Seminar: Trade Unions and Trade Unionists under the Nazis


Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial, Centre for Historical Studies



Two- or three-day seminar (6 hours each day)


In this two- to three-day seminar, participants learn about the role of trade unions and unionists under the Nazis – a role that also included resistance and persecution. They also learn about economic and socio-historical aspects of National Socialism.


We discuss the political positions of trade unions before and after the Nazis came to power, the adaptation policy of the Confederation of German Trade Unions (ADGB), the prohibition of free trade unions as well as the resistance and persecution of trade unionists under the Nazis. The different phases of persecution and resistance of trade unions are explored by analysing the situation in Hamburg and other regions and by looking at several biographies of trade unionists (including Adolf Kummernuss, Wally Vollmer, Willi Bredel, Viktor Agartz and Rudi Goguel).

Unionists persecuted as antifascists were sent to the concentration camp and/or Fuhlsbüttel prison beginning in 1933. Then, starting in 1938, several trade unionists were subjected to an ordeal of interment in many concentration camps, of which Neuengamme concentration camp became just a station.

We discuss this development by looking at the biographies of several trade unionists. Whenever possible, we address how much room for manoeuvre was available to those involved. Throughout the seminar, we also explore the economic and socio-historical aspects of the Nazi regime, including how mass unemployment was dealt with in the transitional period between the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime. Using the changes in social standards between 1933 and 1945 as a starting point – for example, mandatory employment and the development of wages and working time – we discuss the working and living conditions of employees under the Nazi regime.  

We also talk about the function and structure of the National Socialist Factory Cell Organisation (Nationalsozialistische Betriebszellenorganisation, NSBO) and the German Labour Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront, DAF) in companies while taking a closer look at the latter’s entrepreneurial history. With regard to the concentration camps, we examine the role of the SS as a commercial enterprise with its own companies and its own range of economic endeavours. The SS were also those responsible for organising the work deployment of concentration camp prisoners.

We then take a closer look at the dimensions of Nazi slave labour and the treatment of slave labourers – especially slave labourers from Eastern Europe, who were sent to concentration camps in large numbers as a punishment for their supposed insubordination at the workplace or for having prohibited contact with the German population.

In another part of the seminar, we look at how these people were treated by trade unions and German society after 1945 and talk about how trade unionists established a unified trade union in 1949 in an attempt to overcome political fragmentation. We take into account such current aspects as regulations based on human rights and those relating to the constitution and labour laws, all of which are the result of these historical experiences, and talk about the German practice of compensating former slave labourers from the end of the war to today.



Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial, Centre for Historical Studies

Jean-Dolidier-Weg 75

21039 Hamburg

Phone: +49 40 – 4 28 13 522