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The German Worker

The German Worker: Working-Class Autobiographies from the Age of Industrialization

Translated, edited, and with an Introduction by Alfred Kelly
Copyright Date: 1987
Edition: 1
Pages: 350
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt7zw1v7
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  • Book Info
    The German Worker
    Book Description:

    Working-Class Autobiographies from the Age of Industrialization.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-90849-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XI-XII)
  5. A Note about Currencies
    (pp. XIII-XIV)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-50)

    In the two generations before World War I, Germany emerged as Europe’s foremost industrial power. The basic facts of increasing industrial output, lengthening railroad lines, urbanization, and rising exports are well known. Behind those facts, in the historical shadows, stand millions of anonymous men and women: the workers who actually put down the railroad ties, hacked out the coal, sewed the shirt collars, printed the books, or carried the bricks that made Germany a great nation. This book contains translated selections from the autobiographies of nineteen of those now-forgotten millions. The thirteen men and six women who speak from these...

  7. Karl Fischer, Railroad Excavator
    (pp. 51-63)

    Karl Fischer (1841–1906), the son of an impoverished baker, was also trained as a baker, though he was never able to establish himself in his trade. Instead he drifted from one unskilled job to another, beginning as a farm laborer and ending up as a cleaner of locomotive parts in the state railroad shed in Osnabriick. This selection covers his early years in the 1860s, when he worked on a labor gang constructing the Halle-Kassel railroad line. For many years Fischer had been in the habit of keeping a journal. He was apparently moved to assemble his writings into...

  8. Ottilie Baader, Seamstress
    (pp. 64-74)

    Ottilie Baader (1847–1925), the daughter of sugar refinery workers, was a Berlin seamstress who later became prominent in the Social Democratic women’s movement. Her autobiography, published by the socialist Dietz Verlag in 1921, was written to inspire other struggling working women. The majority of her book deals with the women’s movement, rather than her personal life. But in the first two chapters, which appear here, she tells of her early years in the 1860s and 1870s before she had discovered Social Democracy. Baader’s account is very revealing of the ways in which sweatshop owners manipulated female employees. Organizing the...

  9. Franz Bergg, Apprentice Waiter
    (pp. 75-96)

    Franz Bergg (1866–1913), the son of a coachman and a farm laborer, grew up in Königsberg and later lived in many parts of Germany. A cigar maker by trade, he had originally planned to be a waiter. The first part of this selection describes his short-lived waiter’s apprenticeship at a fancy restaurant and casino in Elbing (near Danzig), about 1881. In the second part, Bergg takes the reader through a typical day of a Prussian army recruit in the late 1880s. An ambitious and obviously gifted man, Bergg was frustrated in his attempts to establish himself as a free-lance...

  10. Wenzel Holek, Brickyard Worker
    (pp. 97-120)

    Wenzel Holek (1864–1935), the son of a Czech-German migrant worker, spent his early life working in the brick, sugar, and glass industries of northern Bohemia and Saxony. After a period in the wood industry, he gradually rose to the fringes of the middle class as a librarian and educator of working-class youth, first in Leipzig, then in Berlin. He gradually distanced himself from the socialist zeal that plays such a prominent role in this selection. Holek was stimulated to write his autobiography by the reading of Karl Fischer’s book, which he had acquired through a middle-class teacher who had...

  11. Adelheid Popp, Factory Worker
    (pp. 121-134)

    Adelheid Popp (1869–1939) was the fifteenth child of a family of weavers. Her father was an alcoholic who died young, leaving Popp’s mother struggling to raise the family. Forced to work since childhood, Popp was a maid, a seamstress, and a worker in a variety of factories in Vienna. At sixteen she became a Social Democrat and soon after rose to prominence as founder and editor of theWorking Women’s News (Arbeiterinnen Zeitung)and a leader of the Austrian Social Democratic women's movement. After World War I, she was a representative in the Austrian parliament. Her autobiography, which had...

  12. Doris Viersbeck, Cook and House Maid
    (pp. 135-159)

    Doris Viersbeck (ca. 1869–?) worked in several wealthy Hamburg households. She says little of her background except that she came to Hamburg in 1888 from a village in Holstein. After a few years in service, she quit to get married, and we know nothing of her later life. The publication of Adelheid Popp’s autobiography prompted Viersbeck to send her story to the same publisher. She may also have had encouragement from her brother, a teacher in Hamburg who occasionally wrote articles for newspapers. In the section presented here, Viersbeck describes the agonizing months between May 1889 and February 1890,...

  13. Nikolaus Osterroth, Clay Miner
    (pp. 160-187)

    Nikolaus Osterroth (1875–1933), the son of a butcher, was a clay miner from the Palatinate, who in later life became a successful Social Democratic politician. Already a union and party organizer before World War I, he was elected to the National Assembly of 1919, served as a member of the Prussian Diet, and worked as a government mining consultant. His autobiography, published in 1920 by the Social Democratic Vorwarts Verlag, is an inspirational political statement; unlike most other such works, however, it is highly personal. In the parts excerpted here Osterroth tells of the rigors and dangers of working...

  14. Franz Rehbein, Farm Worker
    (pp. 188-203)

    Franz Rehbein (1867–1909), from rural Pomerania, was the son of a tailor and a washerwoman. He spent his youth and young manhood hiring himself out for various kinds of farm work throughout northern Germany. In 1895, he lost a hand in a threshing machine accident and was forced to give up farm work. He spent his later years eking out a living as a minor socialist journalist and trade union functionary. This autobiography was written at his own initiative as an extension of his journalistic work and somehow found its way into Paul Gohre’s hands. The chapter presented here...

  15. A City Man on a Farm
    (pp. 204-229)

    In his massive study of agricultural labor in eastern Germany, Max Weber wrote of the difficulty of keeping young people on the estates in Mecklenburg (and elsewhere). With so many children off to the city, the estate owners were forced to rely for their hardest work on contract laborers from outside—“down-and-out artisans” or “dubious characters displaced from Berlin.” One such character we meet here. Identified only as “Otto,” he is an unemployed (though surely not “dubious”) Berlin factory worker, who has served twelve days in jail for being “work-shy.” Upon his release, he finds himself in the hands of...

  16. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  17. Moritz Bromme, Woodworker and Metalworker
    (pp. 230-251)

    Moritz Bromme (1873–1926), who worked in the wood and metal industries in Thuringia, wrote his autobiography while recovering from tuberculosis in a sanatorium in 1903. He had come to the attention of Paul Göhre, his editor, through articles in various socialist publications. If ever anyone had Social Democracy in his blood, it was Bromme. His father, a railroad worker, was an avid Social Democrat and had been imprisoned during the Socialist Law era (1878 to 1890), during which much socialist activity was illegal. As is clear in this selection on Bromme’s personal life in the late 1890s, Social Democracy...

  18. A Barmaid
    (pp. 252-268)

    This anonymous author (ca. 1882–?) tried all the usual work open to working-class women: a variety of unskilled factory jobs and domestic service positions. Dissatisfied with the harsh conditions and low pay, she finally settles into the relatively well-paid job of barmaid. We know little of the author’s background, and why she wrote an autobiography is a matter of speculation. She may have met the editor during the period of her life when she traveled in middle-class circles as the mistress of a man she had met in a tavern. In any case, her account affords a unique look...

  19. Otto Krille, Factory Worker
    (pp. 269-286)

    Otto Krille (1878–1954) was the son of a mason killed in an accident before Otto’s birth. In 1895, he was discharged as “unfit” from a military school, where he had studied to become a noncommissioned officer. For the next five years he struggled to make his living as an unskilled factory worker in Dresden. His ambition was to become a free-lance writer. After a stint in the army, he was befriended by a bourgeois patroness, who helped him to establish himself as an editor, poet, playwright, and eventually, a youth leader. In 1933, he emigrated to Switzerland, where he...

  20. Ernst Schuchardt, Workhouse Weaver
    (pp. 287-306)

    Ernst Schuchardt (1866—?), a down-and-out shoemaker, worked at a variety of industrial jobs in and around Saxony. For a time he was employed in the same machine shop as Moritz Bromme, whose autobiography of 1905 may have stimulated Schuchardt to write of his own experiences. In 1903, Schuchardt was picked up by the police for begging and sentenced to six months in the workhouse at Gross-Salze, near Magdeburg. Prussia had twenty-four workhouses with some 10,000 inmates in the early years of the century. As Schuchardt was keenly aware, the workhouse was really a prison, which sought to inculcate the...

  21. Ludwig Turek, Child Tobacco Worker
    (pp. 307-319)

    Ludwig Turek (1898—?), a typesetter as an adult, is the youngest worker represented in this book and, so far as is known, the only one of our authors to become a communist after World War I, A revolutionary his whole life, Turek deserted during World War I, fought in the Revolution of 1918—19, visited the Soviet Union, and struggled underground against the Nazis during the Third Reich. After World War II, he settled in East Berlin, continuing the literary work that he had begun in the 1920s. Like all of his works, his autobiography, published in 1930, is...

  22. Max Lotz, Coal Miner
    (pp. 320-350)

    Max Lotz (1876—?) was one of the workers with whom the sociologist Adolf Levenstein carried on an extensive correspondence (see Introduction). The illegitimate son of a Jewish tenor and a variety show actress turned prostitute, Lotz had a checkered career before he settled down to a steady job. He was repeatedly in trouble for begging, vagrancy, and petty theft, though he had used his time in jail to read the classics. The excerpts here are from a forty-nine-page letter written from Gladbeck in the Ruhr on 2 July 1908. Lotz is obviously responding to Levenstein’s probing questions about his...

  23. Frau Hoffmann, Retired Maid
    (pp. 351-369)

    In 1909, C. Moszeik, an East Prussian village pastor, published the transcript of a seventy-hour interview with one of his parishioners, a sixty-nine-year-old ex-maid named Hoffmann. In Moszeik's judgment, Frau Hoffmann was one of his most intelligent and informed parishioners, and he sought her out in the hope of establishing better rapport with his flock. Prompted by Moszeik’s questions, Frau Hoffmann talks of everything from personal hygiene to the kaiser, marriage, religion, the rich and poor, and death. The selections here cover general habits and family life, but as is evident, Frau Hoffmann construes her pastor’s questions broadly and has...

  24. Eugen May, Turner
    (pp. 370-388)

    Eugen May (1887—?), a native of the Stuttgart area, wrote his short autobiography (the first half of which appears here) in response to a request from the sociologist Eugen Rosenstock. What little we know about May’s background is contained in this selection; we know nothing of his later years. May is no thinker and no stylist, but his wide experience in the world of work (over fifty jobs between 1900 and 1920!) makes his autobiography a rich source of working-class history. In this selection—covering roughly the years 1900—1908—we encounter every kind of boss and every variety...

  25. Aurelia Roth, Glass Grinder
    (pp. 389-398)

    Aurelia Roth (ca. 1874—ca. 1935) grew up in the Iser Mountains of northern Bohemia. Her short autobiographical statement (presented here in full) is part of a collection of testimonials and documents commemorating the twentieth anniversary (1912) of the Austrian Social Democratic women’s movement. The collection is edited by Adelheid Popp. Despite its brevity, Roth’s work stands out for its vivid description of the horrendous working conditions in the Bohemian glass industry, where the workers coped with hardship with a combination of resignation and gallows humor. The reader may note here (as elsewhere in the writings of Social Democrats) a...

  26. Fritz Pauk, Cigar Maker
    (pp. 399-428)

    Fritz Pauk (1888—?) requires little introduction, for his entire autobiography is presented here. Pauk’s motives for writing and his relationship to his editor are obscure; nor is it clear why he ended his story in 1914. In any case Pauk’s extensive travels and work experience provide a wealth of information, not only about an important industry, but also about the sometimes terrible life on the road—the dingy labor exchanges, the men’s shelters, and the hostile police, always on guard against “vagrants.” This short autobiography is no masterpiece, but it gives a vivid panorama of a whole era and...

  27. Suggestions for Further Reading in English
    (pp. 429-432)
  28. Index
    (pp. 433-438)