File No. 763.72115/2759

The German Ambassador ( Bernstorff ) to the Secretary of State

J. No. A 131

Mr. Secretary of State: I have the honor to inclose a memorial sent me by my Government on the employment of Belgian laborers in Germany, refuting the false statements of Germany’s enemies. In case your excellency should not express any objections, I intend to publish it here in the near future.

Please accept [etc.]

J. Bernstorff

Employment of Belgian Laborers in Germany


The compulsory employment of Belgian laborers in German works is utilized by our enemies as a welcome occasion in order to stir up [Page 669] the public opinion of neutral and hostile foreign countries against this alleged recent violation of the Belgian people. This propaganda threatens to assume considerable proportions, and it may even be considered likely that the Entente will attempt to induce neutral governments or high neutral personages to make a formal protest. An explanation of the causes and effects of the disapproved measures therefore appears necessary in order to prevent a one-sided judgment of the question.

Those who, far away from the scenes of the war, are able to judge the conditions in the territories occupied in the west only in a superficial manner, will perhaps not understand so easily that the measures taken are not only by no means injurious to the population of these regions from an economic standpoint, but had become to a certain extent a social necessity owing to the peculiar conditions prevailing there. He who wishes to comprehend this must first picture to himself the extent and effects of the nonemployment in Belgium. The chief cause of this is the British naval blockade, which is being ruthlessly enforced even against Belgium. Belgian industry is so greatly dependent on the importation of raw materials and the exportation of manufactured articles that the almost complete stoppage of foreign trade by England necessarily entailed automatically the paralyzation of by far the greater part of Belgian industries. This is especially the case with the important iron and steel industries, textile and clothing industries, and the ceramic and glass industry, which together employed over half a million workmen in time of peace, as well as with the leather, tobacco, paper, and chemical industry. Even fishing has entirely ceased in consequence of the blockade of the North Sea coast. A number of other enterprises had to be suspended because the materials used and their transportation had become so dear that the work was conducted at a loss; this occurred, among others, with the building industry (employing in peace 95,000 laborers) and the wood and furniture industry (80,000 laborers). The important mining industry owes it only to the extensive exportation of coal to Germany that it is able to employ about nine-tenths of its 145,000 laborers, and the stone quarries also employ one-third of their force, which had hitherto consisted of 35,000 hands, in order to fulfil orders which are mostly German.

That, as frequently asserted in Belgium, requisitions of raw materials and machinery by Germany have considerably increased the unemployment is not true for the reason that these requisitions were made primarily in factories which were unable anyway to keep running owing to one of the aforementioned causes.

The result of these occurrences is that, out of 1,200,000 men and women who worked in Belgian industrial enterprises before the war, [Page 670] and who represent about half of all persons in Belgium engaged in earning a living, 505,000 (including 158,000 women) are entirely, and 150,000 (including 46,000 women) partially, unemployed. Altogether there are therefore 655,000 persons, formerly earning their living by labor in industry, who are now dependent upon public assistance, a number which, added to 293,000 wives and 612,000 children of the unemployed, reaches a total of 1,560,000 needy people and represents about one-fifth of the entire population of Belgium.

In so highly a developed industrial nation as Belgium this state of affairs, without precedent in history, had necessarily to entail the gravest economic and social troubles. The sums expended up to the present in order to furnish the bare minimum needed for existence to the unemployed persons and those dependent upon them already amount to over 300,000,000 francs and are likely to amount to no less than 20,000,000 francs a month in future. Even though foreign countries undertook to finance the work of affording this assistance, nevertheless Belgian national economy must eventually bear the burden. The equivalent of these expenditures, which are not made for productive labor, is not only entirely lost to Belgian economic life, but even does it considerable injury. The laborers are so accustomed to idleness by the help afforded them that a Belgian employer at present has difficulty in finding the necessary workmen to keep his enterprise going.

If this fact, in view of the above-cited large number of unemployed, in itself throws a sharp light on the economic troubles created in Belgium by unemployment, then the present condition must be characterized as wholly intolerable from a social standpoint if we picture to ourselves the consequences which the long continuing idleness produces for the laboring population. It is obvious that a trained laborer will lose his ability through long years of idleness, and his value to Belgian industry will therefore be seriously diminished. Even the unskilled laborer, who has been accustomed to a constant exertion of his strength, will be physically impaired by remaining unoccupied for a long time. In a moral way a continuance of present conditions will be absolutely devastating in its effects. The feeling of humiliation experienced by morally sound persons when they have to beg their living from foreign charity is in the long run entirely lost by the laboring classes, and they cease to be proud of being able to support their families by their own efforts. The saying that idleness is the beginning of vice is verified to an enhanced degree in the case of the materially inclined Belgian laborer, and the consequences are drunkenness and moral degeneracy in wide circles of these classes of the population, among whom family life also incurs, many dangers.

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All these circumstances, as well as the gradual impoverishment of the laborers’ families, who are able to satisfy only the most necessary material needs after consuming all their savings, must inevitably involve a weakening of the whole power of the Belgian people.


Baron von Bissing, Governor General of Belgium, early realized the grave significance of this question to the population of the territory under his administration, and he consequently turned his whole attention to it from the beginning of his official activity. As far as the requirements of warfare permitted, he encouraged the revival of commerce and industry and favored every importation and exportation that was at all possible under the British blockade. He also exhorted the Belgian communal administrations to undertake emergency work that would be of utility to the general public, provided this would not cause any overburdening of the communal finances. The constantly increasing assistance to the unemployed has also been the subject of his unceasing solicitude, as he had long since recognized that such assistance would encourage aversion to work and thus enlarge the number of unemployed. He has, therefore, repeatedly instructed the authorities under him to see that the help afforded unemployed did not become an obstacle to their resumption of work, and he has also induced the heads of the assistance committees to act along the same lines.

By all these measures it was possible to limit, but by no means remove, the evil, for the reason that the deeper cause, the British naval blockade, made its effects felt more and more as time went on. The Governor General was accordingly obliged, even last year, to resort to a more powerful means in order to counteract the increasing habit of idleness on the part of the people. At the instance of shrewd Belgians, and with the cooperation of the proper Belgian Ministry, he issued an order in August, 1915, against shirking of labor, which order was supplemented and strengthened in March of this year. These orders contemplate a compulsory removal to the places of work only when the laborer declines without sufficient grounds a job offered him at appropriate wages and within his capacity, and in this connection any ground of refusal based on international law is regarded as sufficient. A workman can accordingly not be forced to participate in warlike enterprises. The orders are directed primarily against certain organized influences which wish to keep the laborers from voluntarily accepting remunerative work only because it was offered by Germans. They are founded on sound legislative considerations, which restrict the liberty of the individual in the interest of the general public.

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The evil conditions which existed even at the time of issuance of these orders having in the course of time become entirely intolerable, the orders are now to be enforced more extensively than hitherto. Before they are applied, a proposition is made to the unemployed workman that he voluntarily enter into an advantageous labor contract, and only in case he stubbornly refuses (usually as a result of incitement) are forcible measures employed. The unemployed who go to Germany are placed on an equal footing there with the German laborers, and they receive higher wages than were ever known in Belgium. Care is taken to send part of these wages to the families remaining behind. The laborers are likewise allowed to carry on correspondence by letter with their families, and they are granted leave to go home at regular intervals. At their request they may even take their families with them to Germany. Provision is also made for religious service in their mother tongue.


The great advantages which accrue to Belgian laborers from the opportunity thus offered them to work, as compared with their previous sorry plight, are so obvious that for a year tens of thousands of them have been voluntarily availing themselves of the offer and have found remunerative labor in Germany. Happy to have escaped the misery caused by many months’ idleness and the humiliation of public assistance, they have been able to restore their physical and moral strength by returning to their normal occupation. By the labor of their hands they can again raise their families up to a higher standard economically and make savings for the future. The temporary transplantation to another home does not frighten them, as Belgian laborers are used to wandering and have, in time of peace, often hired out for work in the southern industrial section of the country or in northern France for several months for the sake of a much less increase in wages than that now offered. The transfer of Belgian laborers to Germany therefore means a considerable improvement in the situation of these laborers and the abolition of conditions which have become intolerable.