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Arbeitserziehungslager (AEL)
(Workers Educational Camps)
Alexander van Gurp ©
Execution of prisoners at Drachensee
Execution at AEL DRACHENSEE (a.k.a. "KZ Hassee"), Kiel (1944)
(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 future generations.
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 too high.
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 erschossen.)
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.


Monument AEL Nordmark
Memorial AEL NORDMARK, Hassee-Kiel
(Photo: Peter Meyer-Strüvy)
"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.
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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 4-8.
Korte, Detlef, "Erziehung" 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, 1984.

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: 1986.

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.
The Memorial Breitenau
NS Terror
  (With special thanks to mr. Aart Pontier, coordinator VDN Documentation Centre)

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