Bloody Shoes : Shoe test tracks, Sachsenhausen

(Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Image via Berlin Experiences )

Sachsenhausen was a Nazi concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany and used from 1936 to 1945. Those held at Sachsenhausen were considered enemies of the Third Reich, treated harshly, fed sparingly, and killed openly. At least 30,000 inmates died in Sachsenhausen from causes such as exhaustion, disease, malnutrition and pneumonia, as a result of the poor living conditions. The labour camp had a large task force of prisoners sent to work in the nearby factories.

(Schuhfabrik (shoe repair warehouse). Image via USHMM/Kulisiewicz Collection )

Exploitation and inhumane treatment of thousands of forced laborers included being parted from with their shoes and given hard to wear wooden shoes or no shoes at all.

(Prisoner’s clog Image via springer.com )

The confiscated footwear was sent to the nearby Salamander shoe repair shop There other detainees sorted through thousands of shoes, some were sent for repair before being redistributed to people who had been bombed out, or those resettled in the occupied territories. The remaining footwear was sold to assorted German industrial and agricultural enterprises.

( Shoe testing track Image via travelblog.com )

High demand for civilian clothing combined with war shortages and lack of natural materials like leather, gave high incentive to develop new polymers. Whilst priority was given to the armed services, manufacturers were determined to convince civilian consumers shoes with synthetic soles or shoes made altogether of synthetic material were bona fide. The German shoe industry connived to establish a shoe-testing facility at Sachsenhausen concentration camp in 1940. The Special Committee on Wehrmacht Footwear for the tests was established and the incarcerated population were inhumanely used to test new shoes on the “shoe test tracks.” These were built by a research institute with nine types of surface, including asphalt, cement, cinders, broken stones, gravel and sand. There is evidence companies paid a “user fee” of RM 6 (Reichsmark) per day per prisoner to the Reichsamt für Wirtschaftsausbau (Reich Office for Economic Expansion) for the tests on the “shoe test track”. At first Nazi SS guards forced an undocumented number of prisoners ie Schuhläuferkommando (the shoe-testers commando) to wear new shoes and march about 40 kilometres. In 1944, the SS devised a special torture and made prisoners walk in shoes one or two sizes too small while carrying sacks filled with 20 kilograms of sand. Prisoners had to walk, march, or perform sporting exercises for hours on end, day after day, night after night in summer and winter. To keep awake some were given stimulants to keep walking even with giant blisters on their feet. Merciless guards beat the inmates and forced them to sing songs as they stood in line waiting to join the track. When weakened with exhaustion anyone daring to fall risked being shot by the SS guards and many thousands died whilst others were left crippled for life.

(Salamander Shoes Image via printarcade.co.uk)

According to documents from the state authorities in the Federal Archives in Berlin among the better known shoe manufacturers involved were Salamander Shoes , the leading shoe manufacturer during the Reich. Richard Freudenberg
claimed his company’s extensive research findings were attained by employees testing shoes at its headquarters in Weinheim. The managers at Salamander managers stoicly denied involvement to the allied forces, claiming only the Wehrmacht commissioned the tests. Records reveal, Salamander was among the first companies to send shoe models to the concentration camp for testing in 1940. After the War, few within the industry admitted to being directly involved, despite findings on shoe design from the inhumane experiments significanlty changing production and a move away from stitiching to using synthetic glues. Despite the denials many other experimental findings found their way into the ealry standard industrial handbooks of the early 50s. Those directly involved were never identified and thought to have made good careers within the industry or its trade bodies. Only one person was ever convicted in connection with the shoe tests and he spent a few years of forced labor in the Soviet Union.

( Memorial plaque “Forced labor at Salamander”, in Berlin-Kreuzberg Image via Wikipedia )

Surviving heirs of Freudenberg , shocked by the role played by Richard Freudenberg whose Weinheim-based shoe company tested footwear at the concentration camp, called for financial assistance from shareholders, to develop a fund to help prison camp survivors as well as erect memorials at Sachsenhausen and Ravensbrück .

(Factory Roll Call 1942 Image via Continental Magazine )

Many other German companies in addition to Freudenberg, were involved and had their products tested in the Nazi shoe experiments. From makers of the shoe-lasts to companies responsible for developing synthetics and shoe soles all used slave labour to improve footwear for the Wehrmacht during the war. Only now are surviving German companies previously under the influence of the Nazi beginning to come to terms with historic atrocities and make recompense from profiting from during WWII. Through the process of Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung the country is trying to learn from its recent past by admitting these unsavoury events did exist, and attempt to remedy same as far as possible, the wrongs committed in a positive attempt to move froward. A foundation was set up in 2000, to pay compensation to former Nazi forced laborers or their families, in which the German government and industry contributed in equal measure to a more than five billion euro fund. https://www.youtube.com/embed/1GcrDF0tOmY
(Video Courtesy: Continental by Youtube Channel )

Bibliography

Frankle E 2020 Germany’s Continental says it used slave labor to supply Nazis, test shoe soles The Times of Israel

Guenther I Nazi chic? 2004 Fashioning women in the Third Reich Berg Oxford

Jones E C Empty shoes 2001 In Benstock S I and Ferriss S Footnotes on shoes Rutgers University Press NY

Nahshon E 2008 Jews and shoes Berg Oxford

Reid C 2020 German Automotive Giant Continental Admits To Nazi Past Including Concentration Camp Deaths Forbes


References

Blau J 2014 Bloody Shoes Uneasy History

Continental was “the backbone of the Nazi war economy” Web 24 News 2020

Friedländer V 1983 Man kann nicht eine halbe Jüdin sein Verlag Roter Morgen.

Sudrow A 2010 Der Schuh im Nationalsozialismus: Eine Produktgeschichte im deutsch-britisch-amerikanischen Vergleich Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag

Supplier for Hitler’s War Continental During the Nazi Era Continental Magazine



Interesting Sites

Salamander
The Nazi Forced Labor Documentation Center in Berlin-Schöneweide

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toeslayer

Flâneur and pedal savant dedicated to inform and entertain those fascinated by feet and shoes. Read this blog and you will never trust yourself alone with a pair of shoes again.