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Compensation for forced labor under National Socialism: Negotiations to practices

The effect of material and symbolic reparations after 60 years

Ruhr-University Bochum

From 2001 to 2007, Germany paid more than 4.4 billion Euros to 1.66 million former forced labourers in 98 countries. Although it was initially expected that the victims would view the money as a symbolic acknowledgement, it later turned out that their assessment of the compensation varied depending on their economic situation and personal memories of forced labour. This is one of the central results of an academic study of the Foundation "Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft" ("Remembrance, Responsibility and Future," or EVZ). The large-scale study, funded by the EVZ Foundation and headed by Prof. Dr. Constantin Goschler (Contemporary History, Ruhr University Bochum), was completed early in the summer of 2012. Tomorrow, on September 4th, the four volumes of "Die Entschädigung von NS-Zwangsarbeit am Anfang des 21. Jahrhunderts. Die Stiftung ,Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft' und ihre Partnerorganisationen" (The compensation for forced labour under National Socialism at the beginning of the 21st Century. The Foundation 'Remembrance, Responsibility and Future' and its partner organisations") will be published by the Wallstein publishing company in Göttingen.

Mainly compensated: victims in the East

After lengthy international negotiations that received a great deal of attention in the German and international press, the foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" was founded in Berlin in the summer of 2000. Equipped with approximately € 5.1 billion and financed half by the federal government and half by the German private business sector, the foundation was to pay former forced labourers and other victims of the National Socialist regime a material and symbolic reparation almost 60 years after the end of World War II. In a complex payment produce, the foundation and seven international partner organisations primarily compensated former forced labourers in Central and Eastern Europe, who had hardly received any compensation until then, along with Jewish former slave labourers.

Extensive archival research and interviews with contemporary witnesses

Immediately after all the compensation was paid, an international team of twenty academics led by Prof. Constantin Goschler at the Ruhr University Bochum started to research the implementation and effects of the payment procedure. They searched through extensive archives of the participating organisations in eight countries and conducted numerous interviews with contemporary witnesses. The results of their four years of research show how complex persecution experiences and competing claims to justice were dealt with by bureaucratic organisations and how these affected political distribution struggles, how the recipients rated the financial benefits and how these benefits reshaped the European landscape of remembrance.

Volumes thematically broad in scope

The Ruhr University's research findings were published in four volumes, which deal with: the way the topic of forced labour under National Socialism is handled in Germany and the work of the EVZ (Volume 1), the practice of the globally active Jewish Claims Conference and the International Organisation for Migration (Volume 2), the payments and effects thereof in Poland and the Czech Republic (Volume 3) and the compensation for forced labour and remembrance culture in the post-Soviet societies (Volume 4).

Supposed "traitors" finally compensated

The organisations concerned with the payment of compensation struggled with a complex set of bureaucratic traditions, varying expectations and remembrance cultures, as well as with divergent systems of assistance for victims. The EVZ Foundation was in a difficult position, torn between conflicting priorities; it was to make the process as simple as possible for the elderly applicants and yet also do justice to the Federal Government's aim of permanently concluding the restitution process and giving the German economy legal security against further lawsuits. The partner organisations in Russia and other former Soviet republics had to learn to implement the internationally-agreed upon compensation categories and hierarchies of victims in their own countries, even though they partially conflicted with national and individual memories and past practices. In the Soviet Union, for example, the forced labourers who returned from Germany after 1945 were labelled as traitors. The idea that they would now be compensated with German money for their sacrifice contradicted the Soviet cultural memory of the Second World War, which held sway until the 2000s. The Ruhr University's project is thus opening eyes to the unintended side effects of a transnational compensation process.

Personal experiences and memories important

One of the key results of the Bochum research project concerns the individual applicant's perspective on the significance of the compensation payments. Without this aspect having been explored in detail before, it was pointed out in the discussion on material resolution of historical injustice that the significance of the compensation lies above all in its symbolic recognition by the persecuted. In this regard, the Bochum project comes to the conclusion that there can be no talk of a single linear significance that victims derive from compensation payments. At the individual level, the meaning of compensation is highly dependent on a range of different variables, such as a person's persecution experience, their social context, their political and economic environment, their country's reminiscence culture and not least their experiences with prior German reparation and compensation efforts.

Working model for future compensation practice

Since the 1990s, compensation payments have been gaining importance worldwide in overcoming dictatorships and dealing with historical injustice. The Bochum project about the foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" greatly advances the study of such processes and also provides important insights for future compensation practices. For the first time it is shown in detail how difficult the implementation of compensation payments is, and what compensation can mean both for the individuals concerned and for their societies.


Bibliographic record

Die Entschädigung von NS-Zwangsarbeit am Anfang des 21. Jahrhunderts. Die Stiftung „Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft" und ihre Partnerorganisationen (The compensation of forced labour under National Socialism at the beginning of the 21st Century. The Foundation "Remembrance, Responsibility and Future" and its partner organisations). Published by Constantin Goschler in collaboration with José Brunner, Krzysztof Ruchniewicz and Philipp Ther, 4 volumes, Göttingen (Wallstein) 2012.

Further information

Prof. Dr. Constantin Goschler, Chair of Contemporary History, Ruhr-Universität Bochum, tel. 0234/32-22540, e-mail:

Editor: Dr. Josef König

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