Corporate social welfare policy and forced labour

Wintershall Dea History NS Times Forced Labour
Wintershall Dea History NS Times Forced Labour
Werra-Kalibergbau-Museum, Heringen

On 1 May 1933, a rally with Nazi propaganda was held on the grounds of the Wintershall plant in Merkers.

In-company social welfare policies and forced labor. The two sides to the Nazi “Volksgemeinschaft” at Wintershall

Prof. Dr. Manfred Grieger
(Georg-August-University, Goettingen)

Ever since the 1990s, the role of corporations during the Third Reich has often been debated in the context of the widescale forced labour deployed in factories. While recently the emphasis in research into the “Volksgemeinschaft” (“Volks community”) has primarily been on factors that served to integrate the system, the focus here will be on the simultaneity of in-company social welfare policies and the exploitation of forced labourers as the two sides of the racist Nazi in-company “works community” at Wintershall.

Having firmly established themselves in power, the Nazis then set out to overcome the impact of the Great Depression. At the same time, their promotion of a national oil industry supported the strategic expansion of Wintershall AG’s operating activity to include crude oil that August Rosterg had undertaken. As a result, by the end of 1933 production output at numerous potash plants was stabilized, the number of cancelled shifts reduced, and in fact some discontinued factories re-opened for business.

In the field of oil, new staff were even recruited, meaning that the economic upturn was also reflected within the company. Thus, the group payroll in 1933 rose from 4,455 to 5,206 employees and actually tripled by 1938 to 13,340 staff members. After the profound crisis, new hirings presumably constituted the most important measure to foster loyalty, towards both the company and the Nazi regime.  Moreover, after the cut in the wages paid under collective bargaining agreements, in spring 1934, overtime and greater piecework meant the average income of the workers in the potash division rose by more than a third.

On the one hand, there was continuity with regards to voluntary social benefits such as Christmas bonuses. On the other, assumption of the costs for trips to KdF (Kraft durch Freude) events, study travel and vocational trips, monetary support for military exercises and also release from work time to attend Nazi Party or SS courses, as well as the company’s assumption of the travel expenses as business travel costs all point to Wintershall AG clearly aligning its policies to the regime’s activities. Furthermore, the company instituted a roll call, for example, on May 1st or to mark the first anniversary of Nazi rule in Thuringia, as a form of fostering political community under the Third Reich.


Nazification of company operations

Realized throughout the corporation and always according to the same pattern (the staff stood in rows, flags were paraded, addresses held, homage paid to the Fuehrer), complete presence at the roll call evolved into a gauge of an employee’s performance. The Nazification of the company operations can also be seen in the semi-military orchestration of deaths by accident. While the memorial service following a fire that broke out in 1934 at borehole Nienhagen 22 and claimed six fatalities involved the local pastor, the pompous ceremony after the accidental deaths of 14 employees at the Kaiseroda plant in August 1938 resembled a Nazi state burial in terms of the flags, the parade, and the procedure that followed.

According to Wintershall Board member Römer, those who had died in the accident had “fallen on the field of honour” like soldiers, and he called on the living to “work in just as exemplary a manner for the good of the Volks community” as the deceased had done. Römer also pledged “to do everything as regards the tasks that Fuehrer Adolf Hitler has set us” to improve the prevention of accidents at work.

The declaration of a Nazi “Volks community” fuelled the illusion that social differences had been overcome. However, the work process repeatedly demonstrated the hierarchical differences within the company and the calculation of incentive wages in particular constantly led to differences of opinion where the Nazi-dominated works council acted as the go-between resolving the differences.

Conventional absenteeism or seasonal absenteeism by farmers working on the side led, under certain conditions, to the person being accused of refusing to work or “behaving in an antisocial manner”. Mentions that former Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionist were oppositional in their behaviour or put up resistance show that not everyone played along.


Inhumane treatment of forced labourers

The pressure the company and the Nazi regime exerted on everyone to perform and the politics of enforcing discipline became even more acute once war broke out, in which context the foreign replacement staff Wintershall hired from 1940 onward came under especially tough controls. The issue of the deployment of forced labour assigned to the company at the operational level was only mentioned very infrequently at meetings of the Management or Supervisory Boards.

At the Fusor injection-moulding factory in Berlin’s Rudow district, which was part of the Wintershall Group, for example, several hundred German Jews worked in 1941 as forced labourers under the “closed labour deployment” decree. There, a Berlin Jew who was judged to have been insubordinate toward his superior was beaten with a thick rope by way of punishment. Moreover, the forced labourers from the Soviet Union in particular suffered reprisals. Even if there was probably no Board directive to render labour relations brutal, at Fusor, all occurrences had to be reported to the operations manager (Betriebsführer) who in turn instructed the Company Foreman (Betriebsobmann) of Deutsche Arbeitsfront (DAF) (German Labour Front) to punish the persons in question. A DAF functionary ordered a woman who by her appearance seemed to be a Jewess from an affluent family to clean the toilets of the Jewish slave labourers, in which context the “German” cleaning ladies had earlier refused to do so. 

This casts a telling light on how the Nazis’ racist rules were internalized at the company. The reliance on foreign forced labour grew ever more pronounced, as in the further course of the war, the proportion of foreigners rose to more than a third of total staff: In the oil division, the figure is estimated to have been 6,200, in the potash division 2,900, and in the light metal processing segment more than 500, whereby forced labour of different categories and nationalities was deployed.


The Lützkendorf site as a microcosm

The major Lützkendorf project was the Nazi wartime society in microcosm, with the grounds of the plant used for countless mass accommodation units for the different groups of foreigners. Alongside civilian workers and POWs, as early as spring 1940, the operations management there relied on convicts from the Naumburg jail. By 1942, the contingent had been upped to 164 Poles. The majority were used as muscle power in the absence of machinery or stood up to their knees in dirt. The ongoing achievement of the plant social welfare department in procuring replacement or additional convicts indicates that involuntary labour was part of the normal everyday practice at the Lützkendorf plant.

To enforce discipline on foreign forced workers, the plant grounds also included a “work education camp” run by the Leipzig Gestapo. After bombing raids in the summer of 1944, in mid-August 1944, the SS actually made more than 920 concentration camp inmates available to clear the damage, meaning the last group of forced labourers, bereft of any rights, were mercilessly exploited. Hunger, disease, harassment, and death were long since part of everyday plant life. With the decision to establish a replacement plant in Messinghausen in the Sauerland region and relocate workers and machinery there, the payroll, which had peaked at 8,700 persons, dropped sharply from December 1944 onward.

The corporation’s management in Kassel had delegated the actual handling of foreign forced labour to the decentral operating units in violation of all human rights. Thus, after the war, it was able, following the example of the commercial director of the Rudow subsidiary, to claim that it “had personally had nothing to do with the foreign workers”. In actual fact, everyday activities at Wintershall AG established the principle characteristic of the Nazi system, namely the simultaneous inclusion of the approved members of society and racist discrimination of the excluded.

Wintershall Dea Historical Congress Speaker Grieger
Wintershall Dea Historical Congress Speaker Grieger
Wintershall Dea/Bernd Schoelzchen

About the author

Professor Dr. Manfred Grieger is an economic historian and honorary professor at Georg August University in Goettingen. From 1998 to 2016, he was Head of Historical Communication in Corporate  Communications at Volkswagen. Grieger previously earned a doctorate (Dr. phil.) with his thesis “The Volkswagen plant and its workers during the Third Reich, 1933-1948”. Grieger is a member of the Historical Commission for Lower Saxony and Bremen and of the Working Group for Critical Corporate and Industrial History.