East Germany sold blood of prisoners, says report

The former East German communist regime forced prisoners to donate blood for sale to the west and make goods for many companies across the Cold War frontier, media reported on Tuesday.

Among customers in the west were not just furniture maker Ikea, as previously reported, but also discount supermarket chain Aldi, auto giant Volkswagen and other firms, said a TV report.

The new revelations from the 1970s and 80s were to be screened by public broadcaster ARD later Tuesday, based on a historian’s review offiles of East Germany’s Stasi secret police and interviews.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR), desperate for hard currency, sold the prisoners’ blood through a Swiss middleman to the Red Cross branch of the southern German state of Bavaria, said the report.

Former GDR health official Rudolf Uhlig told the programme that prison visits were “well worth the effort … because every time we had 60-70 blood donors, and that was a pretty good success”.

The Bavarian Red Cross confirmed to the ” Report Mainz” programme that it bought GDR blood in the 1980s, voicing “deep regret”, but said it was unclear whether it was then aware the blood came from prisoners.

Stasi files indicated that the inmates were given no choice, citing an informant’s report that nurses once refused to cooperate as they realized “the poor prisoners … were surely all compelled”.

Historian Tobias Wunschik told the programme that “it was part of the logic of the system … that you not only exploited prisoners’ labour but … also physically took their blood and sold it in the west”.

Wunschik, who led the state-commissioned study, also said hundreds of western firms, more than previously known, bought goods from the GDR, a German-speaking, geographically close “low-wage country”.

“In many cases this included goods made by prison labour,” Wunschik was quoted as saying, estimating the annual trade in jailhouse products was worth at least 200 million deutschmarks (100 million euros today).

Supermarket chain Aldi told the programme that at the time it sourced women’s stockings from an East German company, but said it did not know the manufacturer employed female prison labour.

Volkswagen bought auto parts partially made under similar conditions but the auto giant also told the programme it did not know at the time prison labour was involved.

The commissioner for Stasi Records, Roland Jahn, demanded German companies now open their archives to help clear up past wrongs, saying: “Those who did business with the dictatorship could never be certain under which conditions the products were made.”