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Hilde Walter, "The Misery of the New Mittelstand" (1929)

Hilde Walter (1895-1976) was a social worker until 1918. After World War I she became a journalist in Berlin. In this article published in Die Weltbühne she describes the social circumstances of salaried employees and civil servants, whose numbers rose steadily in the Weimar Republic. In doing so, she sheds light on the discrepancy between the politically idealized view of these employees as “the new middle class” and their harsh economic reality.

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The Misery of the 'New Mittelstand'

According to the occupational census of 1925, the number of employed persons increased by 28.5 percent since the year 1907. It grew twice as fast as the population, which in the same period increased by only 13.5 percent. The social and economic causes for this shift are known, but it is important to determine which occupations were most intensively involved in the absolute and relative increase in the employed population. For its congress in the fall of last year, the Allgemeine freie Angestelltenbund (AFA) published two books that are of extraordinary significance for these questions: an historical handbook on economic, social, and labor-union policy, Die Angestelltenbewegung [Employees Movement] 1925–1928, and a brochure with a plenitude of interesting data, Die Angestellten in der Wirtschaft [The Employees in the Economy].

Without the complicated specialized counts by the AFA, the occupational census processed by the state statistical office would not have allowed us to determine the social stratification of employed persons with sufficient precision because the state statisticians combine white-collar employees and civil servants. The AFA with official help and consent, undertook to separate out the white-collar employees so the data published in the two books can be regarded the best material currently available on these questions. Obviously the main contingent of employed persons is made up of blue-collar workers. If one includes domestic workers, then according to the census of 1927 workers comprise 49.2 percent of employed persons, that is, approximately half, while white-collar employees (excluding civil servants) represent only 11.2 percent of the employed population. These ratios refer, as indicated, to the employed population as a whole and therefore include entrepreneurs, the self-employed, and the family members who assist the latter. The picture changes sharply if one looks at the distribution solely among the occupations of persons employed by others. In 1925 workers, including those employed at home and those occupied in domestic services, comprised 76 percent, the white-collar workers, excluding those in supervisory positions, 17 percent, and civil servants, excluding those in supervisory positions, 7 percent of the employed population. The social stratification of employed persons was also determined for the census years 1892, 1895, 1907, and 1925, and the number of white-collar employees and civil servants constantly increased at the expense of the self-employed and the assisting family members, as well as blue-collar and domestic workers. Just in the period from 1907 to 1925 the number of white-collar employees (excluding civil servants) more than doubled, while concurrently the number of blue-collar workers increased by only 22 percent. The cause of this increase of white-collar employees is not only the entry of previously non-working elements into the labor force, whose first jobs are frequently white-collar; it is also the structural transformations of the economy itself, of certain forms of rationalization, and of the typical increase in the apparatus of distribution in all regions which has prompted this development. Trade unionists often term this “a very significant social reshuffling of the proletariat,” while bourgeois parties of all shades are especially fond of proclaiming the rise of “the new middle class” [Mittelstand]. Unfortunately the apostles of the new middle class are not able to deliver to the bearers of this enticing title even a fraction of the economic basis that was previously the essential characteristic of the old middle class, which was statistically very considerable and has now largely disappeared.

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