The pressure for increased production meant that Germany moved rapidly toward full employment. Eventually, labor shortages developed. To be sure, the complete destruction of independent labor unions meant that individual workers gained absolutely no economic leverage from these conditions. With the exception of factory workers in the Soviet Union, they were just about the lowest paid workers in all of Europe. On the flip side, most German workers still remembered what life had been like during the depression. Gathering data on the mood of workers was hardly easy in a police state, but the Social Democratic Party organization in exile [Sopade] used underground contacts to assess worker morale by region and to gauge changes therein over time. A Sopade report on central Germany from September 1938 was guardedly optimistic about how few workers had become supporters of the Nazi regime.
The German Labor Front organized programs such as “The Beauty of Labor” [Schönheit der Arbeit], which sought to improve working conditions in factories, and “Strength through Joy” [Kraft durch Freude], which provided (or at least aimed to provide) a range of structured leisure activities previously beyond the financial reach of many workers (31). Although such efforts carried with them a heavy dose of propaganda, they offered some indication that the government cared about ordinary workers. And workers, in turn, recognized and appreciated Hitler’s diplomatic successes of the 1930s.
Early successes in the war gave the German military somewhat greater economic influence but in no way reduced the difficulties of consistent and rational economic planning. In his 1973 memoirs, Hans Kehrl described the fragmented and inefficient management of the German economy in the fall of 1940. At the time, he was General Consultant for Special Affairs in the Reich Economics Ministry, where he was in charge of raw materials exploitation in the occupied territories. Kehrl correctly indicated that, without regular cabinet meetings to coordinate policy and manage conflicting priorities, the political system itself was a major stumbling block to economic inefficiency. The reported statements about Hitler’s disinclination to impose harsh restrictions on the civilian population are also generally correct.
The regime’s inability to make tough choices and insist upon sacrifices at home added to the pressure to exploit conquered territories and resident peoples. One result was Fritz Sauckel’s Labor-Mobilization Program of April 20, 1942. It should be noted, however, that the recruitment and use of foreign laborers within the German Reich affronted ideologues and worried officials: the former being concerned with racial purity, the latter with security. Ultimately, military setbacks and economic necessity forced a slightly more pragmatic approach. In April 1943, after extensive interagency debates, the Reich Propaganda Ministry and the Reich Security Main Office issued a memorandum on the treatment of foreign laborers within the Reich. On the one hand, they advised against treating conscripted foreigners as sub-human, since “everything had to be subordinated to the goal of winning the war”; on the other hand, Nazi standards of racial solidarity and racial identity had to be firmly upheld – a difficult balance, and one that probably did little to help foreign workers. By August 1944, there were more than 7.6 million conscripted foreigners working in German farms, mines, and factories, and concentration or labor camps (32).
(31) Shelley Baranowski, Strength through Joy: Consumerism and Mass Tourism in the Third Reich (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
(32) See Edward Homze, “Nazi Germany’s Forced Labor Program,” in A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis, edited by Michael Berenbaum (New York: NYU Press, 1990), p. 38; and more generally, Ulrich Herbert, Hitler’s Foreign Workers: Enforced Foreign Labor in Germany under the Third Reich (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).