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Franz Rehbein, Farm Worker (c. 1890)

In the German territories east of the Elbe River, landed estates dominated the agricultural sector. There, large numbers of agricultural day laborers worked for low wages and with limited opportunities for improving their lot. They often migrated when work became scarce, but more regular seasonal migration gradually became common, as was already the case for other occupational groups, including the brick-workers from Lippe mentioned in this document. The text below comes from Franz Rehbein’s (1867-1909) autobiography, edited by the Protestant minister and social reformer Paul Göhre and published in 1911. Göhre had authored his own account of three months spent undercover in a Chemnitz factory and supported the publication of other working-class autobiographies. He wanted to lay bare the miserable living and working conditions of rural workers in the Prussian provinces east of the Elbe River, and Rehbein’s compelling account served his purpose well. Here, Rehbein describes his life as an agricultural day laborer in the Ditmarsch, a lowland area along the North Sea coast. In order to assess Rehbein’s impressions of the effects of mechanization and industrial timetables on work in the countryside, it is important to know that Rehbein had ceased being an agricultural worker long before he wrote this account. In 1895, he lost one hand in a threshing machine accident; subsequently, he made ends meet by writing for various Social Democratic journals and serving as a functionary in the Free Trade Union movement. Nevertheless, his is one of few surviving accounts of everyday life in the German countryside.

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Soon the winter came, harsh and severe.

[ . . . ]

To make matters worse, winter unemployment was increasing all the time. For the first time I learned what it meant to have to struggle through as a “free” and married day laborer in the “blessed marsh.”

None of the farmers had any work left for us day laborers. There was simply nothing to do on the farms. The grain had been threshed by machine; there was no chaff left to separate either; and anything else could be handled with a couple of farmhands and young boys. So we day laborers just sat around, staring out the window. Gradually, I began to feel uneasy and morose, and these feelings got worse the longer I was forced to remain idle. One can stand staying at home for a few days, even a few weeks; you go and look for others with whom to chat or play cards, and you hope that things will improve. If you’re used to regular work, however, and the period of unemployment drags on, then it gets damned uncomfortable to be stuck in your own four walls. What a terrible feeling to be young, strong, and sitting jobless at home when you really want to work! You feel downright ashamed to be seen out on the streets.

It’s as though every shrub and every manure heap were grinning at you with malicious glee. At the same time, the few groschen you’ve saved up are rapidly disappearing; you can already count on one hand when you’ll have to break your last thaler, and then what? Oh, how beautiful and heavy a thaler seems when you’ve earned it, and how light it becomes when you’re forced to spend it!

With pent-up anger, you watch as the “heavyweight” farmers drive to their “visits” and amusements without giving a single thought to the growing poverty of the day laborers. Their steaming horses are so fat that you can’t count a single rib on their bodies, and here you are tightening your belt from one day to the next. Strange thoughts appear in your mind then. Here you are, a poor devil eager for work; but those for whom you worked your fingers to the bone last summer for low wages are just shrugging their broad shoulders indifferently – is it their fault that they don’t need workers now?

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