. Other large settlements in territories acquired after 1913 lived in Bessarabia, Bukovina, Sathmar, and Dobrudzha. The territories forming Romania before the Second Balkan War only had 32,366 Germans (Wien, 59-60). The German settlements in Transylvania (Siebenburgen) dated back to the 13th Century when they had come at the invitation of Hungarian kings (Castellen, 52). The Swabians in the Banat had been settled in the region by the Habsburg emperors from western Germany after 1718 as farmers and miners (Castellen, 53). Most of the Germans in pre-1919 Romania had immigrated there from the Habsburg Empire in the 19th Century (Castellen, 55). This minority remained fairly quiet during the 1920s and early 1930s. It is only after 1935 that its leadership strongly asserted demands for German autonomy under the leadership of adherents to National Socialism (Castellen, 56). By 1940 the Germans living in Romania had come completely under Nazi control (Wien, 61-62). This led to a separation of the administration of the ethnic Germans in Romania from the Romanian state during the war.

From 1940 to 23 August 1944 the ethnic Germans came under the direct control of Berlin rather than Bucharest. During the Second World War the ethnic Germans in Romania served in German military formations including both the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. Close to 75,000 ethnic Germans from Romania served in these two organizations during the war. This represented about 10% of the total German population of Romania in 1940. The position of the ethnic Germans in Romania in relation to Berlin made their position precarious after Bucharest switched sides and turned against the remaining Axis powers (Wien, 64). Things deteriorated further for the ethnic Germans in Romania after the Soviet Red Army occupied the country the following month. At this time the German authorities began a massive evacuation of ethnic Germans from Romania. About 100,000 Germans left Romania at this time (Wien, 64-65). The remaining German population became subject to a number of discriminatory policies based solely on ethnicity. The most significant of these policies was the shipment of nearly 70,000 ethnic Germans to labor camps in the USSR.

The German population of Yugoslavia was the second largest in the Balkans after Romania. The 1921 census counted around 500,000 Germans or about 4.2% of the population. This made them the largest national minority (ethnicity with a titular nation state) in Yugoslavia ahead of the Hungarians and Albanians (Prauser and Sretenovic, 47). Like in Romanian the ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia became politically associated with Nazi Germany during World War II. A very large number of them served in German military units dedicated to anti-partisan warfare. Their association with the Nazi regime in the minds of the new communist Yugoslav government under Tito contributed greatly to the decision to systematically deprive them of their property and rights including the deportation of thousands to the USSR for forced labor.

Although technically not part of the Balkans this article also covers the 30,000 plus ethnic German civilians sent to the USSR for forced labor from Hungary, making them the second largest contingent from what the Soviet mobilization orders refer to as South Eastern Europe after Romania. The Soviet occupation forces sent them along with some 600,000 Hungarian POWs and civilian internees to GUPVI camps. After World War I there were around 450,000 ethnic Germans in the new contracted borders of the Hungarian state (Apor, 36). At the end of World War II there remained a little over 200,000 ethnic Germans in Hungary of which nearly 180,000 were expelled into what eventually became West and East Germany (Apor, 43). Hungary also differed from Romania in that even though Romania had earlier been an Axis Power civilian ethnic Romanians were spared forced labor in the USSR while a large number of Hungarians were not.

The number of ethnic Germans transferred from Yugoslavia to the USSR to work was limited by the demand for their labor by the new communist Yugoslav government under Josip Broz Tito. Already in October 1944 the Partisans began rounding up ethnic Germans and putting them into concentration camps. Another 5,800 were shot at this time (Prauser and Sretenovic, 55). Most of the German population in Yugoslavia ended up interned in Yugoslav concentration camps where nearly 50,000 perished by March 1948. Together with some 7,000 executions a total of almost 17% of the ethnic German population of Yugoslavia perished at the hands of the new communist regime in four years (Prauser and Sretenovic, 56-57). As a result of the repression in Yugoslavia itself against this minority only about 11,000 ended up as forced laborers in the USSR.

The first step in organizing the mobilization, internment, and transfer to the USSR of ethnic Germans in the Balkans was to count them. On 24 November 1944, the head of the NKVD, Beria sent a formal report to Stalin on organizing a count of Germans on territory captured by the Red Army. This report noted that three operative groups representing the second, third, and fourth Ukrainian fronts would count the number of Germans in the territory they had occupied over a period of ten days. Heading the operation would be Deputy Chief of the NKVD Apollonov and Chief of the Administration of NKVD Internal Troops for Guarding the Rear Gorbatiuk (Pobol and Polian, doc. 3.213, 586). On 5 December 1944, Apollonov and Gorbatiuk sent an official report to Beria regarding the count of ethnic Germans in foreign territory taken by the Red Army on the second, third, and fourth Ukrainian Fronts. They counted a total of 187,042 Germans in this territory. The largest number were found in Romania at 83,815 people followed by Yugoslavia with 52,697, then Hungary with 43,312, Czechoslovakia with 2,375, and Bulgaria with only 953. In Romania and especially Yugoslavia the internment of ethnic Germans in camps had already begun. Bucharest had one camp with 258 German internees and Yugoslavia had 22 camps 15,981 interned Germans. A good portion of the ethnic Germans counted by the NKVD were either too young or too old to be mobilized. Only 115,086 of them divided between 48,061 men and 67,025 women were between the ages 16 and 50 (Pobol and Polian, doc. 3.124, 586-587). Most of these ethnic Germans would subsequently be rounded up and transported to the USSR for labor.

This initial count was only partial. By 12 December 1944 the number of Germans counted in the region under Soviet occupation had reached 551,049 of which 240,436 were men and 310,613 women. The vast majority of these Germans, 421,846 lived in Romania. However, only 70,476 were men aged 17 to 45 capable of physical labor. Another 73,572 were found in Yugoslavia, 50,292 in Hungary, 4,250 in Czechoslovakia, and 1,089 in Bulgaria (Pobol and Polian, 583). About a fifth of this population was mobilized and sent to the USSR for labor in coal and iron mines. The remainder consisted of the elderly, children, and those to infirm to work.

During the first two weeks of December 1944 the NKVD helped set up a network of internment camps for ethnic Germans in Romania like existed in Yugoslavia.  A 12 December 1944 report from Apolonov to Beria noted that 15 internment camps for ethnic Germans holding 7,890 people had been established in Romania. In Yugoslavia there were 22 such camps with 16,084 internees. Most of these internees were men. The camps in Romania only held 1,418 women and those in Yugoslavia 6,907 women. Likewise most of the internees were between 16 and 50. Only 1,676 internees in Romania were either younger than 16 or older than 50 while none were in Yugoslavia (Pobol and Polian, doc. 3.125, 587-588). This breakdown by sex and age clearly shows the intention of using these internees for labor. Most of the internees were young men presumably more capable of hard labor than women or men over 50.

The actual order to mobilize ethnic Germans in the Balkans for forced labor came from the pen of Joseph Stalin himself. On 16 December 1944, Stalin in his capacity as head of the GKO (State Committee of Defense) issued GOKO Resolution No. 7151ss "On Mobilizing and Interning the German Population in the Countries of South-Eastern Europe. This decree ordered the mobilization of all German men capable of labor ages 17 to 45 and all German women capable of physical labor ages 18 to 30 found in territory occupied by the Red Army in Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. It applied to German citizens as well as ethnic Germans with Hungarian, Romanian, Czechoslovak, Yugoslav, or Bulgarian citizenship. The mobilization was to be conducted by the NKVD under Beria. The NKVD was to mobilize collection points for the ethnic Germans and then load them onto guarded train echelons and send them to the USSR. Transported Germans could bring up to 200 kg of warm clothing, linen, bedding, china, and provisions with them. All of the Germans from South-Eastern Europe were to be sent to the coal mines of the Donbas and the Iron mines of Southern Ukraine. The mobilization and transportation of the Germans to their new work places in the USSR was to be completed by 15 February 1945 (Pobol and Polian, doc. 3.126, 588-589). This decree provided the legal basis for the Soviet deportation of Germans from the Balkans to the USSR for forced labor.

The forced round up of the ethnic Germans in the Balkans and Central Europe for forced labor in the USSR took place around Christmas time 1944. The first such operation took place in Yugoslavia from 28 December 1944 to 5 January 1945. After the transfer of ethnic Germans from Yugoslavia to the USSR for forced labor the NKVD next rounded up many of the ethnic Germans in Hungary. This operation lasted from 1-10 January 1945 (Polian, 253). In addition to Soviet NKVD operatives and soldiers the Hungarian operation also involved a Romanian regiment (Pobol and Polian, 584). These two operations together were much smaller than the subsequent mobilization and transfer of ethnic Germans from Romania to the USSR.

The largest operation in terms of numbers of internees transported to the USSR took place in Romania. It involved more than three quarters of the Soviet NKVD personnel assigned to the mobilization and transfer of ethnic Germans in the Balkans and Hungary to GUPVI camps in the Soviet Union.  It started on 11 January and ended on 2 February 1945. The operation first targeted the urban German population in Romania, followed by the rural population in the villages, and finally the around 2,000 ethnic German men remaining in the Romanian army (Pobol and Polian, 584). The operation in Romania involved both Soviet NKVD personnel and Romanian police forces.  This is the only substantial qualitative difference between the operation in Romania and those in Yugoslavia and Hungary. The Romanian authorities in cooperation with the Romanian communists collaborated with the Soviet NKVD in rounding up ethnic German citizens in Romania for forced labor in the USSR as part of the price they paid to switch sides from the Axis to the Allies near the end of the war (Polian, 249). First, Soviet and Romanian forces surrounded the German villages to prevent any escapes during the conduct of the mobilization. Then the local Romanian authorities including the police and communist party put together the list of names of ethnic Germans to be mobilized in each village. The local Romanian gendarme then announced the mobilization and called those inducted for forced labor to report to the local authorities to receive instructions regarding their imminent transfer to the USSR. After returning home to pack the Romanian police and security organs then transported the Germans to collection points under NKVD supervision. At the collection points an NKVD inspection of the conscripts usually weeded out the disabled, sick, and otherwise infirm as well as non-Germans, pregnant women, women with children under one and half years of age, and clergymen. The Soviet representatives exempted these categories of people from forced labor and sent them home if detected (Polian, 254). The NKVD and Romanian police and security forces then loaded these men and women onto trains bound for destinations in the USSR.

The entire campaign removed a sizeable population of ethnic Germans from South East and Central Europe and transported them by rail deep into the USSR. The NKVD and their Romanian assistants brought a total of 124,542 ethnic Germans to collection points for deportation to the Soviet Union as forced laborers in GUPVI camps. This number included 66,616 men and 57,926 women. The NKVD, however, did not send all these men and women to the USSR. They released 12,190 at the collection points (Pobol and Polian, 585). The number of Germans actually transported totaled 112,480 divided between 69,332 from Romania, 31,923 from Hungary, 10,935 from Yugoslavia, 215 from Czechoslovakia, and 75 from Bulgaria (Polian, 260). The more than 112,000 ethnic Germans transported from these countries provided the Soviet Union with a rather significant pool of forced laborers to rehabilitate the coal and iron industries in Ukraine and the Urals.

The round up and transportation of the ethnic Germans from the Balkans and Central Europe to the USSR involved a considerable commitment of man power on the part of Moscow. Each train echelon had between 25-30 NKVD internal troops guarding it on its journey to the labor camps in the interior of the USSR (Pobel and Polian, 584-585).  It involved 664 operative workers of the NKVD-NKGB and 10,443 soldiers and officers of the NKVD internal troops, border guards, and forces for guarding the rear of the Red Army. Thus over 11,000 men in the NKVD-NKGB, particularly its paramilitary subdivisions participated in the mobilization of ethnic Germans in Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria for forced labor.

It also involved a considerable commitment of rail resources to forcibly transfer tens of thousands of ethnic Germans from South Eastern Europe to GUPVI camps in the interior of the USSR. The entire series of operations took 103 train echelons composed of 5,677 wagons. Each echelon consisted of between 60-70 train wagons (Pobol and Polian, 585). This rail stock represented resources devoted from the war effort. The war continued on for another five months after the start of the mobilization of ethnic Germans in Yugoslavia for forced labor in the USSR.

The transported Germans made the journey to the GUPVI labor camps in the USSR under horrendous material conditions. The NKVD stuffed the Germans tightly into the train wagons of the departing echelons. On average each wagon carried between 40-45 people each (Pobol and Polian, 585).  The journey to the camps in the USSR followed the earlier Soviet patterns of deportations to special settlements.

The allocation of ethnic Germans from the Balkans and Central Europe to various coal, iron, and non-ferrous metal mines in the USSR took place at the end of December 1944 when Stalin issued GOKO Resolution No. 7252ss on 29 December 1944. This decree assigned 80,000 people to work for the People's Commissariat of Coal, 40,000 for the People's Commissariat of Ferrous Metals, and 20,000 for the People's Commissariat of Non-Ferrous Metals (Pobol and Polian, doc. 3.217, 590-591). The largest numbers of mobilized Germans from the states between the USSR and Germany were to be sent to Stalin, Voroshilovgrad, and Dnepropetrovsk oblasts in Ukraine. Stalin Oblast was to receive 56,000 Germans of which 42,000 were to work in the coal industry, 12,000 in iron, and 2,000 in non-ferrous metals. Vorshilovgrad was to take 28,000 German workers divided between 26,000 in coal and 2,000 in iron. Finally, Dnepropetrovsk was to employ 22,500 as iron miners (Pobol and Polian, doc. 3.128, 592). The forced labor of these Germans clearly was intended to rehabilitate the Soviet steel industry from the damage it suffered during the war.

Personal accounts by ethnic German survivors of the GUPVI camps detail horrendous suffering.  They lived and worked behind barbed wire under armed guard. The men and women were segregated into separate barracks. These barracks tended to be overcrowded and prone to frequent lice infestations leading to typhus outbreaks. At one of the camps devoted to mining coal in Stalino (Donetsk), Ukraine there were no toilets. The internees slept on wooden planks. The rations consisted of bread, porridge, and some sort of vegetable soup. Rarely the porridge had pieces of horse meat. Most of their daily caloric intake came from the bread (Polian, 282). These poor material conditions naturally led to significantly increased mortality.

As can be seen from above the material conditions suffered by the ethnic Germans from Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary to GUPVI camps in the USSR were extremely harsh and resulted in high levels of sickness and death. Indeed ethnic Germans from the Balkans like other interned and deported groups suffered the loss of about a fifth of their population. The German civilians from Germany itself interned in GUPVI camps, however, had much higher death rates at nearly double the percentage of those from the Balkans. By the end of 1949 a total of 40,737 mobilized Germans out of 205,520 from the Balkans in GUPVI camps had perished. This comes to 19.2%. In contrast GUPVI recorded 25,719 deaths of civilian internees from Germany out of 66,152 people or 38.9%. The total number of ethnic German internees in the USSR to die in GUPVI camps thus reached 66,500 people. Non-German civilian internees such as the Poles (a mortality rate of 6.8%) and Japanese (a mortality rate of 2.1%) suffered much smaller proportional losses in the GUPVI camps (Polian, table 17, p. 293). The especially high mortality rates of internees from Germany compared to the Japanese appears to be largely a function of the Soviet regime taking revenge upon German civilians for the crimes of the Hitler regime against the people of the USSR.

The bulk of releases and repatriations of ethnic Germans in GUPVI camps took place from 1945 to 1949. Early on in 1945 the Soviet released and repatriated over 40% of the internees from Germany. The largest release and repatriation of ethnic Germans from Hungary took place in 1947 with the return of 41.5% of the internees from that country.  Finally in 1949 the Soviet government released the last 34% of German internees from Romania and 28.9% from Yugoslavia (Polian, table 18, p. 294). By 25 January 1950 only 3,692 civilian internees remained in Soviet captivity versus 202,720 repatriated and 66,468 deaths (Polian, p. 295).The use of ethnic German labor as reparations for damage caused by the war had largely ended by 1950.

The deportation and mobilization the USSR of ethnic Germans from Romania, Yugoslavia, and Hungary represented a significant expansion of the Soviet system of forced labor beyond its borders to foreign citizens. Prior to this time almost all forced laborers in the USSR had either been Soviet citizens (according to the Soviet regime) or POWs. The mobilization of German, Romanian, Yugoslav, and Hungarian citizens for forced labor in GUPVI camps thus represented something new in the history of Soviet labor history. The Stalin regime not only claimed the right to use its own citizens for forced labor, but now also claimed a right to use ethnic Germans outside the USSR as forced laborers as part of a system of reparations through labor.

Works Cited
Apor, Balazs, “The Expulsion of the German Speaking Population from Hungary” in Steffen Prauser and Arfon Rees, (eds.), The Expulsion of the ‘German’ Communities from Eastern Europe at the End of the Second World War (Florence, Italy: European University Institute, 2004).

Castellan, Georges, “The Germans of Rumania.” Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 6, no. 1, 1971.

Pobol, N.L. and P.M. Polian, (eds), Staliniskie deportatsii 1928-1953: Dokumenty (Moscow: MFD, Materik, 2005).

Polian, Pavel, Against their Will (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2004).

Prauser, Steffen and Stainslav Srentenovic, “The ‘Expulsion’ of the Germans Speaking Minority from Yugoslavia” in Steffen Prauser and Arfon Rees, (eds.), The Expulsion of the ‘German’ Communities from Eastern Europe at the End of the Second World War (Florence, Italy: European University Institute, 2004).

Wien, Markus, “The Germans in Romania – the Ambiguous Fate of a Minority” in Steffen Prauser and Arfon Rees, (eds.), The Expulsion of the ‘German’ Communities from Eastern Europe at the End of the Second World War (Florence, Italy: European University Institute, 2004).

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