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- NETHERLANDS FORCED
LABORERS - WW II
- Arbeitserziehungslager (AEL)
- Alexander van Gurp ©
- Execution at AEL DRACHENSEE (a.k.a. "KZ Hassee"),
- (drawing after a description, by
Margaretha van Gurp, 1948)
- The Arbeitserziehungslager
- Ask the man on the street in the Netherlands what kind of
camps existed in Germany during the second world war and nine out
of ten times, the answer will be: "concentration camps." After
some coaxing and further consideration, he may add: "... and labor
camps." But when you ask: "did you ever hear of
Arbeitserziehungslager?" you will probably be met by surprise and
ignorance. Most people, not only in the Netherlands, have never
heard of these camps. In literal translation
Arbeitserziehungslager stands for "workers educational camp." They
have been called "concentration camps for forced laborers." In
this article the abbreviation "AEL" will be used to signify both
the singular as well as the plural of Arbeitserziehungslager.
- The fact that most people have never heard of these camps is
not because too few of them were in existence. A source which is
generally considered knowledgeable on the subject, indicates that
there were 106 AEL during the second world war in Germany, while
another source mentions a greater number. Despite minor
inconsistencies it is clear that the number exceeded 100. The
question is why the general ignorance with respect to the
existence and nature of these camps? There certainly is no lack of
research and publications on the subject from German sources. No
doubt there are a number of reasons why so little has been
published in the Netherlands and why so few people have even heard
of these camps. Partly because forced laborers themselves did not
organize until 1987, while others such as Jewish groups, veterans,
and concentration camp survivors did so shortly after the war.
Consequently, while much was being published by and under the
auspices of these organizations and their individual members, this
was not the case for Dutch forced laborers. The further fact that
former AEL survivors represented but a small percentage of all
member of the entire group of forced laborers and always had been
reluctant to talk about their experiences, most of the attention
was focused on other important issues, such as the search for
missing persons, historical documentation and compensation.
- Another reason for the unfamiliarity with AEL is that fact
that its inmates were young men and women who were working as
forced laborers in Germany at the time of their incarceration and
usually came to the AEL via prisons in Germany. This is in
contrast with people who were sent to concentration camps. As a
rule these persons were arrested at home in the Netherlands. Thus
to the family the difference was one between: "my son is in
Germany (presumably working)" and " my cousin is in a
concentration camp (obviously incarcerated.)" Unless friends had
taken the initiative to inform them, family of AEL inmates had no
way of knowing that their son or daughter had even been detained.
The only indication that something was wrong would have been the
fact that no mail was forthcoming. Even that was no indication
after the mail channels were severely restricted and eventually
closed altogether, after the summer of 1944.
- A third reason why most persons have never heard of
Arbeitserziehungslager lies in the fact that these camps were
referred to by all sorts of names other than AEL, even in official
documentation. The more common names were: Straflager
(penal camp) and Straferziehungslager (penal education
camp.) Other names which were used: Erziehungslager
(education camp), Sonderlager (special camp),
Polizeistraflager (police penal camp),
Zwangsarbeitslager (forced labor camp). It is
interesting to note that one man did not know what was meant by
Arbeitserziehungslager when he came across the name 40 years after
he had been an inmate himself.
- Former inmates have had great difficulty speaking about their
experiences which also explains the lack of publication on AEL.
Many have suffered physically or psychologically for many years.
It is only now, with most of them in their 70's, and having been
able to put the past behind them, that some are starting to put
down their experiences on paper for the benefit of historians and
- How it all started and why.
- "Having been in a straflager once, you'll do anything
to never return," wrote a former AEL inmate shortly after his
release and thus the goal had been achieved, at least in his case.
In 1941 Himmler announced the first official guidelines for the
establishment and operation of AEL, although camps in Hinzert,
Vicht, Homburg and Bergzabern are generally considered to have
been the first AEL. These camps were established in 1939, six
years after Dachau which was built approximately two months after
the nazi's came to power. The inmates of these first camps were
people working for the Todt organization (OT), a semi-military
organization responsible for the German State Labor Service
(Reichsarbeitsdienst). It was involved in the building of
defence works, even before the start of the second world war. The
miserable conditions at Hinzert were a sign of things to come for
other camps. The building of another six camps in 1941 firmly made
the AEL a reality. In his announcement Himmler stated that AEL
were intended for those guilty of breach of labor contracts,
loafers, or those who were a danger to labor moral (read: labor
peace) and they were also intended to serve as a deterrent and
warning to others. The official position was that AEL were not
intended for political prisoners.These guidelines and others,
having to do with the duration of incarceration, would soon prove
to be of little meaning. Soon political conviction and race were
to become reasons for internment in AEL as well.
- AEL differed from concentration camps in this way that they
were not being fed by police, such as the Gestapo (secret state
police) but rather by industry, despite the fact that for the
duration of the war they remained under supervision and control of
the Gestapo. Interrogation and questioning leading up to
incarceration, were conducted by the Gestapo as well. The purpose
of these camps was to control and "educate" problematic workers,
mainly foreign forced laborers but also Germans, not to punish.
Hence the official name Arbeitserziehungslager and not
Sraflager. It would have been difficult to convince
inmates that they were merely being educated and not punished!
Thus it was the empoyer who took the first step, not the Gestapo.
Management was the accuser and judge who arrested and convicted
the worker, to then deliver him to the Gestapo for sentencing and
the execution of the sentence, without letting him know either the
reason for the arrest or the nature of the sentence. Whenever a
worker was found to be in breach of contract (in fact, there were
no contracts of any kind for forced laborers!) or believed to be
guilty of laziness or sabotage, the AEL was the place for him or
her (there also were women prisoners in AEL) to be educated or
reformed, much the same as when an automotive engine is being
tuned for better performance. That the method was effective is
indicated by the above quotation. It was also effective in its aim
to warn fellow workers upon return of the broken prisoner.
- Although the employer had nothing to gain by losing its
workers, short-term pain for long-term gain appeared to be a good
investment to them. In order to minimize the harm to industry as a
result of the loss of workers, it was originally decided to limit
the time of imprisonment to 56 days, assuming this to be
sufficient to teach the worker to tow the line. There even were
provisions for shorter sentences for those who turned out to be
fast learners. On the other hand, camp commanders had the
authority to extend the imprisonment with three 56-day periods
when they deemed such necessary to achieve the "educational" goal.
Lengthening the sentence was the rule; shortening the exception.
In actual fact, there was no time limit. In hopeless cases the
ultimate solution was transfer to a concentration camp where time
limits did not exist at all.
- To compensate for time limitations, the intended goal had to
be achieved through work and living conditions in the camp. What
was lacking in time had to be made up through the severity of
these conditions. This philosophy was officially espoused in May
1944 by Kaltenbrunner, head of the security service who declared:
- "First of all I want to say that Arbeitserziehungslager are by
no means rest homes. The work and living conditions in an AEL are
generally more severe than in concentration camps. This is
necessary in order to achieve the intended goal, and it is also
possible because the detention time for the individual AEL inmate
is generally not more than a few weeks; a few months at the most."
- Living and working conditions in the AEL
- That Kaltenbrunner meant what he said in his infamous
statement of May 1944, is abundantly clear from stories of former
AEL inmates and post-war declarations and confessions by former
camp guards and other witnesses. Not more than two months were
needed to reduce a man to skin over bone. It was not unusual for a
prisoner to lose 20 kg. during such period. Typical daily rations
consisted of two meager sandwiches, half a liter of thin cabbage
soup, and on occasion a mug of coffee. Medical help was
non-existent or so minimal that it was of no value. If the man is
too sick to work, he is also too sick to eat, was the motto. Sick
people died on the spot without having received any medical care.
Severe beatings with wooden or rubber truncheons were a daily
happening, even for the most insignificant "offences". One Dutch
boy who underwent such beating still had visible scars months
after his release and was told by a doctor that he had better not
return to an AEL for he would not survive a second time.
Executions took place in a similar manner, that is to say,
prisoners were literally beaten to death. Hanging and shooting
were other methods of execution. And always the other prisoners
had to witness the event. It is therefore not surprising that,
despite the relatively short sentences, in most camps 10-25% of
all prisoners perished.
- Work was heavy and days long: 12 hours of work daily, 7 days
per week. A typical day looked like this: getting up at 4:30;
parade at 5:00; off to work at 5:30; work from 6 to 6. The nature
of the work depended on local needs. In Lager (camp) 21 near the
Hermann Göring Works, it consisted of the breaking up and
loading of hot slag, fused matter separated during the reduction
of metal from its ore. In Kiel it was the sorting and clearing of
rubble after bombings, done by hand, always under the watchful
eyes of armed guards. Other types of work were excavation or
cement work for the building of bunkers, laying of rail, or
similar hard labor. Even after paying the Gestapo small amounts
for wages, AEL prisoners provided industry with a ready supply of
cheap labor. Workclothing and safety equipment were of course
unheard of. Hygienic conditions in the camps were pitiful, to say
the least: prisoneres were covered with lice, from head to toe,
the worst kind of torment a person can experience, day in day out.
Washing facilities were always insufficient. In some camps showers
were unknown and often prisoners were obliged to wear the same
clothes for the entire duration of their imprisonment, without
having the opportunity to wash them. Conditions were so horrendous
that one former prisoner later wrote: "When in Kiel I saw that
three comrades were being hanged, I thought 'I wished I were
hanging there.' During that time I often yearned to be dead."
- Medical care
- Medical care in the AEL was catastrophic. In Lager 21, which
was located between Hallendorf and Bleckenstedt, 720 prisoners
died during the one-year period January 1942 - January 1943. In
Nordmark in Hassee-Kiel 500 persons perished between May 1944 and
the end of the war, one quarter of all prisoners during that
period. In Lahde which had a capacity of 700 prisoners, 800 died
over a 22 months period. In Grossbeeren in the German-Luxembourg
border region, more that 100 persons lost their lives between 1942
and 1945. In Wuhlheide near Berlin of the 30,000 prisoners 3000
lost their lives. In Lager 21 medical staff attached to the
SS-Junker school in Braunsweig provided medical service. In
Drachensee no medical care existed at all. Those who were too ill
to work stayed in camp, without food, with the result that many
went to work rather than go without food. In exceptional cases
severely ill persons were taken away, no one knew where. A program
whereby prisoners from camp Amersfoort in the Netherlands were
sent to Lager 21, started in the fall of 1942, was discontinued in
March 1943. The reason given was the fact that the death rate was
- An inmate at Drachensee suffered of pleurisy without knowing
it. He attributed his almost unbearable backpain to muscle
problems and later thought he might have a severe "cold". His true
condition was not diagnosed until later, after his release, when
being checked by a factory doctor. He would later write about his
physical and psychological condition:
- "Finally, after three months, my name was called at evening
parade. I was included in the "transport" contingent. This could
mean all sorts of things, among others transfer to a concentration
camp. The possiblity of release never entered my mind. Everything
left me completely cold, even when next morning I was told that I
was being released. I had become completely apathetic. Upon return
in the labor camp with my friends, I collapsed. I was unable to
walk or even stand."
- Victims of Arbeitserziehungslager
- Prior to the arrival of the Allied Forces, documents
pertaining to prisoners were destroyed by camp staff in almost all
AEL. As a result it is not possible to ascertain how many people
perished in the more than 100 camps. For some AEL, figures from
other sources, such as municipal records and cemetery registers,
give an indication of these numbers. According to available death
certificates, at least 49 named persons of Dutch nationality died
in Lager 21: two in 1941; nine in 1942; six in 1943; twenty in
1944, and twelve during the first few months of 1945, showing an
alarming escalation during the final years of the war. In most
cases causes of death were listed as: weak heart, total
exhaustion, lung infection, tuberculosis, intestinal infection. In
July of 1943 two men were shot while fleeing (auf der Flucht
- In "Erziehung" ins Massengrab, Detlef Korte gives the
register of Eichhof cemetery as his source of names of persons who
perished in Nordmark between May 1944 and May 1945. On the list of
419 dead, the names of 17 Dutch nationals appear. Most of
the names are of Soviet (184) and Polish (140) citizens; further
from France (36), Germany (15), Italy (9), Tchechoslovakia (6),
Belgium (3), Yugoslavia (3), Denmark (2), Luxembourg (1), Greece
(1), Spain (1), and one of unknown nationality, which usually
meant Jewish. The oldest person listed was 68 years of age, a
German prisoner. Among the victims were three boys of 15; four
of 16 years, and 2 girls of the same age. These children were
from the Soviet Union and Poland and they too must have had
parents who wondered what had happened to their children. The
monument which was erected on the spot where Nordmark once stood,
states that 500 persons were "murdered" there.
- It is difficult to come to a definitve conclusion with respect
to the number of Dutch citizens who succumbed in
Arbeitserziehungslager. According to a number of sources (American
and German) Dutch forced laborers represented approximately 5% of
the total in Germany during the second world war. In Nordmark 4.1%
of the dead listed in the cemetery register were of Dutch
nationality. On the other hand this percentage was 14.5 in Lahde,
while in Grossbeeren it was only 1.5%. In the latter the majority
of the dead were from the Soviet Union and Poland: 56% in total.
- Memorial AEL NORDMARK, Hassee-Kiel
- (Photo: Peter
- "Hier errichteten die Nationalsozialisten -Gestapo
Kiel- in Mai 1944 das Arbeitserziehungslager 'Nordmark'.
- Hier waren ingesamt über 2000 Menschen
eingesperrt. Hier wurden mehr als 500 Menschen ermordet.
- Auch hier begegnet uns Deutsche Geschichte."
- On this spot, in May 1944, the National-Socialists
-Gestapo Kiel- built Arbeitserziehungslager 'Nordmark'.
- In total more than 2000 persons were incarcerated
here. More than five hundred persons were murdered here.
- Here too we are confronted by German history.
- Top of page
- Bringmann, Fritz, Arbeitserziehungslager Nordmark.
Kiel: VVD - Bund der Antifaschisten, ca. 1995.
- Brinkmann, Friedrich, Das 'Arbeitserziehungslager' Lahde,
1943-1945. Lahde: Kulturgemeinschaft Lahde, 1984.
Gurp, Alexander van, Indrukken over het Straferziehungslager
DRACHENSEE, te Hassee-Kiel. Delft: unpublished document, 1948.
Herbert, Ulrich, "Fremdarbeiter: Politik und Prazis des
'Ausländer-Einsatzes', in Der Kriegswirtschaft des Dritten
Reiches, J.H.W. Dietz (Bonn: 1985), pg. 494.
- Hermans, H.P.M. "Over het Arbeitserziehungslager in het
algemeen en over Lager 21 bij Hallendorf in het bijzonder." VDN
Nieuwsbrief, 9e jaargang, nr.1 (January/February 1997), pp
- Korte, Detlef,
ins Massengrab. Kiel: Neuer Malik Verlag, 1991.
- Meyer, Petra, Das Arbeitserziehungslager Heddernheim unter
Berücksichtigung anderer Arbeitslager, ausgehend von den
archivalischen Unterlagen und Zeitzeugen. Frankfurt am Main,
Volder, Karel, Van Riga tot Rheinfelden. Amsterdam:
Stadsuitgeverij Amsterdam, 1996.
----------------- , Werken in Duisland 1940-1945. Bedum:
Uitgeverij Profiel, 1990.
Wand, Lothar en Birk, Gerhard, Zu Tode Geschunden. Zossen:
Weinmann, et al, Das nationalsozialistische Lagersystem.
Frankfurt am Main: Zweitausendeins, 1990.
Witte, Peter, "Das Arbeitserziehungslager Hönnetal", in
700 Jahre Beckum - Die Geschichte eines Dorfes im Sauerland,
(Arnsberg 1985), pp.219-225.
- Office of United States Chief of Counsel For Prosecution of
Axis Criminality, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression,
- Volume I, Chapter X. Washington: United States Government
Printing Office, 1946.
- (With special thanks to mr. Aart
Pontier, coordinator VDN Documentation Centre)
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