This 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.
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