A new study commissioned by one of the Rheingau’s leading estates has examined the largely overlooked use of slave labour by the German wine industry during the Second World War.
The Hessian state winemaker Kloster Eberbach commissioned historian Sebastian Koch to look into the use of slave labour in the vineyards during the period of Nazi rule from 1933-45.
Koch found that French, Polish and Russian prisoners were used as slave labour across the Rheingau region, joined by Italian soldiers after 1943 when Italy joined the Allied cause.
Although often housed in labour camps and occasionally at wine estates, it appears the conditions the workers were kept in were at least relatively “humane”, compared to those endured by salve labourers in other industries.
Koch told The Times: “I found no records of death from execution, mishandling, poor hygiene or undernourishment”.
Although it is likely slave labour was used in other German wine regions, the scope of Koch’s research centred solely on the Rheingau
As he continued, it is no surprise that slave labour was employed in the German wine industry at the time because nearly every aspect of Nazi Germany’s agricultural and industrial efforts relied heavily on slave labour.
People from nearly every occupied territory alongside Russian prisoners of war and Jews, over 10 million in total, were forced into working in fields and factories by the Nazi state as it increasingly struggled to wage its war against the Western Powers and Soviet Union. By 1944, a quarter of the workforce in Germany itself was composed of forced labourers.
Ironically, this use of slave labour and the cruel and wasteful use of human life and expertise likely conspired to make the Nazi war effort far less effective and productive than it might otherwise have been.
How many slave labourers were employed in German vineyards or the fate of many of them is not well-known but it remains an important, if dark, chapter in the history of German viticulture and one worth examining further.