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A Cultural History of Work in the Age of Empire
A Cultural History of Work in the Age of Empire

Victoria E. Thompson

Victoria E. Thompson is Associate Professor of History at Arizona State University, USA. She is the author of The Virtuous Marketplace: Women and Men, Money and Politics in Paris, 1830-1870 (2000), Women in Nineteenth-Century Europe (2004), along with Rachel Fuchs, and Inventing Public Space: Paris, 1748-1790 (forthcoming). Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2019

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Work and Mobility

DOI: 10.5040/9781350078321.ch-007
Page Range: 99–114

When Karl Fischer (1841–1906) took up construction work for the Halle-Kassel railroad in the 1860s, he noted that “a lot of outsiders showed up: East and West Prussians, Poles and Silesians, Pomeranians and Mecklenburgers, Brandenburgers and Saxons, Hessians and Hanoverians, also a few Austrians, South Germans and men from the Eifel.”[1] Fischer’s life story encapsulates working-class mobility during the industrial age in Europe. Born in a small village in Silesia, his itinerant work life began in his teens when he was employed at an industrial lubricant factory two hours away, before returning home for an apprenticeship with his father, a baker. Showing no propensity for the craft, he left home again and beginning in 1859, travelled throughout Germany doing excavation and construction work on railways, roads, tunnels, and river-dredging projects. Not only was Fischer willing to move from work site to work site and change occupations based on opportunity, he also helped build the transportation systems that would facilitate mobility for new generations of workers and further industrial development. After ten years, he arrived in the eastern part of the Ruhr region, just then on the cusp of industrial take-off. He was first employed as a construction worker for a new steel factory in Osnabrück and later became an industrial worker at the plant. Troubled by health issues, he retired in 1885 and returned to his home region to live with relatives. Fischer’s story provides a first window into the circumstances that characterized the mobile character of the European workforce during the nineteenth century: the rejection of a traditional apprenticeship in favor of industrial work, a willingness to change occupations, serial mobility, a move from the countryside to the new centers of industry, and eventually return migration. However, as much as rural–urban migration during the epoch of industrialization dominates the narrative of nineteenth-century mobility, this trajectory is only one strand in an increasingly complex picture of migration and mobility that scholars have painted for the period 1800–1920. This chapter explores the evolution of migration patterns and strategies and the economic and political conditions that informed them. Agricultural crises and industrial change were disruptive forces that compelled workers to move early on in the nineteenth century, and improved transportation networks and expanding global markets provided further impetus to large-scale migration. After mid-century the nation-state began to direct and interfere in its citizens’ migration decisions, until, under the impact of the Great War, transnational migration came completely under its purview. Migration decisions were always embedded in a multitude of push-and-pull factors, but as workers sought economic opportunity and improvement, their choices became increasingly controlled and curtailed by state power.

Mobility was not a new phenomenon in the nineteenth century. Since the Middle Ages, rural dwellers in western and southern Europe had taken up seasonal farm work away from home to supplement earnings and to compensate for poor harvests.[2] Rural-to-rural migration was practiced widely and continued throughout the nineteenth century. It was usually circular and regional, but transnational patterns were not uncommon; one example is Italian women who went to France and Switzerland to work in the embroidery industry.[3] In preindustrial Europe, life-cycle service was common: farm girls moved to nearby towns to take up work as domestic servants and to accumulate savings before returning to their home village to marry, male youths lived as servants in another household before returning to the family farm, and journeymen travelled for extended periods of time and significant distances to hone their craft before settling down.[4] These patterns survived into the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Friedrich Ebert, the socialist leader and first president of the Weimar Republic, was trained as a saddle-maker, and after his apprenticeship travelled for several years as a journeyman throughout the German Empire in the late 1880s. Rather than ushering in an altogether new age of mobility, the nineteenth century has to be considered as an era during which demographic shifts, industrial development, urbanization, and the development of new modes of transportation made possible an ever widening network of migration options in terms of distance, scale, and variety, without entirely superseding migration patterns of earlier times.

Steve Hochstadt’s analysis of German migration has challenged the long-standing notion that mobility was primarily unidirectional from rural to urban areas, mostly permanent, and entirely a product of industrialization.[5] Rather, overlapping developments and variations occurred based on local or regional economic, social, political, and legal conditions that influenced a peasant or worker’s decision to go somewhere else. During the nineteenth century people moved between rural communities, from villages to nearby cities, between regions, and across long distances within Europe, or left Europe altogether through overseas migration. Some decisions were made individually, others as families or even as communities, and mobility often continued over generations through chain migration or the development of regional migration traditions. In family decisions, women often had a significant say. Some moves were permanent, others circular or sequential, or a combination of all three. Ultimately, each move hinged on personal predisposition. Potential migrants’ decisions depended on how eager or hesitant they were to move and how they evaluated their chances.[6] Individuals and families made the decision to pack up and leave against a backdrop of complex circumstances, but always with the hope and expectation that mobility would open up better prospects for themselves or benefit their families if they moved. Each move represented both opportunity and risk.

Disruption and migration

An investigation into nineteenth-century mobility has to begin in the countryside. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, most people in Europe lived in rural areas. Their livelihoods were disrupted through several interrelated developments. Demographic changes had a direct impact on mobility. Up until the beginning of the Great War the European population grew at an unprecedented pace, about 43 percent before mid-century and another 50 percent after. This increase from about 187 million in 1800 to 468 million in 1913 is best understood as the result of an improved food supply, increased fertility, and falling death rates.[7] This enormous demographic pressure forced many rural dwellers into nearby towns and cities. Also important, changes in landownership, foremost the consolidation of farms brought about by enclosure, and with it a transition towards capitalist farming, generated a growing number of landless laborers who left the countryside and moved to urban areas, especially when yearlong labor contracts were increasingly substituted by seasonal ones. At the same time, demand for farm servants decreased.[8] Rural industries also experienced a decline; handloom weavers could no longer compete with urban producers and had to leave their villages to find work elsewhere. After the collapse of the local linen industry in the 1840s, scores of Flemish textile workers sought out employment in France.[9] Seasonal migrations of large groups of male workers from the same village or region were common and created hybrid work identities, for example worker-peasants who went to nearby towns for seasonal construction work, or the miner-peasants in the Saar region who commuted weekly between village and mine in the 1870s. Their mobility created an extra burden for the women, children, and elderly who were left in the village.[10] In other places, as Gay Gullickson has demonstrated for the village of Auffay in Normandy, France, women’s ability to move into hitherto male-dominated occupations of weaving, agricultural work, and dressmaking delayed large-scale emigration from the area until the 1870s.[11]

Crop failures and subsequent famines often triggered migration to urban areas, as in England in 1816 when grains were ruined by bad weather. Silkworm and mulberry diseases in the 1850s and recurring Phylloxera aphid infestations in the 1870 and 1880s devastated the French silk industry and vineyards and forced small farmers to sell their land and move away.[12] The most catastrophic crop failure during the nineteenth century was the Irish famine. After several years of harvest failures caused by the potato blight, the destruction of the primary foodstuff of the Irish rural population had devastating effects; about one million died. Here the connection between the threat of starvation and mobility seems most clearly visible. Between 1841 and 1861 three million people left Ireland, a net decrease of 30 percent. About two million Irish emigrated to the United States, and about half a million to Britain.

Irish rural inhabitants had not been entirely sedentary until the potato blight struck; many had already been migrating regularly to England, Scotland, and Wales for seasonal farm work or to textile centers such as Dundee, Aberdeen, and Manchester to find employment as weavers. No legal restrictions hindered their moves. The famine also temporarily overshadowed deeper structural problems such as the decline of the rural textile industry and a general deindustrialization of the Irish countryside caused by competition from the advanced English textile industry.[13] Responses to the Irish famine highlight the importance of the cost of transportation and the impact of governmental neglect. Passage to the United States was only within reach for relatively better-off peasants. According to Cormac Ó Gráda, the failure of the British government to subsidize and regulate emigration severely curtailed the number of emigrants; only a small share of less than 10 percent had their passage paid by government, landlord, or charity. Other distinctive features of post-famine migration were the preponderance of families among the emigrants and the high mortality rate on the so-called coffin ships. Many passengers who boarded were already sick; overcrowding and a lack of adequate food and medical care only heightened the death toll.[14] Finally, it has to be noted that migration not only was a lifesaver for those who left and survived the passage to the United States, but also had an ameliorating effect on those who stayed behind; their mortality rates declined as the competition for meager resources lessened.[15] Although the Irish population never recovered the losses from the massive exodus of its people at mid-century, migration scholars caution against assuming that periods of rural hunger automatically led to permanent emigration. In some rural areas of southern Sweden during the first half of the nineteenth century the local population did not move away in large numbers during times of high grain prices because of a lack of options: there were no urbanized or industrialized areas nearby that might have offered relief, and long-term migration was prohibitively expensive.[16]

Migration moves could be complex and unfold over multiple generations. “Although, ultimately, the balance of population shifted from country-side to town, this was achieved by a complex process of interdependent moves, with industrial villages playing a key role in the transition from a pre-industrial to an industrial and urban economy.”[17] In European regions where industrialization took off later, temporary or circular migration persisted longer. In Spain, the pull factor of the industrialized city was much weaker throughout the entire nineteenth century. Rural laborers—because they were unable to find year-round employment in one place—seasonally migrated to other rural regions to participate in grape and olive harvests, to large estates needing temporary laborers, or left for urban areas to work in “textiles, construction, quarrying, mining, metal working, carpentry, and woodworking.”[18] It was not until the 1920s that permanent migration superseded circular migration traditions. Similarly, temporary migration remained a dominant feature in Portugal and Greece throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The diversity of rural mobility across Europe demonstrates that by the time population growth and industrialization pulled rural people into urban areas, mobile workers could draw on a wealth of experiences and traditions of migration.

Women’s patterns of migration

For single women, mobility patterns had their origins in traditional life-cycle migrations. Already before industrialization and urbanization, young rural women had sought out domestic service in nearby villages and towns. In 1851, 75 percent of servants in Colchester, England, came from villages that were no more than ten miles away, making it possible to walk home on their days off.[19] The decline of rural manufacturing prompted women to seek employment in nearby urban areas. As Louise Tilly and Joan Scott have shown in their seminal study about young women from rural England and France, temporary moves to the city became permanent over time; women’s ties to their families and rural area loosened, and they began to regard their wages as a way to support themselves rather than as income to be sent back to their family.[20] Once they had established themselves in the city women exercised their independence by changing occupations and seeking out opportunities in the garment trades or in the textile industries. Many Irish women for instance migrated to the centers of textile production in England and Scotland.[21] The scholarly view of women’s labor migration choices continues to evolve. It has been long asserted that during the nineteenth century more women than men migrated short distances from the countryside to urban centers, but recent quantitative research suggests that women’s seemingly higher propensity for this type of migration might in fact be the result of an “overrepresentation of women among the adult and elderly population in general” caused by higher male adult mortality rates and international migration.[22]

A single woman’s decision to leave the countryside behind always entailed a great deal of risk. Young women were exposed to sexual exploitation by their employers and to the vagaries of unemployment, especially when they worked in seasonal trades. Rachel Fuchs’s study of single working-class women in Paris during the nineteenth century vividly illustrates the sexual vulnerability of young rural women who came to Paris to work as domestic servants. Being single, poor, pregnant, and without family support drove some to infanticide and abortion, while others learned to negotiate the urban environment by enlisting the help of neighbors and appealing to private charities and public assistance programs. Women who still were connected to their rural home were sometimes able to send children back home, but these ties could be easily frayed. Take nineteen-year-old Marie Beurette, a domestic servant in Paris, who sent her first child back to her village to be cared for by her family. When she gave birth to another child, she was unable to afford the additional money that her parents needed to take care of the infant, and drowned the baby.[23]

Moving away from the village was much more difficult for Russian peasant women who were expected to continue farm work and to contribute to the family household.[24] In the absence of fathers and husbands, women were often able to improve their standing in their family and village, and could become the de facto head of household if men were gone for extended periods of time. Only a small minority of women was able to move to urban areas, as village elders often denied them the required passport. Those who found a way to leave their village were most likely in marginal positions, such as widows or older unmarried women, or women who were perceived as an economic burden to their families; some accompanied their husbands into the city. In the city, rural women’s employment options were limited to domestic positions and factory work, primarily in textile industries. For Russian peasant women, mobility and independence were paired with low wages and economic uncertainty.

The nineteenth century offered middle-class women new opportunities for spatial and career mobility. Teaching became an inherently mobile occupation for women. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, when school teaching was still dominated by men, governesses not only joined the household of their charges but also travelled with their well-to-do employers. Both Emily and Charlotte Brontë left home to train and work as governesses, then moved to Brussels to continue their education and establish a school, before eventually returning to England a few years later. As women were admitted to teaching, training and placement in schools could take them to new places; many French female teachers received challenging appointments in remote village schools. In Serbia, the number of women teachers rose sharply after 1872 when they were also allowed to teach in boys’ elementary schools. For their training, they had to choose between attending the only Serbian teacher training school in the town of Sombor or go to an academy in Russia. Serbian female teachers who wanted independence from family control could request transfers to other towns based on their qualifications. Other times, mobility was a means of supporting the family. After her father’s death, Stana Jovanoviceva left her community and applied for a teacher’s position in the town of Leskovac because it had a grammar school that her younger brothers could attend.[25]

While middle-class men also moved for work or to obtain an education, the greater restrictions that women faced in both areas often made leaving home a necessity, rather than a choice. Many Russian upper-class women who wanted to train as medical doctors enrolled at the university in Zurich. The nursing profession’s pioneer Florence Nightingale went to Germany to receive training at the renowned Institute of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth and a few years later took thirty-eight nurses with her to Crimea during the Crimean War. Almost half a century later, about two thousand British nurses served during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) (Figure 6.1). Towards the end of the nineteenth century, overseas colonies came to be seen as new destinations for women’s employment. Emigration societies in England, Germany, and France sponsored programs to facilitate single women’s overseas voyages and to establish them as domestic servants, governesses, or nurses in their nations’ colonies.[26] These programs came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of the Great War. The nineteenth century was transformative for women’s employment because new work opportunities and mobility went hand in hand.

Figure 6.1. Medical staff and nurses in South Africa, 1901. Photo: The Print Collector / Print Collector / Getty Images.

Global migration

After mid-century, overseas migration assumed unprecedented proportions: about thirty million European migrants left for the United States and another ten million for South America between 1850 and 1913. After the American Civil War, decades of industrial growth created an enormous demand for labor in the United States. At the same time, the cost, length, and risks of the transatlantic voyage dropped dramatically with the shift from sail technology to steam power and made mass migration possible (see Figure 6.2).

Figure 6.2. Emigrants from Europe on a ship bound for New York, c. 1910. Credit: Prisma by Dukas Presseagentur GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo.

Initially, British and German emigrants dominated, but they were gradually joined by Scandinavians and other northern Europeans and by the 1880s, when economic conditions improved in central Europe, by southern and eastern Europeans. Emigration from Sweden increased sharply after widespread harvest failures in 1867; eventually one million Swedes migrated to the United States. In the German states, a combination of overpopulation, the ill effects of partible inheritance, and the increase of capitalist farming drove artisan and peasant families out of Europe. Later in the nineteenth century, economic downturns prompted single agricultural and factory workers to seek a better life abroad; by the 1880s, they came mainly from Prussia’s eastern provinces. Out of 4.5 million German emigrants, 4 million settled in the United States.[27] Across Europe, earlier European emigrants sustained this migrant flow. The emigrants sent information back about opportunities abroad and encouraged others to follow their example, sometimes financing the passage for family members. Successful returning emigrants also prompted members of their home community to follow suit. Often, the decision to leave Europe was not an individual’s first migration move; stage migration occurred when a female migrant in Scandinavia left her village to find work in the city and there learned about work opportunities abroad. Occasionally, news about opportunities could trigger a collective emigration wave. After the end of slavery in Brazil in 1888, more than a quarter million Venetians were recruited to work on Brazilian plantations between 1891 and 1897. Russian Poles were also caught by “Brazilian fever”; about forty thousand emigrated to South America in 1892 and 1893.[28]

Overseas migrants who left early in the nineteenth century rarely returned home, but when the cost of the passage dropped, circular migration became a more feasible mobility strategy.[29] Italian migrants to Argentina were called golondrinas (birds of passage) because they left their villages in Italy once the harvest season was over and took off for destinations in the southern hemisphere where agricultural patterns were reversed.[30] A significant segment of migrants who had initially planned their voyage to the Americas as a permanent move did return after all. Some had accumulated enough savings or wealth or were called back to take over the family farm, others had failed to establish themselves abroad or were homesick, and some decided that the American way of life did not suit them after all. Return migration is very difficult to measure but it has been estimated that about 25–30 percent of Europeans who went to the United States eventually returned.[31]

Skilled laborers were the first to embark on the transatlantic journey because they could better afford the passage, but as prices dropped, unskilled workers were able to leave in increasingly large numbers and migration intensified from those areas in the south and east of Europe that were relatively poor. The Spanish emigrants that left for Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Uruguay were across the board relatively skilled and came from the most economically advanced regions.[32] While skilled workers showed the highest propensity to emigrate, unskilled workers were the largest group in absolute numbers.[33] Transatlantic migration often turned into a career move; most men who arrived in the United States unskilled eventually became skilled.[34]

The growing stream of eastern European emigrants had to cross central Europe first in order to reach the major embarkation points of Hamburg, Bremen, Liverpool, or Antwerp. The shortest route with the most reliable train connections took these transmigrants through Prussia.[35] As American immigration restrictions tightened, steamship lines had to pay the return costs for rejected immigration applicants, and Prussian authorities were concerned that the returning migrants would not be able or willing to return to their places of origins once disembarked at German ports. In 1885, Prussia began to require transmigrants to carry enough money to pay for a possible return journey as a condition for crossing Prussia’s eastern borders. The Prussian government also took the unprecedented step of handing control over eastern border stations and the passage through Prussia to the Hamburg-based HAPAG shipping company. At the control stations along the eastern border, HAPAG employees inspected the migrants, disinfected their belongings, and issued certificates that would allow them to continue the journey through Germany on supervised and sealed trains and to get on a ship in Bremen or Hamburg. US immigration authorities praised these procedures because they stopped “undesirable” migrants early, long before they reached American soil. Once the HAPAG system was in place, the transit through Germany took little more than a day, and the entire journey to the United States less than three weeks.

Jewish emigrants from the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires made up a large share of eastern migrants. The restrictions imposed on Russian Jews in the Pale of Settlement such as extremely limited access to education, paired with limitations on their free movement, made economic success all but impossible. Jewish efforts to improve their economic circumstances through emigration gained more urgency after 1891 in the aftermath of widespread expulsions throughout the Russian Empire. The story of Mary (Maryashe) Antin who emigrated to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century at age thirteen encapsulates the obstacles that eastern European Jews had to overcome to emigrate. Mary and her family lived in the Pale of Settlement in Polish Russia. Her father departed first; being without any means, his journey was financed by borrowing and with the help of a charitable organization. He made arrangements for his daughters to prepare for their later emigration: “Education would be ours for the asking, and economic independence also … He wanted Fetchke and me to be taught some trade; so my sister was apprenticed to a dressmaker and I to a milliner.” It took three years before Mary, her siblings, and her mother were able to follow, and they too had to make the journey through Prussia under HAPAG auspices. Mary noted in her diary the frightening and humiliating aspects of the various inspection procedures: at the east Prussian border they “were taken away to be steamed and smoked.” At the emigrant station in Berlin they felt as if they had been “captured by robbers” when they were again subjected to an intense disinfection process. Hamburg had experienced a devastating cholera epidemic in 1891 which had been falsely blamed on migrant Jews, which is why Mary and her family were yet again put through a rough “repetition of the purifying operations” when they finally reached the port city.[36] Mary’s family had to spend two weeks in prison-like quarantine until they were finally allowed to board their ship. Mary’s story stands for those of many others like her: 41 percent of Russian emigrants to the United States between 1899 and 1913 were Jewish.[37]

The politics of labor migration

Labor migration was tangled up in competing economic and political objectives. By 1900 Germany led the market in sugar beets and produced almost half the world’s sugar. The demand for foreign labor was enormous; in 1891, 27,700 seasonal laborers worked on the sugar beet harvest, 119,000 in 1900, and an astounding 433,000 in 1914. The annual movement of seasonal workers was known as Sachsengängerei (Saxony-going) after one of the provinces where the crop was grown. The vast majority of these workers were ethnic Poles from Russia and Austria, but Italians, Scandinavians, White Russians, and Ruthenians also worked the crop (see Figure 6.3). Despite the need for labor, the Prussian government tightly controlled the influx of workers from eastern Europe because of a general fear of Polish national agitation. Thus, the need for labor was at odds with the political objective of limiting what was seen as dangerous Polish separatism. Beginning in 1888, Polish workers from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires were only allowed to work in the eastern rural provinces of the German Empire and had to leave at the end of the harvest period for seven weeks before they could return the next year.[38] Only individuals, not families, got permits, and pregnant women could be expelled. The Prussian Farm Workers’ Agency worked with local agents, and “by 1913 had set up 39 border offices with large camps that could take in and process up to 10,000 people per day.”[39] However, the monitoring of migration only worked imperfectly; workers crossed borders illegally, and border agents often were not able to read papers in foreign languages, and, if written in Russian Cyrillic, could not even decipher names. Border controls were gradually tightened and German-language papers were required beginning in 1909.

Figure 6.3. East Prussian farmworkers (Sachsengaenger) in Berlin, c. 1907. Photo: ullstein bild / ullstein bild via Getty Images.

Early in the twentieth century, when the Russo–Japanese War was making seasonal workers from Russia scarcer, a growing number of seasonal Ruthenian workers from Galicia, perhaps as many as ten thousand in 1903, took their place, yet at the same time attracted new government concern, because they did not fall under the same work restrictions as ethnic Poles. State officials warned that Ruthenians’ interactions with ethnic Poles had to be supervised carefully out of “national-political concerns” as they might “make common cause with Polish workers and thus strengthen politically unreliable elements.”[40] Border authorities, who were often unable to distinguish between Austrian Poles and Ruthenians from Galicia, feared that ethnic Poles would pretend to be Ruthenians to circumvent labor restrictions.[41] A Ruthenian “national committee” sponsored by Greek Catholic clergy tried to promote the use of Ruthenian workers to the Prussian government. They claimed that Ruthenians felt oppressed by Poles in Galicia and that they were eager to “support the German government in their efforts to gradually push Galician Poles out of Germany.” They even offered to have clergy make control visits to Ruthenians working in Germany twice a year to keep them in line and from breaking labor contracts. They claimed that Ruthenians were “inclined toward Germandom” and therefore should be encouraged to learn German and must not be supervised by Polish workers.[42] This initiative never found the approval of the German government who preferred to use their own agencies to regulate the influx of foreign labor.

After mid-century, industrial cities such as Manchester and Marseille were powerful magnets for mobile workers, but the most dramatic case of rapid urban growth fuelled by in-migration was occurring in the Ruhr valley. At the end of the nineteenth century Germany was emerging as the largest economic power in Europe and its heavy-industrial center in the Ruhr needed a steady stream of labor for its coal mines and steel mills. Sometime before the Great War the Hungarian economist Imre Ferenczi declared that Germany had become the second-largest importer of labor after the United States. Once the supply of nearby workers from the Westphalian and Rhenish hinterland was exhausted, long-distance and transnational migrants were recruited. This demand for industrial labor was so strong that it reversed migration streams. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth century northwestern German workers, so-called “Holland migrants” or Hollandgänger, had gone to the Netherlands for agricultural work. When opportunities in heavy industry became plentiful, this seasonal migration stopped, and instead Dutch workers, attracted by higher wages, flocked to the Ruhr.[43] The Dutch government supported these “Prussian migrants” and provided them with information about the papers and documents the Prussian government required of transnational migrants.[44]

By far the largest group of workers arrived via east–west migration. Ethnic Poles from the eastern German provinces had already moved to Berlin and Saxony in the 1860s, and after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1, they began to settle in the Ruhr and Rhineland. Mine owners sent Polish-speaking agents to the eastern provinces to recruit landless peasants and workers from the Silesian mines. Often, men who were recruited from the same town of origin settled in the same mining community in the Ruhr, for instance from Rybnik to Bottrop. Almost half a million Poles from eastern Prussia lived and worked in the Ruhr before 1914. As ethnic Poles with German citizenship moved west, eastern European Poles from Russia and Austria took their place as seasonal workers.[45] Beginning in 1899, they were allowed to work in west Germany, but only in agriculture. However, because of the persistent need for labor, mines, steel mills, and other industries hired them illegally. After the First World War, the reestablishment of the Polish state prompted many Poles to leave, and the German government pressured Poles without German citizenship to return to their homelands because they feared them as a dangerous political influence. In the city of Bochum, only 200 of 3,740 Polish workers remained in 1920.[46]

Official views concerning transnational and overseas migration changed over the course of the nineteenth century, as evidence from Sweden and Norway shows. Early on in the century these governments regarded transnational emigration as a loss of valuable workers. The Swedish state used legislation to prevent the departure of servants, sailors, and skilled workers but dropped all state proscriptions against emigration by 1860 as it now seemed to be a remedy for poverty and overpopulation.[47] Over time, however, emigration became so widespread in parts of Scandinavia that it had a negative economic impact. By 1910, after Norway had lost about seven hundred thousand inhabitants through migration, the countryside had become so depopulated that farms were left abandoned. Emigration from Sweden was so immense that King Oscar II called provincial governors in 1882 to discuss the problem. In the first decade of the twentieth century anti-emigration societies in Sweden and Norway pressured their governments to stem the flow and to entice migrants to return. In response the Swedish government dropped the requirement for male returnees to complete their military service. In the long run, returning migrants often were a great success because they brought with them new skills, especially modern farming methods, which could be successfully applied at home.[48] While the Swedish government feared population loss through permanent emigration it also found ways to make transnational labor mobility work to the advantage of its economy. Sweden did not only invite foreign skilled labor to help modernize industry, but it also sent industrial workers, technicians, and engineers to foreign companies, first to England and beginning in the 1860s increasingly to the United States, to acquire new skills and techniques and to bring them back home. The Swedish government promoted this type of temporary migration through scholarships and financial assistance programs.[49]

In general, the European nation-states promoted the mobility of labor. In Italy and Germany, political unification removed bureaucratic obstacles and transformed movements between states from international into internal migration. Before unification, migrants from outside the papal states who wanted to work in Rome needed to show a passport from their place of origin to be permitted to reside in the city. This restriction disappeared after the unification of Italy was complete in 1871.[50] Nation-states also became major employers of clerks, administrative personnel, and teachers in their capitals and regional administrative centers, thus attracting new migrants to urban centers. National building projects such as roads, railroads, canals, and public works required large work crews, and often foreign teams with specialized skills were hired. Italian construction workers who had gained a reputation for tunnel building were in demand in Switzerland, where they made up the single-largest group of workers building the St. Gotthard Pass between 1872 and 1882 with about 2,600 men (see Figure 6.4). For the construction of the twenty-kilometer-long Simplon tunnel (18981906) about a third of Italian laborers brought along their families who moved with them as construction progressed. Canal builders in Germany recruited specialists from the Netherlands, mostly for excavation work but also as technical specialists.[51]

Figure 6.4. Completion of the St. Gotthard Tunnel beneath the Alps, 1880. Photo: Ann Ronan Pictures / Print Collector / Getty Images.

Restrictions on free migration

While legal and political conditions in general were favorable to mobility and migration throughout the nineteenth century, there were also notable exceptions to the free flow of labor. Migrants could get rejected once they reached their desired destination (by Ellis Island immigration officials), or were limited to where they could work or how long they were allowed to stay (Ruthenians and Russian Poles in Germany), but there were also instances where would-be migrants were prevented from leaving or where workers were relocated against their will. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Napoleonic Wars disrupted the circulation of agricultural workers; many were drafted into European armies. Overseas migration also came to a stop, and the Continental Blockade limited shipping and thus the demand for sailors.[52] After the end of the Napoleonic Wars England tried to maintain its industrial lead by prohibiting the export of skilled workers and technology.[53] Specialists such as steam engine erectors were only allowed to leave if the Board of Trade approved their request; between 1815 and 1824 only three such applications were granted. The impossibility of enforcing such restrictions led to an end to the ban on the emigration of skilled workers in 1824. Within nation-states, restrictions to the free movement of labor did not exist but individual cities could use poor relief rules to reject migrants. Between 1849 and 1854 the city of Liverpool sent back sixty-three thousand poor Irish migrants because they had to apply for poor relief in their home villages. In the 1860s, laws were changed so that migrants who had been in the city for more than one year could no longer be sent back.[54] In the German states, similar poor law regulations that required the poor to return to their home villages to receive aid were abolished between the 1840s and 1870.[55]

Restrictions on the free movement of labor existed on an entirely different scale in Russia.[56] The mobility of Russia’s enserfed rural population, about fifty-five million European peasants on the eve of emancipation, was controlled by the nobles who owned their villages. Some serfs who made a living as merchants and traders were remarkably well off and allowed to move about freely, albeit only with the landowner’s permission, but most serfs worked the land and were tied to their village.[57] Serf owners commonly forced peasants to work on their estates for the processing of agricultural products; until 1861 wine, vodka, and sugar production were the most significant industries. The end of serfdom and the concomitant destabilizing consequences of the system of redemption payments prompted scores of peasants to leave the countryside and to seek employment in urban centers, but this was fraught with difficulties. Those who wanted to leave had to apply for a passport, but until 1894 local village authorities could deny a request without having to provide a reason. Factories hired workers only on two days of the year, the day after Easter and October 1; if one did not have a passport on that day the opportunity was gone. By 1897 about four million workers or about 15 percent of the adult rural population had migrated to cities, primarily for jobs in metal industries, railroad construction, textile factories, and mining. At first, migration was circular as peasants returned to their villages for the harvest season. The metal industry was first in abandoning the summer break for labor contracts, and by 1893 in St. Petersburg 90 percent of workers remained in the city during the summer. Under Sergei Witte’s direction the pass system was simplified and train tickets were made cheaper in 1894. In 1900, 50 percent of all inhabitants of Warsaw and 70 percent of the inhabitants of St. Petersburg and Moscow were migrants.[58] Although many workers remained in the city for years, many eventually returned to the countryside during old age. The lack of old-age pensions, the better standard of living in the countryside, and traditional village ties all played a role and return migration was supported by the Russian state, which believed that workers who went back to the countryside were less likely to engage in revolution. Christoph Schmidt has estimated that it took a family five generations after the end of serfdom to make a complete and permanent transformation from rural peasant to urban worker.[59]

Convict labor is an example of the forcible movement of workers, often across long distances. About 160,000 convicts from England, Scotland, and Ireland, mostly men, were sent to Australia as laborers between 1787 and 1863, a flow that peaked in the 1830s.[60] As the journey to Australia was too costly and long compared to the option of leaving for the Americas, the labor shortage in New South Wales and other parts of Australia could not be remedied through voluntary migration. Many of the Irish convicts had migrated to England before being apprehended, thus showing a mixed pattern of voluntary and involuntary mobility. Most of them were not hardened criminals but ordinary workers, many of them skilled, who were sent to Australia for punishment and at the same time could be used to fill an urgent need for workers. Upon arrival, convicts were assigned to private masters or to the government; the program petered out when the Australian population had grown enough to meet the need for labor. Other countries used convict labor as well. After the revolution of 1848 the French government sent about 13,500 unemployed men to Algeria as agricultural workers. The Russian government initiated the largest and longest-running forced labor program. Criminals and political exiles had been sent to Siberia since the sixteenth century, but the practice experienced its greatest expansion in the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1918 about 1.3 million European Russians were marched or shipped to the eastern reaches of the empire, to Siberia and beyond. Upon arrival, their degree of freedom varied; some were able to live mostly without restrictions, others were consigned to huge forced-labor projects in agriculture, railroad construction, such as the Trans-Siberian Railway, and gold or silver mines.[61]

Mobility and the Great War

The outbreak of the Great War marked a caesura in worker mobility patterns as economies abruptly shifted towards war production and states began to intervene more forcefully in the movement of workers. At first, the collapse of peacetime production led to widespread massive unemployment, but demand for workers picked up quickly in wartime industries. When able-bodied workers were recruited and volunteered for the front, women and male youths were called to fill their places. Women who had lost their peacetime jobs found employment in industries that had been closed to them before, such as metalworking and chemicals. In Russia, the number of women employed in industry rose by 38 percent over the course of the war.[62] In Germany, the national government issued a decree that suspended industrial health and safety regulations and made it possible for women and adolescents to work long hours, night shifts, and in physically dangerous jobs.[63] While industrial jobs brought women into urban areas, labor shortages in agriculture sent them to the countryside. Women tended to prefer industrial jobs over farm work and national governments had difficulties persuading women to work in the fields. In England the government organized a Women’s Land Army that deployed women to regions as farm helpers. Industrial and agricultural wartime jobs for women were physically exhausting, often dangerous, and usually not well paid, but the war also provided some genuinely new career mobility opportunities for women, for instance as bus or tram operators or clerical workers.

The Great War ushered in a new phase of state intervention into the free movement of labor that would continue into the twentieth century. France and Great Britain resorted to a variety of strategies to overcome labor shortages with foreign workers. France encouraged workers from bordering countries to come to France. The Office National de la Main-d’oeuvre Agricole (ONMA) had already been set up in 1912 and operated sixteen enrolment offices near Spanish and Italian borders. Two hundred and thirty thousand Spanish workers alone came to France during the war. Algerians and colonial subjects from other north African and Southeast Asian possessions were also recruited, and German and Austro-Hungarian prisoners of war (POWs) were put to work as well (Figure 6.5). The British military employed one hundred thousand Chinese workers near the front in northern France, mostly for dispatching freight or doing construction. They were segregated from the general population and were sent back at the end of the war, as were most foreign workers in France.[64]

Figure 6.5. German POWs digging peat in France, 1918. Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo.

In Germany, manpower shortages were immense. As part of the 1916 Hindenburg Program, males between the ages of eighteen and sixty who were not serving at the front were obligated to work in war industries; the original plan to establish similar requirements for women was rejected. When the domestic supply of labor fell short, both POWs and civilian foreigners, primarily from occupied Belgium and Russian Poland, were exploited for their labor.[65] One crucial industry that was thrown into crisis because of acute and unanticipated labor shortages was coal mining in the Ruhr. In some mines 40 percent of the workforce had been recruited into the army by the end of 1914. To make matters worse, many miners left to work in the better-paying munitions industries, and foreign mine workers from Austria, Italy, and the Netherlands returned to their home countries. When mine owners were unable to compensate for the shortfall of workers with the employment of male youths, older workers, and women, POWs were forced into work in the mines, 170,000 in all. French and Belgian POWs arrived first in February 1915; eventually Russian POWs became the single-largest group. In August 1918, POWs constituted about 16.5 percent of the total number of mine workers. The German government also used voluntary foreign workers to boost the depleted workforce, but the recruitment of Belgian workers who had lost their jobs after the German occupation had limited success. Many refused out of national pride and as an expression of resistance. By October 1916, the German government resorted to forced deportations of Belgian workers to Germany. After a wave of international protests and internal criticism the program was halted in February 1917.

The recruitment of workers from eastern Europe was much larger in scope. About seventy-five thousand workers from occupied Russian Poland were recruited, mostly for agricultural work east of the Elbe but also for mining in the west. Russian Poles had been left to their own devices after the outbreak of the war and were desperate for work; some hoped that a German victory might lead to Polish independence. When the textile industries in occupied Russia came to a standstill, perhaps half a million workers came to Germany. Over time, Russian workers became frustrated with their treatment by German employers. They were increasingly controlled in their movements; they could not switch jobs, have their families join them, or return to Russia after the end of a contract. After the proclamation of a Polish kingdom in November 1916 and then after the February Revolution in Russia, many decided to break their contracts and return home. As the war progressed the differences between voluntary and coerced labor were no longer clearly discernable.[66]

Throughout the nineteenth century European working people used geographical mobility to escape adverse or deteriorating socioeconomic circumstances at home, or in hopes of finding better occupational and earning opportunities through migration. Broader demographic and economic trends such as explosive population growth, urbanization, the expansion of large-scale commercial agriculture, and rapid industrialization facilitated such moves, encouraging both seasonal rural-to-rural andrural-to-urban migrations. Denser, faster, and cheaper transportation networks, foremost trains and steamships, increased the available options and geographic extent for temporary or permanent relocation; migrants were now able to consider and afford transnational and transoceanic moves. The overall political environment in Europe was also favorable to migration; the absence of major wars and the establishment and consolidation of nation-states provided a more stable and predictable environment for would-be migrants. Compared to the previous century, the overall picture that emerges for the 1900s is one of intensification, acceleration, and a growing complexity of work mobility patterns.

This generally favorable picture must be tempered with a consideration of the position of the individual would-be migrant. Each worker’s options and opportunities varied considerably, depending on a worker’s skills, family circumstances, access to information, location, and local or national political conditions. Workers exercised their agency by moving to a new place of work, but they did so within larger economic and political structures and developments that were beyond their control.[67] In Dirk Hoerder’s words, labor migrants “were constrained by state systems and aided by migration systems.”[68] In the late nineteenth century, national governments became restrictive in their regulation of mobile labor; workers who crossed national borders were increasingly regarded as potentially troublesome foreigners or minorities.[69] During the Great War and in its aftermath, work mobility became ever more constrained, thus setting the parameters for the twentieth century.



[1] Karl Fischer, Denkwürdigkeiten eines Arbeiters , ed. Paul Göhre (Jena: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1903), 123 . Translated excerpts from Fischer’s autobiography can be found in Alfred Kelly, ed., The German Worker: Working-Class Autobiographies from the Age of Industrialization (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 51 63.

[2] Leo Lucassen, The Immigrant Threat: The Integration of Old and New Migrants in Western Europe Since 1850 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005), 29 ; David Kertzer, “Household Organization and Migration in Nineteenth-Century Italy,” Social Science History 14, no. 4 (1990): 48990 .

[3] Rachel G. Fuchs and Victoria Thompson, Women in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Houndmill: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 128 .

[4] Kertzer, “Household,” 48990.

[5] Steve Hochstadt, Mobility and Modernity: Migration in Germany, 1820–1989 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999) .

[6] Colin G. Pooley and Shani D’Cruze, “Migration and Urbanization in North-West England circa 17601830,” Social History 19, no. 3 (1994): 351 .

[7] Klaus J. Bade, Migration in European History , trans. Allison Brown (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003), 37 .

[8] Leslie Page Moch, Moving Europeans: Migration in Western Europe Since 1650 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), 111 .

[9] Bade, Migration, 69.

[10] David Blackbourn, The Long Nineteenth Century: A History of Germany, 1788–1918 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 198 .

[11] Gay Gullickson, “The Sexual division of Labor in Cottage Industry and Agriculture in the Pays de Caux: Auffay, 17501850,” French Historical Studies 12, no. 2 (1981): 1902 .

[12] Moch, Moving Europeans, 11415.

[13] Lucassen, Immigrant Threat, 2930.

[14] Cormac Ó Gráda, The Great Irish Famine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 4850 .

[15] Cormac Ó Gráda and Kevin O’Rourke, “Migration as Disaster Relief: Lessons from the Great Irish Famine,” European Review of Economic History 1, no. 1 (1997): 326 .

[16] Martin Dribe, “Dealing with Economic Stress through Migration: Lessons from Nineteenth Century Rural Sweden,” European Review of Economic History 7, no. 3 (2003): 286 and 2945 .

[17] Pooley and D’Cruze, “Migration,” 349.

[18] Javier Silvestre, “Temporary Internal Migrations in Spain, 18601930,” Social Science History 31, no. 4 (2007): 540 .

[19] Deborah Simonton, “Women Workers; Working Women,” in The Routledge History of Women in Europe since 1700 , ed. Deborah Simonton (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 150 .

[20] Louise A. Tilly and Joan W. Scott, Women, Work, and Family (New York, NY: Rinehart and Winston, 1978) ; also Fuchs and Thompson, Women, 65–6.

[21] Fuchs and Thompson, Women, 126.

[22] J. Trent Alexander and Annemarie Steidl, “Gender and the ‘Laws of Migration’: A Reconsideration of Nineteenth-Century Patterns,” Social Science History 36, no. 2 (2012), 224 .

[23] Rachel G. Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris: Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century (New Brunswick, NJ: Routledge University Press, 1992), 1415.

[24] Barbara Alpern Engel, Between the Fields and the City: Women, Work, and Family in Russia, 1861–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 316.

[25] Ana Stolić, “Vocation or Hobby: Social Identity of Female Teachers in the Nineteenth Century Serbia,” in Gender Relations in South Eastern Europe: Historical Perspectives on Womanhood and Manhood in 19th and 20th Century , eds. Slobodan Naumović and Miroslav Jovanović (Münster: LIT Verlag, 2004), 5590 .

[26] Fuchs and Thompson, Women, 129; Lora Wildenthal, German Women for Empire, 1884–1945 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 135, 144, 1628 .

[27] Blackbourn, Nineteenth Century Germany, 1923.

[28] Bade, Migration, 1034, 11213, and 163.

[29] Ibid., 1024; Simone Wegge, “Occupational Self-selection of European Emigrants: Evidence from Nineteenth-century Hesse-Cassel,” European Review of Economic History 6, no. 3 (2002): 372 .

[30] Bade, Migration, 107 and 11213.

[31] Mark Wyman, “Return Migration—Old Story, New Story,” Immigrants & Minorities 20, no. 1 (2001): 34 .

[32] Silvestre, “Temporary Internal Migrations,” 5478.

[33] Wegge, “Occupational Self-selection,” 367.

[34] Ran Abramitzky, Leah Platt Boustan, and Katherine Eriksson, “Europe’s Tired, Poor, Huddled Masses: Self-Selection and Economic Outcomes in the Age of Mass Migration,” American Economic Review 102, no. 5 (2012), 18367 .

[35] Tobias Brinkmann, “Why Paul Nathan Attacked Albert Ballin: The Transatlantic Mass Migration and the Privatization of Prussia’s Eastern Border Inspection, 18861914,” Central European History 43, no. 1 (2010): 4783 .

[36] Mary Antin, The Promised Land (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912).

[37] Robert Gildea, Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800–1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 273.

[38] Adam McKeown, “Global Migration, 18461970,” Journal of World History 15, no. 2 (2004): 155 ; Lucassen, Immigrant Threat, 51.

[39] Bade, Migration, 15860.

[40] Staatsarchiv Münster (StAM), Oberpräsidium Münster (OPM) 5428, [01] Berlin, March 26, 1904.

[41] StAM, OPM 5428, [09] Münster, May 28, 1904.

[42] StAM, OPM 5428, [20] Lemberg, December 15, 1904.

[43] Bade, Migration, 545 and 71.

[44] StAM, OPM 6228, [163] Münster, July 1, 1909.

[45] Lucassen, Immigrant Threat, 512.

[46] StAM, OPM 6228, [296] Bochum, April 9, 1920.

[47] Briant Lindsay Lowell, Scandinavian Exodus: Demography and Social Development of 19th-century Rural Communities (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987), 645.

[48] Wyman, “Return Migration,” 12 and 89.

[49] Bade, Migration, 7981.

[50] Angiolina Arru, “Networks and Logics of Migration: the Circulation of Credit among Immigrants in Nineteenth Century Italy,” in European Mobility: Internal, International, and Transatlantic Moves in the 19th and the Early 20th Centuries , eds. Annemarie Steidl et al. (Vienna: V & R Unipress, 2009), 1937 .

[51] Moch, Moving Europeans, 103, 1057, 121; Bade, Migration, 613.

[52] Ibid., 1067.

[53] David I. Jeremy, “Damming the Flood: British Government Efforts to Check the Outflow of Technicians and Machinery, 17801843,” Business History Review 51, no. 1 (1977): 134 .

[54] Lucassen, Immigrant Threat, 32.

[55] Rachel G. Fuchs, Gender and Poverty in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 2002.

[56] Christoph Schmidt, Ständerecht und Standeswechsel in Ruβland 1851–1897 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1994), 10624.

[57] Peter Kolchin, “Foreword,” in Alexandr Nikitenko, Up from Serfdom: My Childhood and Youth in Russia, 1804–1824 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), xiixvi .

[58] Christiane Harzig and Dirk Hoerder, What is Migration History? (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009), 39 ; Michael Hamm, ed., The City in Late Imperial Russia (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 1314 and 523.

[59] Schmidt, Ständerecht, 122.

[60] Stephen Nicholas, ed., Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

[61] Stephen Nicholas and Peter Shergold, “Transportation as Global Migration,” in ibid., 36–7 .

[62] Ann Taylor Allen, Women in Twentieth-Century Europe (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 1214.

[63] Ute Daniel, The War from Within: German Working-Class Women in the First World War (Oxford: Berg, 1997), 62.

[64] Bade, Migration, 16871.

[65] Kai Rawe, Kriegsgefangene, “Freiwillige und Deportierte: Ausländerbeschäftigung im Ruhrbergbau während des Ersten Weltkrieges,” in Zwangsarbeit im Bergwerk: Der Arbeitseinsatz im Kohlenbergbau des Deutschen Reiches und der besetzten Gebiete im Ersten und Zweiten Weltkrieg , vol. 1 Forschungen (Essen: Klartext, 2005), 3562 .

[66] Bade, Migration, 173.

[67] Dirk Hoerder, Jan Lucassen, and Leo Lucassen, “Terminologies and Concepts of Migration Research,” in The Encyclopedia of Migration and Minorities in Europe from the 17th Century to the Present , eds. Klaus J. Bade, Pieter C. Emmer, Leo Lucassen, and Jochen Oltmer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), xxvxxxii .

[68] Dirk Hoerder, “Individuals and Systems: Agency in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Labor Migrations,” in Steidl et al., eds., European Mobility , 66 .

[69] Monika Glettler, “Czech Labor Migrants in Austria in the 19th and Early 20th Centuries,” in Bade et al., eds., Encyclopedia of Migration , 3023 .