Ikea biggest buyer from East German furniture industri
The prisons in the German Democratic Republic, GDR, was an integral part of the production system. Besides West Germany, Ikea was the biggest buyer from the East German furniture industry.
The over 800 documents relating to Ikea in the former East German secret police, Stasi’s archive that Swedish Television’s investigative programme, Uppdrag granskning, has asked for show that Ikea had deliveries from the major former East German furniture companies all over the country.
Ikea products like Billy, Särna, Malung, Kolv and Ektorp were produced. The well-known sofa Klippan was made by Sitzmöbelwerke Waldheim and there both ordinary prisoners and political prisoners were brought to work according to Joachim Kreyss, press spokesperson at the Waldheim prison.
He used to work as a guard in those days.
-The prisoners were brought to the Sitzmöbelwerke by bus. They worked Monday to Friday, says Joachim Kreyss to Uppdrag granskning. And he continues:
- Some of them were definitely convicted for what, today would be seen as political crimes, like Republikflucht (i.e. trying to leave the country without permit).
That Klippan was produced in Waldheim is also confirmed by two former leaders in the the furniture company of the time.
During a fire (arson) in Ikeas main West German store in Wallau in March 1984 newspapers both in West Germany and Sweden reported about threats and criticism against Ikea for the company’s activities behind the Iron Curtain. There the issue of political prisoners working for the company surfaced.
In a document from the Stasi Archive written the day after the fire a person from Ikea’s office in East Berlin talks about the issue of production by prisoners with a representative from GDR’s trading company for furniture, AHB Holz und Papier. There Waldheim is discussed and Ikea gets a promise that the production of Klippan will be moved from Waldheim.
In the same document Ingvar Kamprad, founder and CEO of Ikea at the time, is noted to have stated that he had no knowledge of the matter. But he is also said to be of the opinion that if that were the case (ie prisoners producing furniture or parts) this would, according to Ikea, be in the best interest of the society.
Another document from 1986 describes how Ikea believes that prisoners are still producing Klippan in Waldheim in spite of the promise 1984. Stasi notes that that is also the case. The production was not moved.
Tatjana Sterneberg and Carl-Wolfgang Holzapfel former political prisoners in the GDR represent the organisation Association 17 June 1953 (Vereinigung 17. Juni 1953). They wrote a letter to Ikea’s manager in Germany in September 2011 asking the company to clarify what happened. They also suggest that Ikea admit any wrong-doings possibly by supporting a foundation where former prisoners can apply for financial support for health problems and social difficulties they may be suffering.
In October Ikea Germany answered that they do not and never have accepted political prisoners working for them. They asked for time to investigate the matter. Since then Sterneberg and Holzapfel have not heard from Ikea.
And they are still waiting.
-The companies in those days made considerable profits from the work of political prisoners. To support the former prisoners would be a sign that they (Ikea) are willing to take responsibility for their history, says Tatjana Sterneberg.
Investigations made by the German parliament, The Bundestag, during the 1990s show that at least 200 000 people were imprisoned for political crimes during the existence of GDR. According to a survey commissioned by Hildigund Neubert, Landesbeauftragte (ombudsman for the local Stasiarchive) in Thüringen former East German prisoners have more health problems as well as problems economically and socially compared to Germans in general.
In the book Schamlos ausgebautet (Shamelessly exploited) Hildigund Neubert and her co-author show how intertwined the prisons were with the industry all over the country.
-I noticed that during an amnesty in 1974 when many prisoners were released all big companies immediately complained. How are we supposed to reach our production quotas?, they asked. Work was mandatory for the prisoners. And if you refused that was heavily punished, says Hildigund Neubert to Swedish Television.
The prisoners were not told for which company they worked. And they produced only parts like hinges, handles or board.
Dieter Ott former prisoner in Naumburg who did metal work for furniture says he did not know then, but from what he knows now, he believes he worked for Ikea.
-Then it was very profitable for them, because we did not get full pay, says Dieter Ott.
Former prisoner Wolfgang Welsch, who was imprisoned in Brandenburg knows at least that the furniture they made there was for Sweden since there was documentation in Swedish connected to the deliveries. He describes how a fellow prisoner tried to place minimal pieces of paper with messages about their conditions in the furniture in the hope that the customers would find them.
-We did not know what happened. But we knew if someone did find them they would know about us, Wolfgang Welsch explains.
Ikea bought goods from furniture companies in both Naumburg and Brandenburg according to the Stasi documents.
And an internal Ikea document that Stasi got hold of shows that a representative from the company went to Waldheim to discuss manufacturing of sofas in 1987. The furniture company group of which Sitzmöbelwerke Waldheim was a part, discussed future deals in May 1989. This was in connection with a ceremony in Potsdam where Ikea gave prizes to some of its best East German suppliers at the time.