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New Findings on the Black Powder Plant in Liebenau

Researcher Martin Guse has analysed documents on the former black powder plant in Liebenau at the International Tracing Service (ITS). By order of the superior army commanders, the Liebenau plant produced, as of 1941, far more than 40,000 tons of black powder and rocket propellants. Over 2,000 out of the more than 11,000 forced labourers and Soviet prisoners-of-war assigned to do the work died from malnutrition and maltreatment. “I have managed to find a lot of material”, said Guse. “The archives definitely include documents of interest to me.”

On an area of twelve square kilometres, the Liebenau works encompassed close to 400 buildings and various camps to accommodate the forced labourers. When the compensation programs for forced labourers from the East of Europe were opened in the late 1990s, interest in the place had been revived. “Many survivors have asked us whether there are any remnants of the original site to be seen”, relates the 50-year-old. “And indeed the site has been almost completely preserved, as production for instance for NATO was discontinued in 1994 only.

Springing from a civic commitment, Guse’s activities increased leading him to start an association and, ultimately, an exhibition. “The community has instantly given us the green light for our plan and idea of a joint re-assessment of history. And what is more, the federal state of Lower Saxony agreed to pay part of the costs“, said Guse. The association in charge of the documentation site Liebenau is drafting the manuscript for a hefty publication on the history of the black powder plant. The renovation work aimed to transform a historical building to an extended documentation and remembrance site is running parallel to the authoring work.

Another task the association has taken on is reconstructing the names of the Soviet prisoners-of-war and forced labourers buried on the plant-own cemetery. “The corpses of about 250 individuals are said to have been interred here in a mass grave. We wish to give them back their names”, explained the researcher. “Not least the families will appreciate knowing of a burial place instead of reading the bare note ‘missing’ only.” That is why those reports in the ITS archives are of particular interest as were compiled by the rural district councils on the forced labourers living and working in their region by order of the Allies after World War II had ended.

“Biographical aspects may be deepened with the help of the ITS“, said Guse. “Like in a mosaic, the pieces are put together. We will now be able to give much more information on individual forced labourers than we could before.” In return, the researcher offers material from his documentation site to the ITS. “Judging by the ITS archives, we have 6,500 names of forced labourers. We know of about 11,000.” Guse had had an important breakthrough in his archival research activities when he visited the Ukraine and was allowed to look into the records of the so-called “filtration camps” of the Soviet secret service. In these camps, staff of the secret service had questioned the former forced labourers about their recent past to find out whether they had worked voluntarily for the enemy. “Here, we came across original work passes from the powder plant."

One important integral part of the documentation site’s policy is to include adolescents in the re-assessment of local history. Young people take part in talks with contemporary witnesses and in exchange trips for pupils and students with countries which had been the native lands of the forced labourers. And they have written their own brochure and launched a website. “As I grew up in an environment tabooing the subject, it is my heartfelt wish to involve young people in our projects aimed to further peace and understanding”, emphasized Guse whose main occupation line is educational welfare work.