An 'Artisan Mittelstand' - How German artisans tried to preserve their identity by identifying with the Mittelstand

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2011 12 Pages

History Europe - Other Countries - Modern Times, Absolutism, Industrialization


An “Artisan Mittelstand”: How German artisans tried to preserve identity by identifying with the Mittelstand by Christopher Reichow

Germany’s handicrafts and their institutional legacy highly influenced the social-economic development of their country.1 Their knowledge, know-how, and skills were important factors for Germany’s advancement to an economic powerhouse in the late nineteenth-century. But despite economic successes, an “anti-modern” attitude toward the new capitalist industry and its adherent working-class emerged during the last third of the nineteenth-century among the German artisans.2 This paper will show that the affiliation as well as the opposition of the German artisans toward other social and economic groups expressed a specific identity, both in social and economic terms. The core of the analysis will lay on the second half of the nine- teenth century and especially on the time period between the unification of Germany in 1871 and its short period of economic boom (Gründerzeit) and the end of the Great Depression in 1897. A subjective focus will reveal politically expressed differences in terms of values and preferences to the rising new economic order. Furthermore, it will be shown that the emerging working-class and their growing bond with journeymen compelled the economically prosper- ous artisans to reconsider their economic position within the German economy. Their redefi- nition as the Mittelstand was the answer to this development.3

It must be noted that there were different identities among German artisans. Many regional and even sectoral differences (e.g. payment, technology, size of the shop, number of employers) existed among the artisans of unified Germany. Economic developments were unevenly distributed, particularly because of the notable specialization of the crafts. It would be a conceptual error to characterize artisans as monolithic, even within single industries. Solidarity was not wide-spread, although many attempts were made.4 Broader movements only occurred in specific periods. In most times, artisans must be understood in smaller and distinctive groups. This paper addresses these differences in identities and interests. Regional and occupational divisions will be emphasized and accordingly analyzed.

To understand the relation of artisans in this time period, the emergence of a strongly capi- talist industry and an increasing working-class are the most determinant factors. For the defi- nition of a class, both the economic and the social constituent are the most relevant. This means that people are sharing economic interests and a common social identity. However, class is always a process with shifting variables and no perpetual and irreversible appearance. Additionally, classes are results of relations, thus there can never be only one class. “Having a counterpart is essential for the structuring of a class,”5 as in this paper the distinction between skilled and unskilled workers6 as well as between master artisans and the bourgeoisie. In Germany, a growing split between masters on the one side and journeymen and wage-workers on the other had already occurred in the early nineteenth century. Different interests and dif- ferent class positions were disclosed during the revolution of 1848/49 and the wave of strikes in the early 1870s, when masters showed a strong anti-proletarian and pro-lower middle-class orientation.7

The Great Depression of 1873-1896 intensified the fracture between both groups. Even as industrialization continued, the crisis ended two decades of rapid growth and brought eco- nomic pessimism and social insecurity. The depression marked a structural and cyclical crisis for the German artisans.8 The credo of the new economists was that in times of capitalist pres- sures, with an increasing division of labor and more unskilled labor, the artisans could not compete for markets and employment anymore. Thus, they were a counterpart to the new ris- ing factory worker. But the distinction between the “modern” factory worker and the “old” artisan is misleading. Artisans were not a static or “dying” but an innovative and flexible group.9

Just like the big capitalist industries, artisans used the technical innovations of the Industri- al Revolution like the steam engine or the gas and electric motor prolifically in their small- scale workshops.10 Though producing in small entities, the artisans managed to deal with the new economic circumstances by creating innovative and high-quality products. Particularly the new education system in southwestern Germany provided the artisans with highly skilled workers and new technologies. This new order served not only economic purposes but gave master artisans a new identity that they could be proud of. This paper will refer to this specific topic of education in more detail later.

The quality of the products continued to play a big role in the artisan’s economic self- conception. In earlier times, artisans had welcomed the regulatory systems maintained by the guilds because these verified the quality of their products and gave them a good reputation. Thus, this system served not only economic reasons, but also protected the artisan’s honor and status.11 During the Industrial Revolution, artisans were losing control over the sale of their own products. The emerging power of merchant industrialists, factory owners, and wholesalers made the master artisans increasingly dependent on their capital and their investment decisions. The master artisans “found their independence and security increasingly undermined by limited access to credit, raw materials, labor, and markets”.12 Additionally, the enormous population growth in Germany led to an overcrowding and underemployment in the trades, which brought stronger competition among artisans over merchants who were usually providing them with raw materials, credit, and the outlet to markets.

The whole economic system became more complex and based on capital. Furthermore, the small-scale artisan workshops could not meet the needs of an emerging consumer society to the extent that the large-scale industry could. Corporatism was gradually displaced by liberalism. The latter affected more than just labor relations, because it brushed away the guilds from the historical stage and thus influenced the artisan’s sense of status and identity. In 1871, freedom of commerce was legally established for the whole Reich. Guilds were legally abolished.13 However, though the guild era had come to an end, the artisanal workforce remained important for the German economy.

Just before the Great Depression, nearly fifty percent of the workforce in the secondary sector in Germany worked in Handwerk, which is defined as a small shop system that was producing mainly for the needs of local customers.14 Even after 1896, more than thirty percent of the German work force worked in Handwerk. Most of the workers in Handwerk were wa- geworkers, while the total proportion of masters and journeymen on the workforce conti- nuously decreased.15 But as already mentioned above, the artisan’s life was highly influenced by the accelerating industrialization. Some artisan crafts were simply destroyed while in oth- ers the link between skill and independence was eliminated, when for example larger factories began to produce former artisanal products much more efficiently and inexpensively.


1 Hansen, Hal: Rethinking the Role of Artisans in Modern German Development, in: Central European History, Vol. 42, 2009, pp. 33-64, here p. 33.

2 In the late nineteenth-century, popular anti-modernism spread across the whole Western world. Particularly in Germany, this intellectual movement affected the whole society very deeply. Wide-ranging changes occurred in the market economy, the government, and the society in general. As the whole society, German artisans were highly influenced by these developments not only economically, but also culturally and socially.

3 According to contemporary German standards, members of the Mittelstand were small industrial entrepreneurs, lower state officials, shop-keepers, and white collar employees. Non-noble large merchants, top managers and highly skilled professionals were considered to be members of the bourgeoisie.

4 Geary, Dick: Working-Class Identities in Europe, 1850s-1930s, in: Australian Journal of Politics & History, Vol. 45, No. 1, 1999, pp. 20-35, here p. 28.

5 Kocka, Jürgen: The Study of Social Mobility and the Formation of the Working Class in the 19th Century, in: Le Mouvement social, Vol. 111, 1980, pp. 97-117, here pp. 104f.

6 In late nineteenth-century Germany, the term “artisans” meant the same as “skilled workers”.

7 Kocka, Jürgen: The Study of Social Mobility, p. 117.

8 Nolan, Mary: Economic Crisis, State Policy, and Working-Class Formation in Germany, 1870-1900, in: Katznelson, Ira/ Zolberg, Aristide R. (Eds.): Working-Class Formation. Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States, Princeton 1986, pp. 352-393, here pp. 355f.

9 Prothero, Iorwerth: Radical artisans in England and France, 1830-1870, Cambridge 1997, pp. 14f. Although Prothero focuses in his book on England and France, did the same development he describes apply to Germany.

10 Farr, James R.: Artisans in Europe, 1300-1914 (= New Approaches to European History, Vol. 19) Cambridge 2000, p. 295.

11 Farr, James R.: Artisans in Europe, p. 89.

12 Ibid.: pp. 292-294.

13 Ibid.: p. 282.

14 Ibid.: p. 48.

15 Nolan, Mary: Economic Crisis, p. 363.


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Handwerk Mittelstand Identitätsgeschichte



Title: An 'Artisan Mittelstand' - How German artisans tried to preserve their identity by identifying with the Mittelstand