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Migrant Labour in the German Countryside: Agency and Protest, 1890-1923This article concerns social relations in the estate villages of northern Germany between 1890 and 1923. It focuses primarily on the strategies adopted by seasonal labourers from Russian Poland in their relations with estate managements. Using police and union reports, and the letters and accounts of the migrants themselves, it argues that seasonal workers cannot simply be viewed as exploited, passive victims of this phase of agricultural modernization. This is evident, above all, in the practice of job-switching, which, although criminalized, was a widespread phenomenon both before 1914 and during the war, when the Poles were kept back as forced labour. Escaping estates to which they had been contracted, many workers outsmarted the system of registration by carrying multiple sets of identity papers. But such `contract breaking' was also greatly facilitated by the endemic shortage of labour in the countryside; there were always some owners prepared to hire illegal fugitives. Examining the post-war years, the article also argues for a more nuanced understanding of relations between foreign and local workers. While most contemporary and historical accounts concentrate on social distance and mutual hostility between Germans and Poles, evidence from a number of different villages in the Mecklenburgs indicate that amicable relations and mutual cooperation were not uncommon.
Social Relations in the Estate Villages of Mecklenburg c.1880-1924Research on late nineteenth and early twentieth century German society has concentrated overwhelmingly on life in the cities. By contrast, and despite the fact that almost one third of Germans were still working in agriculture as late as 1914, Germany's rural society remains relatively unexplored. Although historians have begun to correct this imbalance, very few full-length studies of social relations east of the Elba in this period have been published. This book concentrates on social relations in the 1,500 estate villages (Gutsdörfer) of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz. 'Social relations' include the chains of command and obedience, the relative legal positions of owner and workers, contractual-relations, economic relations; the mutual economic dependency of estate owners and workforce, as well as the value systems of owners and labourers which informed these relationships. With its focus on both rural elites and workers, this study differs from much other work on rural Germany. For while a number of historians have examined the rural elites, few have chosen to investigate the lower strata of rural society. This book makes use of overlooked autobiographical accounts, statements given by workers at labour exchanges and before military authorities, as well as confiscated letters, jokes and anecdotes to provide greater insight into the perspective of rural workers. (Ashgate Publishing)