Workshop -  Forced and Coerced Labour: Comparing Colonial Spaces and Global Conflicts

Forced and Coerced Labour: Comparing Colonial Spaces and Global Conflicts

Scholars from diverse fields have often pointed to the interconnectedness of European continental experiences in the age of ‘Total War’ (1870-1945) and the practices implemented under colonial rule. Potential parallels range from escalating cultures of violence (planned programmes of ethnic cleansing, new types of industrialized warfare), centralist state exploitation of economic sectors, the blurring of lines between the military and the civil spheres, and the implementation of racist and supremacist ideas in the guise of imperialist agendas. As such, one could argue that the exact relation of total war within the development of 20th century European modernity cannot fully be understood without taking the colonial theatres into account. However, concrete comparative research applying more theoretical assumptions to concrete cases is still lacking. This workshop aims to provide just that, using the concrete angle of forced labour.


The purpose of this workshop is to compare various forms of wartime labour (1918-1940 and 1930-1945) with similar experiences in colonial peripheries, in order to highlight possible circulations, exchanges or transpositions of practices and policies inside or between empires.


War, and certainly the iconic total wars of the 20th century, has always been central to European labour history. The shift from peace to wartime economy brought about a state induced intensification of productivity in all sectors as well as a reorientation of industrial production, a fundamental disruption of class relations and the existing social order (for example the worker-employer relationship), a mobilisation of alternative employment pools to compensate the mass departures of conscripts to the front, etc. In such a period of ‘abnormality’, a massive, disciplined and flexible workforce proved a key element to victory. The dogma of total war often necessitated the use of coercive recruitment and subsequent management methods in order to ensure a constant and high economic productivity.


Meanwhile, the adaptation of African or Asian spaces to the imperatives of colonial validation– industrialisation, the extraction of raw material, the creation of large-scale plantations,… – showed the same developments, namely the necessity to mobilise a large and disciplined native workforce. These practices, which started as early as the second half of the 19th century, might have influenced ideas, policies, and practices of forced employment strategies later used within the European continent during the two world wars. Multiple and sometimes connected techniques of forced labour therefore became part of a global system.


With forced labour as our topic, this workshop wants to stimulate the dialogue between researchers working in different fields and areas, in order to highlight possible exchanges and connections between research agendas dealing with both colonial and wartime labour practices, in order to investigate the interconnectedness between workers’ management and recruitment practices in 19th century imperial expansionist systems in relation to the two world wars.


9 – 9. 30 : Welcoming and registration.

9. 30 - 9.45 : Opening speech, Benoît HENRIET & Pascaline LE POLAIN (Université Saint Louis – Brussels)


10.00-11.45 : Panel 1 : Workforce mobilisation

Chair : Ulbe BOSMA (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam).


10.00 – 10.15 : Kathleen RAHN (Leipzig Universität): Forced labour in the prisons in German South-West Africa (1884-1914). Practices of working recruitment and spaces of production of modern knowledge of punishment.


10.15 – 10. 30 : Camille FAUROUX (EHESS – Paris) : Mobilizing French Women for the War Industry: Gender, Labour, Collaboration, 1939-1945.


10. 30-10.45 : Thomas IRMER (Rummelsburg Memorial, Berlin) : The perspective of German industry on forced labour from German colonialism to the Nazi era - the example of the German electrical company AEG.


10.45-11.00  : Sebastiaan VANDENBOGAERDE (University Ghent) : Forced labour during WWI in Belgium from legal historical point of view.


11.00 -11.45 : Discussion.

11.45-12.00 Break.


12.00-13. 00 – Keynote Lecture : Alessandro STANZIANI (EHESS - Paris): Coerced Labour in Asia and Europe, 17th-20th centuries.


13.00 – 14.00 : Lunch.


14.00-15.15: Panel 2 : Workers Mobility.

Chair: Marcel VANDERLINDEN (International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam).


14.00-14.15 : Arnaud CHARON (AGR – ULB, Brussels) : Belgian forced labourers deported

or not, in WWI.


14.15-14.30 : Ine VAN LINTHOUDT (University Gent) : Flemish Fremdarbeiter in Nazi-Germany. Exploring the tensions between ideology, politics, propaganda and reality in the 'Third Reich'.


14. 30-14.45 : Helen SCHMITT-LOHMAN (Wien Universität) : Indian Indentured Labour in East Africa: The Building of the Uganda Railway 1896 – 1901.


14.45-15.15 Discussion.


15.15-15.30 – Coffee Break.


15. 30-16. 30 – Keynote lecture : Alexander KEESE (Humboldt Universität, Berlin) - Everything's possible, finally ...: revisiting the impact of the Second World War and the "colonial mind" in Equatorial Africa.


16. 30-17.00 : Concluding remarks : Nathalie TOUSIGNANT (Université Saint-Louis - Brussels) et Nico Wouters (CEGESOMA)


17.00-18.00 : Drink.

Programme complet Workshop Coerced Labour
19 March program.pdf
Document Adobe Acrobat 861.2 KB

Inscriptions et informations pratiques

Inscription gratuite mais obligatoire (avant le 9 mars) via l'adresse :



Benoît Henriet :

Pascaline le Polain :


Lieu et date

19 mars 2015


29 Square de l'Aviation

1070 Bruxelles

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Centre de recherches en histoire du droit, des institutions et de la société