Study examines forced labor in GDR prisons | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 23.06.2015
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Study examines forced labor in GDR prisons

Panty hose, that's only one of the things political prisoners in the German Democratic Republic had to manufacture. A new study has provided an insight into the lives of forced laborers who - officially - never existed.

They were sitting in jail, alongside the criminals. And officially, they were considered criminals as well, because according to the state, there were no political prisoners in former East Germany (GDR).

In fact, between 1949 and 1989, around 250,000 to 300,000 GDR citizens were jailed because of their political attitudes. Many of them were put behind bars because they had attempted to flee the GDR's dictatorial regime.

In the first few years of the state's existence after World War II, political prisoners were put in regular jails. Later, they were put in prisons that specialized in deporting inmates to the West. In total, up to 1,000 political prisoners were bought out from jail by West Germany's government.

Just like the other inmates, political prisoners were put to work; for instance, in chemical or textile factories in order to make up for labor shortages. Today, because the political prisoners were unjustly imprisoned, their work is considered to have been forced labor.

The German government's commissioner for the former East German states has now released a study aiming to shed light on the system of political prisoners and forced labor in the GDR.

Forced labor as part of the planned economy

Jan Philipp Wölbern from the Center for Contemporary History in Potsdam is the author of the study. He says that the labor of prison inmates, including that of political prisoners, was an inherent part of the GDR's planned economy, at least from the era of Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the GDR's ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), and from the early 1970s.

Die Ostbeauftragte Iris Gleicke

Iris Gleicke, Federal Commissioner for the New Federal States, commissioned the study on forced labor of political prisoners in the GDR

According to Wölbern, 15,000 to 30,000 inmates were put to work each year. His insights are based on the analysis of documents from the GDR's Ministry of State Security known as the "Stasi," as well as on central prison files and on personal accounts from prisoners.

Political prisoners to generate hard currency

Political prisoners were primarily supposed to generate foreign currency income. Thus, they manufactured panty hose and other products that were sold to West Germany and paid for in the hard West German currency, the Deutschmark. The GDR government could then use these Marks to buy goods that were notoriously lacking in the GDR.

Roland Jahn, who heads the Federal Commission for Stasi Files, says the study shows that injustice in the GDR was not committed just by the Stasi, but that the entire system was one of injustice, in which many people were involved.

"In terms of forced labor, the study shows that the political leadership of the GDR, namely the all-powerful SED played an important role as a central planning institution," says Jahn.

Prisoners to do the dirty work

The research shows that many prisoners didn't describe their labor in very negative terms. Instead, they viewed it as a welcome change to the isolation and passivity of imprisonment.

But research also shows that labor conditions for the political prisoners were stricter than for other prisoners. Many had to work night shifts or perform especially hard or dangerous tasks. Industrial safety and medical support were also inadequate.

Christian Sachse can testify to that. He represents an association of some hundred victims of forced labor in the GDR. Sachse says that some forced laborers had to sweep highly poisonous mercury using just a dustpan and brush. Others were exposed to heavy metal fumes for long periods of time - something which may have resulted in them developing cancer later in life.

IKEA case led to public awareness

Roland Jahn is now calling for more research to be carried out on the effects imprisonment and labor had on people. So far, there are few facts and studies on the subject.

Only since 2012 has the wider public become aware of the problem, after the Swedish furniture company IKEA admitted to having known since the 1980s about forced labor being used in the production of its furniture in the GDR.

Jahn says it is particularly the role of companies which merits further research, given that some 6,000 firms were engaged in inter-German trade between the GDR and the western Federal Republic of Germany.

According to estimates, some 100 West German companies used forced labor to manufacture their products in the East. But "only a fraction" of these had requested access to their files from the Federal Commission for Stasi Files, Jahn says.

Jahn agrees with Sachse, saying that the inter-German system of exchanging goods, produced using forced labor, is not just a topic for historical evaluation. Instead, they stress, it raises the very topical question of how democratic governments can conduct trade with dictatorial regimes, knowing full well that they don't adhere to democratic and humane standards.

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