Ernst ‘Fritz’ Saukel achieved infamy in Nazi Germany as the man who primarily organised slave labour for the Reich during World War Two. Between 1942 and 1945, Saukel was the most senior Nazi official involved in the movement and use of slave labourers. They were mainly from occupied Eastern Europe. Arrested at the end of the war, Saukel was found guilty of crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg Trials and sentenced to death.
Fritz Saukel was born in Bavaria on October 27th 1894. Following a basic education – his schooling ended early when his mother fell ill and money was in short supply – Saukel joined the merchant navies of Norway and Sweden. After this he joined a German marine company and sailed the world. He was on a German ship at the start of World War One when it was captured and the crew was interned. Saukel spent the whole of World War One in an internment camp and was only released in November 1919.
The Germany Saukel returned to was completely different to the one he had left. Prior to World War One, Germans had prided themselves on a strong but fair central government where nearly everyone benefitted from the system and the growing economy. Germany in the immediate aftermath of World War One was in chaos. Central government was threatened by the communists and the Weimar government, led by President Ebert had signed the hated Treaty of Versailles, which many believed was designed by the World War One Allies to economically drive Germany into the ground so that she remained a second-class nation. To many the Weimar government seemed weak and ineffectual. Many turned to right wing nationalist political parties of which the Nazis were just one of many. They offered hope and a sense of national pride. In 1923, Saukel joined the fledgling National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazis). He remained loyal to Hitler even during the difficult time when Hitler was in Landsberg Prison after the failed Beer Hall Putsch. The party had been left in the hands of the ineffectual Hans Frank – an ideologist but he was not really cut out to be a political party leader.
In 1927, Hitler repaid Saukel for his loyalty by making him Gauleiter of Thuringia. While Saukel may have had a seemingly grand party title, it was meaningless while the Nazis were small – and in 1927, their political clout was minimal. It was a title in name only and the only people he had any influence over were Nazis in Thuringia. However, after the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the collapse of any credibility the Weimar government had, voters turned to the Nazis in their thousands. While the title ‘Gauleiter’ was little more than decorative in a regional sense pre-1933, the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor in January 1933 changed all of this. Regional Gauleiters became very powerful within their own areas and all Gauleiters were seen as being the most loyal of party members and the most supportive of Hitler. Saukel became Reich Regent of Thuringia and was given honorary titles in both the SA and the SS.
From 1933 to 1939, Saukel worked for the party in Thuringia. However, his political life changed in March 1942 when he was appointed General Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment. German labour had been seriously dislocated by World War Two as many young men had been drafted into the military. The labour situation was further complicated by Hitler’s insistence that German women should not work in factories as they had to stay at home to bring up their children. It was Saukel’s task to resolve the whole labour question. He had been recommended to Hitler by Martin Bormann and it was clear that the Nazi élite expected positive results.
Saukel dealt with the labour shortage in a very simple manner. He brought in slave labour from occupied territories in Eastern Europe. In total 5 million workers were brought to Germany, the vast bulk against their will. It is estimated that 200,000 were tricked into volunteering to come but the vast bulk were forced.
The conditions these labourers lived in were appalling. When Albert Speer toured a factory making V2 rocket parts at Mittelwerk, he was disgusted at their living conditions within the factory and later described them as “barbarous”. He used his seniority to order the building of a camp for the slave workers outside of the perimeters of the factory itself. This camp became the Dora concentration camp and was seen as being an ‘improvement’ on what they had experienced before. When American soldiers liberated the massive V2 factory built into a mountainside near Nordhausen, they found thousands of labourers in a dreadful condition. Many had not seen daylight as they were kept inside the mountain; the bodies that were found in the factory were of men who had clearly been worked until they had died. Many had been left where they had dropped as their colleagues had been too weak to remove their bodies. Even after their liberation, many died – killed by kindness by US soldiers who gave them chocolate from their ration packs, unaware that their bodies were simply incapable of dealing with a sudden energy input. An accurate figure of how many slave labourers died in Nazi Germany is not known as many records were destroyed but it had to run into hundreds of thousands and some believe millions.
Saukel was arrested after the war and attempted to defend his actions. At the Nuremberg Trials he did not refer to any of the victims as slave labourers. Saukel argued that the whole process of using labourers was simple economics and he denied that there was any systematic mistreatment of them. If mistreatment did occur, he said, it was the result of rogue guards and local commanders and within the sheer scale of what he was trying to achieve, this had to be expected and could not be countered. His defence team pointed out that Saukel had sent out instructions to regional commanders of slave labourers that they should be treated with “adequate care”. The prosecution team made the point that senior Nazis frequently wrote in a vague manner that some believed was coded and that “adequate care” was in the same vein as “Final Solution” – vacuous and far too open to interpretation.
The judges did not accept Saukel’s defence team and he was found guilty of crimes against humanity and crimes against peace. He was sentenced to death and hanged on October 16th 1946.