Belgian labour in Nazi Germany : a social history
Harrison, Sharon Maree
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The Nazis' deployment of foreigners (Ausländereinsatz) between 1939 and 1945 established one of the largest forced labour programs since the abolition of slavery during the nineteenth century. Foreign civilians from across Europe were deployed in Germany's war economy. Between 350,000 and 400,000 Belgian civilians were deployed in Germany during the Second World War- roughly half of these workers went to Germany voluntarily, but under a degree of pressure due to the Military Administration's economic policies in occupied Belgium. This thesis examines the implementation of the Nazi forced labour program through the analysis of the lives of Belgians who worked in Germany in the period 1940-1945 and by using a variety of original sources, including the records of the German Military Administration in Belgium and German and Belgian labour officials and the accounts of those who lived and worked in Germany. This thesis proposes a social history of the Nazi foreign labour program with a strong focus on the history of everyday life, drawing extensively on records such as letters, diaries, photographs and personal accounts of Belgians who worked in Germany during the Second World War, as well as hospital, police and judicial records. The employment patterns and experiences of Belgians deployed in Germany are examined through detailed case studies of Berlin and Düsseldorf, industrialised cities where Belgians were deployed in significant numbers. The Nazi regime divided Belgium's population along linguistic lines: Belgians were officially subject to differentiated treatment based on whether they were Flemings or Walloons. Examining the treatment of Belgians by the Nazi regime and comparing Nazi racial policies and practice, this thesis emphasises the key role played by local authorities, employers and individual Germans in shaping the experiences of foreign workers. It is argued that an important distinction must be made in relation to the material advantages western European workers enjoyed due to their elevated position in the Nazi racial hierarchy and the benefits individual foreign workers were able to secure by virtue of their employment skills, linguistic skills and greater confidence. The experiences of Belgian workers are also compared and contrasted with those of other national groups and are related to the broader history of foreign labour in Nazi Germany. This study also examines the experiences of Belgian women. While Belgian women represented close to 15 percent of Belgians deployed in Germany, studies of Belgian labour in Germany have largely overlooked their experiences. Utilising the limited available sources, this thesis contributes to an understanding of women's experiences. By focussing on the social history of the Ausländereinsatz and the stories of individual Belgians, this thesis maps the varied experiences of Belgians in Germany during the Second World War, illustrating convergence and divergence from Nazi racial policy and the fundamental role ordinary Germans played. More importantly, however, this thesis shows that Belgian civilian workers were not just passive victims of the German occupation. The decision to go to Germany to work was a personal one for many Belgian volunteers, based on individual circumstances. In difficult economic times and with no end to the war in sight, Belgians sought to navigate the best course for themselves and their families. While conscripts were by definition not free, as western Europeans Belgians were afforded greater rights and legal protections, which ensured they had room for manoeuvre and were able to exercise a significant degree of control over their own destinies.