Beer and Skittles? Workers and Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Germany

By Geary, Dick | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Beer and Skittles? Workers and Culture in Early Twentieth-Century Germany


Geary, Dick, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


This paper first examines the culture of the workers' leisure organisations associated with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), then attempts to assess the extent to which it resembled or differed from `bourgeois' or `high' culture on the one hand and other `working-class' cultures on the other.

By 1914 the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) had over one million individual fee-paying members and was the largest party in the Reich. It had a relevance to the lives of many workers, however, which extended well beyond the realm of politics: through a plethora of cultural and leisure organisations it constituted part of the daily world of working-class communities in Germany's large Protestant industrial cities such as Berlin, Hamburg and Leipzig. There were social-democratic chess, smoking, drama, skittles, sports and gymnastic clubs, the Naturfreunde (ramblers), educational associations and choral societies, which usually carried the prefix Arbeiter- (Workers') before their name. By 1914 these organisations could claim a massive membership, as the following figures demonstrate:

Deutscher Arbeitersangerbund (choral
 societies)                                 165,000 members
Arbeiter Turn- und Sportbund (sports
 and gym clubs)                                     187,000
Arbeiterradfahrerbund Solidaritat
 (cyclists)                                      150,000(1)

In total over 600,000 Germans belonged to the workers' leisure and cultural organisations by 1914. Many of these had their own specialist newspapers (e.g. the Arbeiterradfahrer for the worker cyclists), published by social-democratic printing houses, which also produced alternative children's comics (e.g. King Mammon!) and fairy tales, re-written from a socialist perspective. There was even a workers' Punch and Judy show (Arbeiterpuppentheater), which is preserved to this day in the Fritz-Huser-Institut fur Internationale Arbeiterliteratur in Dortmund.(2)

The function of these workers' organisations has been disputed. Whereas some of their members argued that they constituted the "third pillar" of the labour movement (together with the unions and the political party) and served to reinforce the class consciousness of German workers, many historians have come to disassociate them from economic and political conflict.(3) For Guenther Roth the countless social-democratic leisure organisations did little more than reproduce traditional ("bourgeois") cultural values and integrate workers into the social fabric of Imperial Germany, albeit "negatively". Such a view has not been the preserve of latter-day historians. It was shared at the time by some trade-union and SPD activists, who feared that the Party's leisure organisations would distract their members from the prime task of industrial and political struggle. The executive of the SPD's Dusseldorf branch, for example, claimed that:

   a good comrade is not one who joins the choristers, sports, swimming,
   stenographers, health and other organisations but one who is an active
   member of the party and union.(4)

In the Ruhr in 1913 local party leaders complained that social-democratic events and festivals were increasingly devoid of political content and had become concerned almost exclusively with popular entertainment.(5)

These fears and Roth's analysis seemed to be validated in a variety of ways. The culture purveyed by workers' choirs and dramatic societies, for example, was in many respects divorced from both the workplace and the daily realities of proletarian existence; it consisted largely of "high" culture. Workers' drama groups, for example, put on plays by Goethe and Schiller; and although the Freie Volksbuhne (the "Free People's Stage") in Berlin performed more avant-garde pieces, these were in general unpopular with proletarian audiences. In fact its offerings became increasingly broad in nature, whilst the number of plays with a specifically political or social message staged there declined. …

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