Some 20 million people were victims of forced labor under the Nazis. Since compensation payments to the victims were completed in 2007, a German foundation is now working to ensure the issue is not forgotten.
Millions of people in the German Reich and axis countries were exploited
The question of how to compensate victims of forced labor under the Nazis was long-debated in Germany until the German government teamed up with the private sector to set up a 5.2 million euro fund. The foundation Remembrance, Responsibility, Future (EVZ) was created in 2000 to handle compensation cases.
Payments from the fund were completed in 2007. Now the EVZ, along with an international network of historians, is trying to get Europe to come to terms with its history of forced labor, wars and conflicts as well as its Nazi and communist past.
"Europe can only truly forge a lasting political identity if public statements about the mutual recognition of disputed memories are valued as highly as statements about treaties, domestic markets and open borders," said political scientist Claus Leggewie.
A shared European memory
Those interned in concentration camps were put to work
The EVZ argues that bringing historians from different countries and backgrounds together is a way of allowing Europe to come to terms with its history.
"There can be no trust between the peoples of Europe so long as a child doesn’t know where his parents are buried, or a man cannot openly grieve for his raped wife, as long as perpetrators are not brought to justice and there is no compensation for the victims," Leggewie argued.
EVZ board member Gunter Saathoff said there are gaps in what we know about forced labor and through working with historians across Europe they are starting to get a "more complete picture."
"Reconstructing these issues and bringing the academic community together, means that through new research projects we can go into more detail and then find out what really happened," said Saathoff.
Combining different perspectives
Ukrainian workers get a hot meal after being liberated
However, historians presenting their views at an international conference in Berlin this week highlighted that forging this collective European memory may not be easy. In some places, there is no collective memory of the Nazis’ slave labor campaign.
Those who were interned in east and south-east Europe were repatriated in Soviet countries, with their own historical perspective. In countries like Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus, soldiers of the Red Army and resistance fighters were celebrated as heroes. Whereas those who had been interned in concentration camps, forced labor camps or prisoners of war were treated as "suspicious elements."
"They were persecuted and questioned by the KGB or similar organizations, had their personal rights violated and often sent to the gulag," said the Hamburg historian Imke Hansen. "They had problems finding work and were the victims of social discrimination and isolation."
The cult of hero-worship also developed in Bulgaria as the resistance and suffering of the communists was glorified. This has led to history being distorted, said historian Peter Petrov.
The EVZ was responsible for giving compensation to the victims of Nazi slave labor
"Several politicians, ministers and members of the politburo were inmates in the camps, and later presented the camps as being the places where the building blocks of socialism were formed," said Petrov.
'Historians won’t touch the topic'
After the collapse of the eastern bloc, for a while there was some interest in the plight of the victims of Nazi forced labor, but then this died down.
The Romanian historian Viorel Achim said it is not a case of not having enough source material, as the forced labor of Jews and the Roma is "well documented" both in Romania and the Ukraine.
"However Romanian historians, and not just Romanian ones, have not even touched the topic," he added.
The EVZ will be hoping that through its network of historians researching across Europe, and its investment, this may be an attitude that changes.
Author: Cornelia Rabitz (cb)
Editor: Andreas Illmer