Seventy Years Ago the “Work Army” Was Established

Eisfeld, Alfred. "Seventy Years Ago the “Work Army” Was Established." Volk auf dem Weg, March 2012, 2.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.

The public in Germany is only minimally aware of the fact that, even before the onset of World War II, the German population in the Soviet Union was subjected to massive persecution by the Communist Party and the various security organs. 

During the collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s, for example, 50,000 Germans were dispossessed and banished from their villages. Furthermore, in 1932/1933 some 1,200 families were deported to Karelia from areas adjoining [Russia’s] borders. In 1934 ca. 4,000 Germans were arrested in Ukraine, and in 1936 around 15,000 Germans were deported from the Zhitomir [Volhynia] area to Kazakhstan.

The subsequent year saw the onset of the NKVD’s “German Operation” (order # 000439, dated July 25, 1937). During the course of that operation, 55,005 persons were sentenced between July of 1937 and November 15, 1938, and among these, 41,898 were condemned to death. Research by Russian historians N. Ochotin and A. Roginskiy resulted in an estimate of between 69,000 and 83,000 Germans having been sentenced between 1937 and 1938.

These counts, even though they include some 150,000 Germans in all, still fail by far to include all repressed Germans. Considering that all relatives of “Enemies of the People” were counted as family members, hence completely without personal rights, it becomes clear that even before World War II more than half of the German population in the USSR found itself without any civil rights.

Hitler-Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union had immediate effects on the latter’s German population. Arrests of Soviet citizens designated as unreliable, Germans among them, were expanded by massive numbers. On June 15, 1941 [just a week before the German attack! – Tr.], Soviet security forces began deporting German people merely for reasons of nationality, initially from Crimea and subsequently from eastern and central Ukraine. On August 28, 1941 the entire German population of the ASSR [Autonomous Soviet Social republic] of Volga Germans and neighboring regions was accused of collaborating with the enemy and subsequently deported en masse to Kazakhstan and Siberia. By the end of 1941, with only a few exceptions, all Germans in the European part of the Soviet Union had been deported to Kazakhstan or Siberia, assigned to work, without any civil rights whatsoever, in certain industrial concerns, and placed under surveillance by security organs. [The author seems to classify 350,000 ethnic Germans in SW Ukraine, who were under German army occupation and control, as a mere exception. They, too, would be “deported,” that is, “resettled” in 1944, but in this case by the German army, only to be deported by the Soviets from East Germany and other areas to Siberia and elsewhere right after the war.  – Tr.]

A particularly difficult fate befell those [civilian] men and women who were inducted into “work columns.” In September, 1941, some 18,600 men in eastern Ukraine considered fit for work were transported under guard to work camps of the GULAG.

As early as July 15, 1941, commanders and commissars received an order to remove all Germans in various units from any and all positions of responsibility. On September 8, 1941, with the deportation of Volga Germans in full swing, the commander-in-chief of the Red Army, J. Stalin himself, ordered all soldiers and officers of German origin in the Red Army to be moved to construction battalions. In other words, they also were assigned to the “work columns.”

On January 10, 1942 the national defense committee decided to mobilize around 120,000 men between seventeen and fifty years of age into “work columns” of the so-called “work army” [known in Russian as the trud armiya. - Tr.]. And on February 14, 1942 the mobilization of all remaining members of those ages was ordered as well. Between January and June, 1942 around 138,000 men were mobilized and assigned to fourteen work [forced-labor] camps.

An October 7, 1942 decision of the national defense committee expanded the age groups range to men 15 and 16 years old and men between 51 and 55 years of age. At the same time, the mobilization into the work army of women between 16 and 45 years of age was ordered for the duration of the war. The only exemptions were for pregnant women and for those taking care of children under the age of three. Article 3 of the decision stipulated the following provisions:

Children over the age of three will be placed into the care of other members of the family. Should there be no other family members except those being mobilized, those children will be handed over to other relatives or to the German collectives.

Local soviets [councils] in places where mobilized German workers have been residing are obliged to take appropriate measures for placement of children staying behind without parents.
Between October, 1942 and August, 1943 around 153,000 German men and women were inducted into the “work army.” According to calculations by the Russian historian W. Kirillov, until and including January of 1946 more than 316,000 were forced into “work columns.”

In his own historical analysis, Viktor Krieger calculates a total of about 350,000 German forced laborers, which means that every third person of this ethnic group was in a work camp during the war. The induction quota for men was between eighty and ninety percent, and for women it was at roughly a third of those in the prescribed given age groups who were fit to work. For women who had fewer than three children or none under age three the quota reached nearly 100 percent. German families were thus separated for several years, and thousands of children were left without supervision or care. Many were put into children’s homes, were given new names, and were thus unable to find their parents later on.

Especially during 1942 and 1943, when construction sites were simply not prepared to take on the enormous number of inmates coming mainly from farms, the mortality rate was exceptionally high. It took on genocidal characteristics. For example, a third of the inmates of the Vyatlag camp died during the winter of 1942. According to NKVD statistics, on January 1, 1943 around twenty-six percent of work army members were unfit for work. Russian historian V. Beredinskich writes as follows on the treatment of Germans in forced-labor camps: “The intent and purpose of placing the German Russians under control of the NKVD was to have those who were mobilized expend their entire energies solely toward fulfillment of their designated programs, so that they might die ‘fully amortized.’” Those who survived the work camps and were released would rejoin their families only to live under the “special settlers” system.

So far it has not been possible to obtain an exact number of Germans who died in the work camps. What we do have are some numbers for individual camps. For example, some 3,734 Germans lost their lives in the Bakallag camp. More than 26,200 Germans died in the NKVD-controlled camps alone. Those who were released with severe health problems numbered in the tens of thousands.

Similarly, the number of victims of deportations during the war years, of exploitation in the camps of the work army, and of the forced containment within special settlements remains inexact. Russian historians estimate the loss of human lives at a third of the entire ethnic group.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation and to Dr. Nancy A. Herzog for editing the article.

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