In June 1844 disturbances and riots occurred in the Prussian province of Silesia, a major center of textile manufacturing. Crowds of weavers attacked homes and warehouses, destroyed machinery, and demanded money from local merchants. In response, the Prussian army was called to restore order in the region. In a confrontation between the weavers and troops, shots were fired into the crowd, killing 11 people and wounding others. The leaders of the disturbances were arrested, flogged, and imprisoned. The uprising was a result of severe social and economic distress in the region. Due to competition from overseas markets, the Silesian textile industry was in decline. This, combined with the impact of population growth, threatened to force the income of the Silesian weavers to below subsistence levels. In many ways the Silesian weavers' revolt was a traditional response to poverty and hunger. However, some of the weavers' words and actions seemed to indicate a changing understanding of their position in society. Because of this the event has gained enormous significance in the history of the German labor movement. In particular, Karl Marx regarded the uprising as evidence of the birth of a German workers' movement. The weavers' rebellion served as an important symbol for later generations concerned about poverty and oppression in German society.
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- 1842: Scientific and technological advances include the development of ether and artificial fertilizer; the identification of the Doppler effect (by Austrian physicist Christian Johann Doppler); the foundation of biochemistry as a discipline; and the coining of the word dinosaur.
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- 1844: Exiled to Paris, Karl Marx meets Friedrich Engels.
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- 1846: Height of the Irish potato famine.
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Event and Its Context
In January and April 1844, weavers from the Silesian towns of Langenbielau and Peterswaldau petitioned the government to intervene in setting prices in the textile industry. With the support of the authorities, the weavers hoped to prevent local merchants from further dropping the prices they paid for the weavers' work. However, the government failed to respond to their grievances. Unrest gradually increased over the spring and early summer, as the weavers' resentment towards the merchants continued to simmer. Finally, the situation came to a head on the evening of 3 June, when several weavers gathered outside the home of the Zwanziger family of merchants in Peterswaldau. The Zwanzigers had attracted attention in the community for their rapid accumulation of wealth and harsh exploitation of the local weavers. With songs and chants, the weavers insulted the Zwanzigers, accusing them of being devils who preyed on the poor. As a result of the demonstration, one of the weavers was beaten and handed over to police.
This incident seemed to serve as a catalyst for the broader mobilization of the local population. Another local weaver, Karl Mü ller, called for all the weavers to band together and demand the release of the prisoner, threatening physical violence to those who did not join in. The weavers set out on a march through the local villages to gather supporters for their confrontation with the merchant and police.
By the afternoon of 4 June, a large crowd had gathered outside the Zwanziger's dwelling. The leaders called for the release of the prisoner, as well as higher pay and a "present" from the Zwanzigers to atone for the suffering of the weavers. This demand was a traditional part of premodern social protest and reflected the accepted customs of traveling journeymen, who often asked for "presents" from members of the community in which they were seeking work. When these demands were not met, the crowd began to attack the house, and the family was forced to flee to Breslau for safety. The local police were powerless in the face of such a large and angry crowd, and the weavers proceeded to destroy the Zwanziger's house and property. They also attacked the warehouse and factory, destroying bales of cotton, yarn, account books, and other business documents, as well as the machinery in the factory. The house and property of a neighboring merchant were spared, as he was known to treat the weavers more humanely, and he acquiesced to the crowd's demand for a present. This scene was repeated several times at the homes of other merchants in the area.
The next day, 5 June, a crowd reported to number in the thousands gathered at the home of the merchant Dierig in the town of Langenbielau. As people lined up to receive money from the merchant's representatives, troops arrived. In the ensuing confrontation, the soldiers fired shots, resulting in the deaths of 11 people; more were reported wounded. In response, the crowd attacked the soldiers, and the troops were forced to retreat until reinforcements arrived from neighboring towns. By 6 June, with the arrival of more troops and artillery, authorities were able to regain control, and the revolt was effectively over. Several of the leaders were arrested and later imprisoned.
Economic Decline and Social Distress
The grievances of the weavers centered on their exploitation by local merchants who controlled the textile trade. They were particularly concerned by the low prices they received for their work. The weavers, many of whom had come from generations of relatively well-off independent craftsmen, were facing impoverishment as their incomes slipped below subsistence levels. What lay behind this problem was several decades of change in the Silesian textile industry. The region had been a center of textile, particularly linen, manufacturing since the sixteenth century. Local feudal lords had established the industry among their serfs in cooperation with foreign merchants. Silesian linen was exported to markets in Holland, England, and Spain, as well as to their colonies. In time the economy of the whole region came to depend heavily on the linen trade.
However, from the late eighteenth century, several factors led to the decline of linen manufacturing in Silesia. The demand for Silesian linen dropped as it faced increased competition from the development of linen industries in Ireland and Scotland. English cotton also became a popular and cheap alternative to linen, particularly in the tropical climates. Because of the development of mechanized factory production in the British textile industry, Silesian producers found it increasingly difficult to compete. By contrast, centralized factory production and technology such as power looms were still rare in protoindustrial Silesia. Domestic weavers, who bought the raw materials from merchants and sold back the finished product, generally worked in their homes or in small workshops. The persistence of feudal social and economic arrangements in Silesia prevented the development of more efficient systems of production. The export of Silesian linen declined rapidly in the 1830s and 1840s, and the economy of the region stagnated.
This process of economic decline had a shattering effect on the local population. While cotton manufacturing in the region did expand in these decades, the only way for the merchants to remain competitive in the international market was by keeping labor costs low. This was made possible by oversupply in the labor market. The German region had experienced a period of sustained population growth during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As industrialization had not yet reached levels where factories could absorb this increase in people, unemployment and underemployment reached chronic levels. Weavers coming out of the declining linen and wool industries compounded the problem. The merchants were able to exploit the ready supply of weavers desperate for work by pushing prices down even further.
The weavers were in an impossible situation. As the merchants had a monopoly on access to the markets for the weavers' work, the weavers had no choice but to accept the prices that they were offered. The weavers also had the additional economic pressure of feudal obligations, being still forced to pay seignorial dues in many places. Some weavers were forced into debt, having to borrow money in order to buy the raw materials with which they worked. This helps explain why the weavers destroyed account books and business documents during the uprising. For those with resources, immigration to America was a popular option during this period. Those unable to leave faced a dismal future. The situation became increasingly desperate in the 1840s, as the failure of the potato crop caused food prices to skyrocket. Widespread starvation occurred in what has been called the last great subsistence crisis in European society.
The weavers' uprising sent shock waves across the region. It contributed to growing concerns about the problem of "pauperism" in society. In the 1840s contemporary social debate focused on the poverty, crime, and disorder that seemed on the verge of engulfing respectable society. Economic hardship and social unrest reached epidemic proportions, as German society struggled to cope with its expanding population. There was a sense among social observers that the nature and scale of these problems was much more serious than in previous generations. The hunger and desperation of such a large mass of the population was regarded as a sign that there was something fundamentally wrong with European society. Newspapers published article after article offering analysis and solutions to "the social problem" and issue of the organization of labor. In this concern and agitation lay the seeds of the 1848 revolutions.
The Silesian weavers symbolized this sense of social crisis. While the violence and bloodshed undoubtedly alarmed most people, there was also considerable sympathy for their desperate situation. The weavers' revolt quickly became a popular theme in contemporary art and literature, as artists and writers exploited the pathos of the weavers' desperate plight. In particular, the well-known German romantic poet Heinrich Heine brought the despair and anger of the weavers to a wider European audience with his poem "The Silesian Weavers," written in the months immediately after the event.
In Heine's poem the desperation of the weavers is seen as a catalyst for social revolution. For many political radicals, the weavers' uprising was an example of the inadequacy of the existing political system to deal with the growing social crisis. However, for the members of the fledgling socialist movement, the event acquired particular significance in terms of their theories about the confrontation between workers and the bourgeoisie in capitalist society. The description of the uprising by the journalist Wilhelm Wolff encouraged this interpretation, influenced as it was by his developing socialist beliefs. Published in June 1844 and based upon eyewitness accounts, it caused a sensation in Germany and became the most influential account of the revolt. Wolff was the son of Silesian peasants and had already been imprisoned for his involvement in radical politics. His account of the uprising was clearly shaped by his sympathy for the situation of the weavers, as well as his antipathy towards the merchants who exploited them. In interviews with workers at the time of the uprising, Wolff emphasized how many others shared the grievances of the weavers. This seemed to suggest the potential for broader solidarity among the workers.
Wolff later became involved in the Communist League, led by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. For Engels and Marx, the weavers' uprising was also very important, because it supported their developing theories about capitalism and class conflict in society. Engels reported on the uprising in his capacity as German correspondent for the English newspaper the Northern Star. He attributed it to the suffering of the weavers, caused by the consequences of competition from products produced in the English factory system. For his English audience, Engels emphasized the common exploitation of the Silesian weavers and the textile workers of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The consequences of the factory system were oppression and toil for the many, riches and wealth for the few, in all parts of the world.
Karl Marx welcomed the uprising as evidence of the maturation of the workers' movement in Germany. He believed that an understanding of themselves as a distinct class, in conflict with the bourgeois merchants, lay behind the weavers' actions. Therefore, this was a confrontation between labor and capital. According to Marx, "the Silesian rebellion starts . . . with an understanding of the nature of the proletariat. . . . [N]ot . . . one of the French and English insurrections has had the same theoretical and conscious character." In Marx's view the three-day uprising was more significant than either the Chartist disturbances in England during the 1840s or the French silk-weavers' strikes in Lyon during the 1830s. Because of Marx's interpretation, the Silesian uprising acquired enormous significance in the history of the labor movement in Germany.
It also served as a potent symbol of resistance to oppression and exploitation for subsequent generations. Artists on the left who were concerned about the poverty and suffering of the working classes used the theme of the weavers' uprising as a way to express their social criticism. Fifty years after the event, the German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann shocked audiences with his starkly realistic play, The Weavers, based upon Wolff's account. First performed in 1893, the play was banned by authorities in Wilhelmine Germany. Faced with an expanding socialist movement, the government was naturally antagonistic to a sympathetic portrayal of social protest. Hauptmann's play inspired the German artist Kä the Kollwitz, who created a series of prints from 1893 to 1897, The Weavers' Uprising. Her powerful images eloquently expressed the despair and anger of the weavers, echoing the poverty and desperation of the working class in 1890s Germany. The tale of the weavers' uprising had the power to move new generations still grappling with problems of social distress and oppression among the working class.
Transitional Labor Protest
Marx and his fellow socialists interpreted the weavers' uprising as the birth of a self-conscious workers' movement in Germany. However, the significance of the event in these terms was overstated. The uprising was part of a wave of social unrest that swept Germany during the 1840s, a time of intense social crisis and economic breakdown. As with many other incidents of protest in this era, the weavers were spontaneously rebelling against the poverty that threatened to overwhelm them. Some of their actions, such as their demands for gifts from the merchants to alleviate their suffering, suggest that the weavers were still operating within older systems of social values and relations. The weavers did not have a sense of themselves as members of a distinct class in conflict with another class. Instead, they acted as members of a community, intent on punishing those who had transgressed certain rules regarding the value of their work. Their actions in targeting the houses of specific merchants, while leaving intact the homes of others, showed that they were not antagonistic to the merchants as a class, but only to certain individuals whose behavior they perceived as exploitative. Nor is there any evidence that the weavers had any alternative social vision, or suggested any reorganization of production to redistribute profits more fairly. This was not the birth of a social movement but was rather a spontaneous expression of economic distress.
Nevertheless, some historians have regarded the weavers' uprising as an example of transitional social protest. While certainly retaining much of the character of earlier generations of social protest, the weavers were acting as workers, rather than as members of a traditional craft or guild. Rather than demanding the restoration of traditional rights, as was often the case in earlier examples of strikes and protests, the weavers' main grievance focused on better recompense for their labor, fore-shadowing the demands of workers in the modern labor movement. In mobilizing their community against the merchants, the weavers stood on the boundary between a world of craft and communal attitudes to work and a new understanding of conflict between the forces of labor and capital.
Heine, Heinrich (1797-1856): German romantic poet who became influenced by socialist ideas. Heine's poem "The Silesian Weavers" helped bring the Silesian weavers' revolt to the attention of a European audience. It was hailed by Karl Marx as "an intrepid battle cry."
Marx, Karl (1818-1883): Founder of modern socialist theory.Marx interpreted the Silesian weavers' revolt as the birth of the German workers' movement. This gave the uprising lasting significance in the history of the German labor movement.
Wolff, Wilhelm (1809-1864): German journalist and political radical. Wolff's account of the Silesian weavers' revolt is the most influential description of the event. Wolff later met Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, becoming a cofounder of the Communist League upon its inception in 1847. Wolff returned to Silesia in 1848 and was heavily involved in the left wing of the revolution. Marx dedicated the first volume of Das Kapital to Wolff.
See also: Silk Workers' Revolts.
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