In the 'German Reich', an estimated 13 million people had to do forced labor between 1939 and 1945; another 7 million people in the occupied and controlled territories. Forced labor was ubiquitous and took place almost everywhere. There was a method to exploitation and extermination through labor – in concentration and labor camps, in factory halls as well as on farms or in private households.
Forced labor is a crime against humanity. Those affected often had to work under inhumane conditions. Most of the concentration camps and labor camp inmates, including many Jews, Sinti and Roma as well as Soviet prisoners of war, died while working.
After the liberation, many forced laborers suffered from the physical and psychological consequences of forced labor. Individual claims for compensation or back pay were denied. With only a few exceptions, the German governments as wells as the small and large companies, churches and private households that benefited from forced labor rejected any responsibility. The Federal Compensation Act, which came into force in 1953, largely excluded from its services those living abroad and those who were not racially or politically persecuted.
In order to promote integration into the West, the Federal Republic of Germany made payments to individual states in the form of so-called global agreements – individual former forced laborers were not compensated. In 1952, the Federal Republic paid Israel DM 3.5 billion as material development aid. Between 1959 and 1964, a total of DM 900 million went to several Western European countries.
During this phase, several large companies also made their first compensation payments to the Jewish Claims Conference. This took place after the first successful trials, such as the so-called Wollheim trial. The claim for damages by the former forced laborer Norbert Wollheim is considered a test case. It was the first lawsuit by a former forced laborer.
In the course of the trial, IG Farben, the plaintiff and the Jewish Claims Conference agreed on compensation for former forced laborers (Jewish and non-Jewish) in the amount of DM 30 million.
Identifying as an anti-fascist state, the newly founded GDR rejected any compensation for foreign victims of National Socialist persecution. After the German reunification in 1990, global agreements with Poland (500 million DM) and with Belarus, Ukraine & Russia (one billion DM in total) followed as part of the Two Plus Four Agreement. Russia and Belarus also had to take into account the victims of National Socialism in the now sovereign Baltic states. With these payments, the German government and economy saw their responsibility as fulfilled at the time.
It was not until the end of the 20th century that the compensation for forced laborers again became part of a national and international public discourse. The first political initiatives from Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens), the European Parliament or Action Reconciliation Service for Peace initially had no effect. Continuous pressure in and from the USA brought further movement into the discussion at the end of the 1990s. In 1998, the political groups in the German Bundestag agreed to set up a foundation for the compensation of forced labor with the financial participation of the German economy.
On July 17, 2000, an intergovernmental agreement between Germany and the USA was signed. It created legal certainty and protected German companies from class action suits in the USA. The USA, Germany and six other states as well as victims’ associations and lawyers signed a joint final declaration on the establishment of the Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future (EVZ), which became the sole point of contact for all claims.
On August 2, 2000, with the support of all political groups in the German Bundestag, the Law on the Creation of a Foundation Remembrance, Responsibility and Future was passed. It provided for individual humanitarian payments to former forced laborers and other victims of National Socialism. The first payments were made in 2001.
© BArch, B 145 Image 00161018 / Engelbert Reineke
On June 13, 2001, the first payment was made to the Czech partner organization (German-Czech Future Fund). In the course of June 2001, further payments to Poland, Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, the Jewish Claims Conference and the International Organization for Migration were initiated. The payments were made in cooperation with seven international partner organizations – organizations in the respective countries, civil society organizations.
The disbursement programs took place between 2001 and 2007. EUR 4.4 billion were paid to 1.66 million former forced laborers and legal successors. The work of the EVZ Foundation bears responsibility for the suffering of the millions of forced laborers not only in its name but also in its work agenda. It promotes the lively remembrance of the fate of the persecuted.