‘A labour camp rarely closes’


‘A labour camp rarely closes’

Labour camps have a long history and are found throughout the world. Nevertheless, they are mainly successful in harsh conditions, far from the inhabited world, reveals the research project “Four Centuries of Labour Camps”. Otherwise, the security is very expensive.

Ralf Futselaar (photo via NIOD)

In 1621, the city of Hamburg came up with a fantastic idea: it established its first “Zuchthaus”. Thieves, pickpockets and vagrants would be forced to make themselves useful here. For example, they would plane wood or make rope from hemp threads in the ropery. ‘However, it was not a success. Commercial roperies in the same region worked far more efficiently’, says researcher Ralf Futselaar from NIOD (institute for war, holocaust and genocide studies). ‘That’s because forcing people to do things well is not that easy.'
And it proved far from easy to cover the costs. Imprisoning people in the middle of a large city is expensive. Help from outside is always close to hand and finding escapees is difficult.

Escaping prisoners

In a nutshell, the penitentiary was a failure. Admitting to that was difficult, and so the board of directors clandestinely tried to get rid of the prisoners. During the eighteenth century, North-German forced labourers were increasingly squeezed into ships and dumped in Greenland, Newfoundland or Virginia. Futselaar: ‘There was even a ship’s captain who was not interested in making that long voyage, and so he put the convicts ashore in Rotterdam. Those people simply walked back to Hamburg.’
The other areas investigated during the NIOD research project, namely the colonies in Indonesia, Siberia and Italy, had fewer problems with escaping prisoners. In Calabria, Libya and Eritrea that still required barbed wire, but the gulags of the Soviet Union usually had no fence. ‘In Siberia, the people were in the middle of an uninhabited area. They could get nowhere without dying first’, says joint project leader Nanci Adler, an expert in the field of Siberian Gulags. The same was true for Dutch labour camps in Indonesia. Escaping into the jungle was far too dangerous.

Did you know? The penitentiary and labour camp system of the Soviet Union represent forced labour in its most extreme form. In terms of the regime, some of these camps approached the concentration camps of the Nazis.


The penitentiary and labour camp system of the Soviet Union represent forced labour in its most extreme form. In terms of the regime, some of these camps approached the concentration camps of the Nazis. Survival was sometimes virtually impossible. During the Great Purge – from 1934 to 1953 – millions of people were imprisoned in the gulags.
It was not just about convicted persons. Minorities such as the Crimean Tartars and Chechens were banished en masse to harsh areas in the middle of the Soviet Union as part of the Stalinist population politics. They were not locked up, but they were not allowed to come within a radius of 101 kilometres from a city.
Did the gulags generate any income? That is doubtful. ‘Most of the work that took place in the Siberian labour camps was quite useless and would not have been done otherwise’, says Adler. ‘On the other hand, some important projects could never have been realised without forced labour.’ For example, Soviet prisoners built the Moscow underground. In harsh conditions, they dug thousands of kilometres of canals using pickaxes and spades, which was often accompanied with an incredible loss of human lives.


The research project “Four Centuries of Labour Camps” started with the idea that forced labour could be economically interesting. However, it is far from certain whether the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Canal in the north of Russia would have cost more had it been done by a contractor using heavy material. Prisoners need to be guarded, kept at work and fed. Their motivation is to receive food and not to provide good work.

Further research has revealed that the decision to establish the first Hamburg penitentiary had already been made in 1615.
- Ralf Futselaar

Project initiator Pieter Spierenburg also assumed at the start of the research that when labour camps are set up, there is a correlation with war, ethnicity and rehabilitation. Regarding the last point: in some cases, labour camps did indeed play a rehabilitating role. There are known cases of Russians who left the Gulag with a trust in the Communist Party. Adler even wrote a book about it. However, just as often no effort whatsoever was made to rehabilitate prisoners. People simply had to work until they dropped.


Is it true then that many labour camps arose in wartime, like Camp Vught in the Netherlands? The first Hamburg penitentiary did indeed open its doors during the Thirty Years' War. ‘But further research has revealed that the decision to establish the penitentiary had already been made in 1615. So that was well before the war’, says Futselaar. And in the gulags? Some labour camps were established during the Civil War (1918-22) or the Second World War. But before and after this period, there was also an extensive network of penitential institutions. In fact, as far back as the period of the tsars, Russia already had a system for the large-scale detention or banishment of prisoners. The first Siberian camp opened back in 1879. However, during the Second World War, a greater emphasis on forced labour arose, as revealed in a study by PhD student Zhanna Popova. Stalin later used mass deportations and forced labour to break down the power of the peasantry.
Labour camps in Southeast Asia and North Africa mainly seem to be related to colonialism and not war. West European colonisers made plantations profitable by setting forced labourers to work.
Forced labour in the heel of Italy had a similar underlying motive: in effect, the rulers in Rome colonised the southern part of the country. Under the motto ‘civilising the land through the man and the man through the land’ they locked up perpetrators of “banditism” and made them reclaim the land. With that, they killed two birds with one stone: they got the “mindless” work done and at the same time, difficult elements were removed from society.


The third research premise, ethnicity, was found to play a much smaller role than had been assumed in advance. Although the Soviet Union removed entire groups of people from their trusted environment, such as the Crimean Tatars, and set them to work in Siberia, ethnic Russians equally disappeared behind locked doors. For every potential disruptor of the communist order who was not immediately shot, the Soviet Union had a place in a labour camp, irrespective of skin colour, sexual preference or gender.
Interestingly, gender did play a role in the North German penitentiaries. Women often carried out forced labour there. Not due to misogyny, but because after corporal punishment – beating with a stick – men were usually released far earlier.


Therefore, little remains of the research assumptions after almost four years of research. An integrated, worldwide history of labour camps is lacking. Does this mean that the research has failed? No, says Futselaar. ‘You pose a question in advance, and sometimes the answer is “no”. That’s how things work in science.’
The outcome of the research is partly because the person who recognised the need for a synthesis, professor of criminology Pieter Spierenburg, became ill during the research and died. Nevertheless, the project has yielded a wealth of knowledge, a PhD thesis and a new collaboration between NIOD and the University of Leicester.
Formulating a precise definition of what a “labour camp” actually is proved to be difficult. Does the penitentiary in Hamburg fall under that definition? No, is what the researchers conclude. Nevertheless, the “Zuchthaus” definitely has something in common with the “serious” Soviet and Indonesian camps: despite changes of regime it is still a penal institution today. Futselaar: ‘You could call that an overarching conclusion: a labour camp rarely closes.’

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Text: Edo Beerda
Banner image: Russian National Library / Российская государственная библиотека’, Wikimedia Commons