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A Police Officer Reports on Workers in a Hamburg Tavern (1898-1909)

The following documents present workers in their own social milieu at the turn of the century. The conversations reported by this Hamburg police officer testify to the tense relations between workers and state authorities, and they reflect the dilemmas of the German workers’ movement. Authorities and industrialists remained hostile to attempts by workers to achieve concessions through organization, while workers saw well-disciplined labor unions as the only way to change working conditions. The polarization of these two political goals was the defining domestic political conflict in Wilhelmine Germany.

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I. October 31, 1898

From 9:45-10:45 a.m. a visit was made to the tavern Schweer, Rostocker Straße 9. About 14 workers were present; they sat at various tables, some playing cards, others talking. The conversation of a few workers concerned, among other things, the right of association [Koalitionsrecht], in that one worker said: “The government could save itself the attack it is willing to launch on the right of association, because under the laws today the courts already have so much leeway that there is really no need for new legal regulations to constrain the workers in the exercise of the rights given to them by the law. Just recently the court issued another decision, brought on by the joiners’ strike on Südstraße, which demonstrates clearly enough that the court doesn’t give a damn about the rights of the workers if it can strike a blow at Social Democracy. These sorts of decisions are not rare, because every strike has cases where workers who acted in good faith – that is, who struggled in accordance with the rights granted to them by the Commercial Code – were punished with long prison terms for doing so.”

Another worker said: “Our laws are full of holes, because the judge has so many ways to sentence any accused person if he thinks it is appropriate. For example, the situation with the pickets during the joiners’ strike was such that it was not possible for the judges to arrest the individuals in question on the basis of the Commercial Code; for that reason the judges got themselves an emergency paragraph from the Traffic Code [Straßenordnung], on the basis of which any person can be sentenced who fails to comply with the orders of police officers, even if he is within his rights ten times over. You can see from this case, for example, that anything is possible in our vaunted Rechtsstaat [state under the rule of law]. What one paragraph of the law permits, the other abolishes; and, in any case, where it is a matter of preventing the workers from their organizational work, everything possible is done to make this work difficult for them.”

A third worker said: “Even though the government has the power to limit the organizational work of the workers through the laws already in existence, even harsher laws are being planned, whereby the worker who participates in a strike and directs careless comments at strike-breakers is supposed to land in jail. In England, even the courts see a strike breaker as a traitor and punish him. But here they want to protect those kinds of people, precisely to give the employer the chance to continue working undisturbed in spite of a strike, so he won’t lose any of his capital.”

Source: Graumann, October 31, 1898. Staatsarchiv der Freien und Hansestadt Hamburg (Call number: S 2502-12).

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