The Polish Coal Miners' Union and the German Labor Movement in the Ruhr, 1902-1934

National and Social Solidarity

By John J. Kulczycki. Oxford - New York. Berg. 1997. ISBN 1-85973-153-9. 283 pages, 2 maps. Cloth. ¸ 46.00

Michael Winkler

Most Americans will spontaneously identify the steelworkers of the Gdansk shipyards and their union, Solidarity, as the most consequential, even admired force in recent Polish socio-political life. Traditionally, however, it is the coal miners who have considered themselves and have been looked up to as the pride of their country's working class. Most of their jobs, as those of their fellow colliers in the European Union, have become obsolete and are now a costly economic liability, but their history continues to evoke strong emotions, most consistently of loyal respect and, indeed, fervent identification with an exemplary heritage.

John Kulczycki, a historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, retraces a clearly defined and significant aspect of this past. His task is a balanced assessment of the Polish Trade Union, ZZP (Zjednoczenie Zawodowe Polskie), that was formed in the Ruhr area in 1902 and represented Polish-speaking pitmen, with a changing sense of purpose and varying degrees of success, until its dissolution in 1934. This approach sees 'the ZZP primarily as a trade union' which 'formed an integral part of the labor movement' (4) in the German Reich's most important industrial districts. National solidarity, in other words, though never disowned, was subordinated to the working-class interests of its members - at least until the end of World War I. The establishment of an independent Poland, a nation-state at first with nearly insuperable social problems, transformed the established policies of ZZP as fundamentally as the political orientations of the Polish community in the Ruhr region changed. The situations before and after 1918 were so radically different, in fact, that the life of ZZP is marked by two distinct periods of equal length: a time of remarkable success in the consolidation of Polish union strength through its integration in the Labor Movement, and a time of almost precipitous decline during the years of turmoil and antagonism as Poles withdrew from cooperation with their German counterparts.

It is in this second part (135-247) that the professional labor historian will find the largest amount of new material, most notably documentation obtained from the archives of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Their full extent has been analyzed systematically for the first time. The lay reader may find the first half of this study more fascinating: its heroic phase, as it were, with its struggles and triumphs. But the turmoil caused, for example, by the Kapp Putsch of March 1920 and by the Franco-Belgian occupation in January 1923 also make for suspenseful reading.

This is to point out that Kulczycki tells his story with a good sense of its human conflicts and drama, as well as with the meticulous attention to detail, nuance, and change that is expected of a specialized monograph. My philological eye was especially pleased by the invariably accurate spelling of references in German, both in the notes and in the copious bibliography. He emphasizes convincingly, and at an unpolemical distance from some of his German colleagues, that the Polish-speaking laborers who had been recruited to the Ruhr mines from the rural provinces of eastern Prussia as early as 1871, did not represent a 'nationalist' and 'Catholic-conservative' element that impeded the emancipation of the proletariat. Nor did they act as strike-breakers and wage-cutters, as was claimed by most of the German membership in the two dominant unions: the increasingly socialist Alter Verband of 1889 and its Catholic competitor, the Gewerkverein of 1894. Nor did they prove incapable of disciplined self-administration, even though most of their elected spokesmen had acquired little more than basic literacy. Yet their strength in numbers - nearly 100,000 on the eve of World War I, i.e., together with the Masurian-speaking miners, they made up perhaps as much as a third of the work force (10) - and their persistence and organizational skill made them, especially after the success of the strike of 1905, a powerful presence among the Ruhr unions. It was inevitable, of course, that this rise to relative prominence in the inhospitable, if not openly hostile environment of their 'host country' produced its own internal controversies and divisions, particularly after the disastrous strike of 1912.

Discouraging as such reversals were, they pale in comparison with the problems the Polish miners had to face during the decade preceding the Great Depression. Resented by their German partners for their undivided loyalties to the new Poland and for their willingness to cooperate with the French authorities during the occupation of the Ruhr, prevented by poor working conditions from seeking employment in France or Belgium, strongly dissuaded, if not barred, by the beleaguered government in Warsaw from returning to their homeland en masse, the rank and file of ZZP languished in poverty and underemployment while their union pursued a nationalist course: a fateful decision that meant the abandonment of its true constituency and, predictably, its self-liquidation.

This is, to be sure, an inglorious and perhaps avoidable end to a valiant struggle. Its dispassionate and most resourceful reconstruction nearly a century after its inception may not allow any 'easy generalization about how a trade union organized by and for a national minority will behave.' (251) But Kulczycki has given us a persuasive account of one particular labor organization within its discrete historical context and, by implication rather than with didactic rhetoric, he has also written a cautionary tale for our own time.

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