The workers’ movement was born out of the working and living conditions caused by rapid industrialisation in Germany. In how far do you agree with the above statement?
This essay will argue that the causes of the workers’ movement were none others than the working and living conditions engendered by the swiftness with which the industrialization took over Germany. Mass poverty generated by extremely low wages, working days of more than 12 hours a day coupled with the horrible conditions from halls and accommodations were the sparks that ignited the workers’s movement.
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The impact that the British technical and technological innovations had on Europe during the industrial revolution, with Germany making no exception, was growing. The industrial products that were brought from the United Kingdom benefitted the industry from the western and central parts of Europe at the beginning. These countries copied the process of industrial production from Britain in a relatively short period of time.
Germany benefitted from the fact that the fundamental inventions were already at its disposal to use and, therefore, the industrial evolution happened at a faster pace there than it had happened in Great Britain. The frequency with which these technical innovations were being used increased in the 1830s. Machines and systems were needed to set the industrial revolution in motion and these were either provided to Germany through imports or built after the English model:
In order for the industries that produced steel and iron to develop, railways were built. In this way, locomotives, coal and steel were being increasingly sought after. Regarding transportation, railways came top on the list of preferences; Factories and industrial locations had to be built especially in places abundant in coal and ore deposits. Examples of such areas were Oberschlesien, Ruhrgebiet and Saarland.
The population concentrated in areas with a high degree of industrialization, giving birth to urban sprawls (Die industrielle Revolution). Now, people started to abandon the countryside, relocating to highly industrialised areas where there were many industrial jobs to choose from. Jobs from which people had been earning their living for centuries, no longer had demand on the market. A suitable example in this case would be the handcraft industry: some of its sectors disappeared. Freedom of trade and the fact that guilds could no longer be formed were the causes which lead to the presence of more journeymen than the market needed. Therefore, employment opportunities were so scarce that people had no other option than to migrate to the cities. A social change occurred: the agricultural society did not exist any more; it became an industrial society.
It goes without saying that the rapid industrialization in Germany created social problems. For example, it affected the housing sector, creating housing shortage. The urban housing sector could not cope with the huge number of workers that had recently chosen to move to cities and due to the lack of accommodations, all the members of a family were compelled to huddle together in a single room (Arbeiterbewegung und Soziale Frage Zusammenfassung) or 2 rooms, at the best. Moreover, they were humid, narrow, unfurnished and unheated. People struggled to pay large sums of money for rent and the food prices were also disproportionate to the small amounts of money people received as pay. They could rarely afford to buy other kinds of food besides potatoes and bread. The money spent on rent and food accounted for more than half of what they earned.
Not only the living conditions, but also the working conditions were beneath human dignity. The workers had to follow the strict process of production given by the machines and their working days span was between 12 and 13 hours which they spent doing the same activities. A military discipline was imposed on the workers and the halls in which they work were noisy, dim, crammed with people and filled with dust. (Becker, Bornkessel and Pietzsch, 2014, p. 8, 9, 13). A journalist of Austrian origin, Max Winter, spoke of the working conditions in a flax spinning mill:
‘Als wir, aus der frischen Luft kommend, in den Saal traten, verschlug es mir den Athem und Hustenreiz stellte sich ein, so dick ist die Luft in diesem Saale mit den unendlich feinen Stäubchen erfüllt. Wenn man eintritt, ist es, als ob der Saal von dichtem Nebel erfüllt wäre. …Schon im ersten Saale erscheint alles Grau in Grau. Der Fußboden, die wagrechten Maschinenflächen und die Menschen haben eine Farbe. Alles ist mit einer dicken Staubkruste überdeckt. …’ (Arbeitsbedingungen im Zeitalter der Industrialisierung)
The legislation did not comprise any laws that regulated the working conditions of the employees and consequently, accidents happened frequently. The dismissal protection was also non-existent.
Families could not subsist on one salary only, so children and women had to engage in paid activities, as well. Even if women and children did the same work as men, they received only a fraction of a man’s salary (Becker, Bornkessel and Pietzsch, 2014, p. 8, 9). The activities the children were being forced to carry out left physical marks on them: bad eyesight, fatigue and crooked backs. (Gotsch, 2017)
The term used for the aforementioned social problems that were caused by the industrialization in Germany is ‘the social question’ (Becker, Bornkessel and Pietzsch, 2014, p. 8, 9).
The Parliament had not debated ‘the social problem’ until 1837. Franz Joseph Buß’s claims in this debate (a professor and politician of Baden origin) were as follows: he did not want children to work as much as they did and adults not more than 14 hours. He made other suggestions, as well. He thought that it would be beneficial for the factories if the state had passed laws that would have prevented the owners from imposing unjust working conditions. A ministry of labour and economics would ensure that the factories abided by the given regulations. He was also the first one to introduce the concept of health insurance and accident insurance. If the worker was ill or suffered an accident, he could access a disability fund. His proposals were not successful (Becker, Bornkessel and Pietzsch, 2014, p. 10). In his writings, the social democrat August Bebel stated that Buß would remain in history as the first parliamentarian to step in for the improvement of the tough working conditions by proposing the implementation of better regulations (Franz Josef Ritter von Buß).
In the 1830s, intellectuals, a number of entrepreneurs and citizens who had been employed to solve social issues began their campaigns to help change the workers’ lives. Politicians, workers, intellectuals and the clergy joined forces by taking part in aid and self-help organizations. These organizations stood in the way of the state’s interests and, therefore, obstacles were willingly put in their work by the state.
The 1840s were plagued by mass poverty. Wages reached their lowest point in 1847. In March 1848, the will of the working class was clear: a ministry of labour that would enable the employees to express their grievances in front of the employers and come to a mutual understanding. Unfortunately, none of the Revolution of 1848 demands came to fruition, but they were the precursors of the social movements that were yet to come.
The ‘princely rule’ had to be eliminated and the only way in which this could have been accomplished was through a social revolution. This was the goal of the ‘Bund der Geächteten’ (later: ‘Bund der Gerechten’) (Becker, Bornkessel and Pietzsch, 2014, p. 13). The association identified itself with the socialist views and tried to make them popular by promoting the ‘Communist Manifesto’. Its creators were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In their opinion, class differences were the causes that had been driving people to wage wars against one another. Capitalism in modern times meant that workers were being exploited and oppressed and that the bourgeoisie were the decision maker regarding the means of production (Hans Böckler Stiftung in Verbindung mit dem Archiv der sozialen Demokratie der Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, no date). Only through a social revolution could the class differences be eliminated. The result would be a society that is not hierarchical anymore because it would lack social classes and would be free from any domination.
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The foundation date of the Communist Party was April 5, 1848 and its creators were Marx and Engels. They wanted the state to establish national workshops, so that the unemployed would find work again and the channels, transport routes, banks, steam engines and railways to come into the state’s possession. Their demands did not succeed in shaping the social revolution in any way.
Even if little was accomplished after the Revolution of 1848 in terms of demands implementation, they served as triggers for the unionistic organisations. The eagerness amongst workers to present a united front against the oppression they were being subjected to grew more and more by the day.
The first trade union that operated at the national level was the ‘Allgemeine deutsche Arbeiterverbrüderung’. It stemmed from a workers’ assembly whose summoner was the socialist politician Stephan Born. Its foundation date was the autumn of 1848.
1860 was the year when many workers’ associations came to life. Their number was roughly 100. Their demands were primarily socialistic in nature. The Parliament of the German Confederation lacked at that time representatives for the workers and the universal and secret right to vote was also missing. That is why Ferdinand Lassale militated for their implementation within the ‘Allgemeinen Deutschen Arbeiterverein’ (ADAV) which he had previously founded in May 1863. The reason why the Chancellor Otto Fürst von Bismarck agreed to grant him the right to vote was only because he targeted the division of the Liberal Party (Becker, Bornkessel and Pietzsch, 2014, p. 14). Otto von Bismarck held office as Prime Minister of Prussia for 28 years, between 1862 and 1890. He was trusted with Germany’s unification supervision. Bismarck was nicknamed the ‘Iron Chancellor’ because when he was delivering his speeches, he liked inserting the expression ‘blood and iron’ (Cum a devenit Otto von Bismarck ‘cancelarul de fier’ al Germaniei, 2018).
The end of September 1868 saw the birth of the ‘Allgemeinen Deutschen Arbeiterschaftsverband’. It comprised 12 workmen who joined forces after the politician Johann Baptist von Schweitzer had suggested their union within a workers’ association. He was the new president of the ADAV now that Lassale had passed away. The socialists Wilhelm Liebknecht und August Bebel’s claims inside the ‘Sozial demokratische Arbeiterpartei’ (SDAP) focused mainly on the democratization and parliamentary majorities. They were the party’s founders (1869). 1875 was the year when Arbeiterverein and Arbeiterpartei decided to operate under one name: ‘Sozialistischen Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands (SAP)’. (Becker, Bornkessel and Pietzsch, 2014, p. 14)
The goal of the social-liberal politicians Max Hirsch und Franz Duncker was to reform the relationship between employers and employees, so that the employers would be compelled to take into consideration the workers’ wishes and come to an agreement. The type of workers targeted by them were the factory and manual workers. The ‘Hirsch-Duncker’schen Gewerkverein’ was born in Berlin in the same year as SDAP.
The spreading workers’ movement was seen as a threat by the state at that time. Therefore, the Chancellor Otto von Bismarck saw the need for a law that would keep the efforts of the social democratization from changing the status-quo of the society. The Anti-Socialist Laws came into effect in 1878 after the birth of the German Reich, being repelled 12 years later.
Halberstadt hosted the first congress for trade unions. The person responsible for its opening was Carl Legien who later became the chairman of the first trade union governing body. The Congress liked the idea of professional umbrella organizations. They would later be called ‘Free Trade Unions’. The Congress took place in March 1892.
The outbreak of the First World War gave trade unions the opportunity to receive their well-deserved recognition. But the state’s recognition was not disinterested. After all, the war economy did not sustain itself-the state could not prop it up on its own. Trade unions contributed to it, as well. (Becker, Bornkessel and Pietzsch, 2014, p. 15)
The workers did not fight for their rights only through associations. They drew attention through riots too. Back in 1844, an uprising of weavers took place in Silesia. The industrialization was taking its toll on the cloth production: mechanical looms were replacing workers and their salaries decreased constantly. The only way they could make their voice heard was through riot. (Weberaufstand 1844|Ursachen und Verlauf, no date). The uprising was such an important symbol of the workers’ determination to change their catastrophic situation that it was immortalized in poetry, an example would be Heinrich Heine’s ‘Die schlesisen Weber’ (1844: Der Weberaufstand in Schlesien,no date).
In conclusion, the workers’ movement is proof of the fact that by standing united against the exploitative higher social class, the social accomplishments can be immeasurable.
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- Weberaufstand 1844|Ursachen und Verlauf, (no date), Available at: https://segu-geschichte.de/weberaufstand/, (Accessed: 7 January 2019)Gotsch, L., (2017), Die gestohlene Kindheit der “Fakriklerkinder”, Available at: https://www.swissinfo.ch/ger/wirtschaft/kinderarbeit-in-der-schweiz_die-gestohlene-kindheit-der–fabriklerkinder-/43385992, (Accessed: 7 January 2019)
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