The Foreign Worker and the German Labor Movement:
Xenophobia and Solidarity in the Coal Fields
of the Ruhr, 1871-1914

By John J. Kulczycki. Oxford, UK-Providence, RI. Berg Publishers. 1994. xiv+297 pages. Hardcover.

Reviewed by Stanislaus A. Blejwas

According to John J. Kulczycki, one of the great failures of political will in modern history occurred during World War I, when European socialist parties disregarded Marx's injunction to the "workers of the world [to] unite." The working classes enthusiastically embraced the wartime policies of their governments as nationalism rendered international proletarian solidarity an illusion. Should the political world have been surprised? Kulczycki's answer, in the case of the German labor movement, is no. An explanation for the readiness with which German labor abandoned Marx's injunction can be found in the earlier relationship between German labor and Polish workers in the Ruhr coal field. Kulczycki persuasively argues that the xenophobia of German workers and the failure of the German labor movement to unite a growing and ethnically diverse work force "goes to the heart of the betrayal of August 1914" when the Social Democrats joined other parties in the Reichstag in voting for war credits.

The book explores the relationship between labor and modern nationalism and raises questions about the role of labor unions in multi-ethnic settings.

The industrialization of the Ruhr attracted non-German miners to the area. Most of the newcomers were Polish-speaking migrants from the eastern parts of Prussia, or the territories annexed by the Germans during the eighteenth-century partitions of Poland. The Poles were German citizens, but they also were a ‘foreign’ element never fully assimilated into the German labor movement. Polish miners formed an integral part of the movement and influenced its history, although their separate presence often escaped scholarship about the German labor movement. This ethnocentrism was, in Kulczycki's view, a result of "our habitual and limiting nationalist view of the world."

In addition to incorporating the history of the Polish miners into German labor history, Kulczycki also offers a fresh scholarly assessment of the split labor market theory, which holds that labor progress was undermined by the migration of rural workers with no industrial labor history. In this case, the Polish miners were the suspects. Some German labor leaders considered the Poles unorganizable, and not a priority for union organizers.

While Polish miners were from rural areas and lacked the artisan traditions and corporate experience of the German miners, they did not play the role of wage-depressors and strike-breakers. Their rural background and ethnic traditions contributed to a distinct group consciousness, but Polish miners were as capable as their German peers of labor solidarity and trade unionism, giving the lie to popular and inaccurate stereotypes. As Kulczycki argues in his analysis of unrest in the coal fields between l889 and l9l4, cultural differences did not have to stand in the way of collective action and working class solidarity.

Kulczycki, a professor of history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of an important study on The School Strikes in Prussian Poland 1901-1907: The Struggle Over Bilingual Education (198l), again demonstrates meticulous mastery of sources, clarity of thought, and the ability to place his subject within the complexities of the history of modern nationalism. The work does not belong to the so-called "new labor history." Rather, it thoughtfully explores the relationship between labor and modern nationalism and raises questions about the role of labor unions in multi-ethnic settings.

Finally, the study also responds to the frequent omission of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century economic migration from the Polish lands from the history of modern Poland. While the history of the Wielka Emigracja [The Great Emigration, l831-l863] has, because of this emigration's political significance and activity, found its way into standard texts, the history of the Great Economic Diaspora remains to be fully incorporated into Polish historical consciousness.

Stanislaus A. Blejwas is a professor of history and coordinator of Polish studies at Central Connecticut State University.


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