National Socialists Before Hitler, Part II: The National Labor Movement

Documents from the early period of the original German Workers’ Party and the national labor movement in Austria-Hungary


German National Socialism was born out of the labor movement. By the late 1800s, racial tension within the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire had created major divisions within the trade unions. Increasing competition between Czech and German workers, especially in industrial and border areas like Bohemia, combined with the Empire’s hollow sense of national-identity and aggressive clashes over cultural and language competition to foster a serious split within both the unions and the social-democratic movement. Nationalism took hold among both Czech and German laborers, leading to violent brawls and riots. The nascent Social-Democratic Workers’ Party in its 1897 conference fractured over the ‘national question’, breaking into six separate sections based on race. And workers of all ethnicities, dissatisfied with the internationalist ideology of the most prominent unions, began forming their own nationalist ‘protective-associations’ in response. These associations were not at first official unions for bargaining over wages or working conditions, merely pressure groups intended to provide collective aid to members against ‘foreign’ competition – but by the time of the German Workers’ Party’s (DAP’s) founding in 1903, several had evolved into unions proper and the others were growing in strength. This ‘national labor movement’ was in fact why the German Workers’ Party was founded in the first place. All the DAP’s leading members were active within the German nationalist associations, and their original intent was that the Party should serve as the political arm of the German national labor movement, taking the demands of the völkisch workers into parliament. The DAP in its early years thus placed a heavy emphasis on uniting the various independent nationalist unions and associations into a consolidated force, providing them with the common vision and organizational tactics necessary to make both political and industrial activism more effective – a process aided greatly by the unifying ideology of National Socialism as it developed within the Party. The documents below, translated from DAP co-founder Hans Knirsch’s history of Austrian & Sudeten National Socialism, provide an intriguing window into this early period of National Socialism’s history, demonstrating how intrinsic were issues of labor, work, reform, and socialism to the early evolution of National Socialist philosophy. 

The First Common Conference of the
Völkisch Trade-Union Movement,
Leitmeritz, April 29th, 1906  


Although the DAP’s founders were all leading members of the ethnic-German unions and protective-associations, and although the Party was expressly founded to give the nationalist workers a political voice, the links between the DAP and the national labor movement were not concrete at first. Wariness of political (as opposed to industrial) activism was common among the völkisch workers; the Imperial government had in the past proven perfectly willing to persecute unionists who dabbled in party politics, and previous attempts to ally the nationalist unions with Georg Ritter von Schönerer’s Pan-German Association and Karl Wolff’s Free Pan-German Party had led to disillusionment and a suspicion of parliamentary politicians as bourgeois opportunists seeking to exploit the workers in pursuit of purely middle-class interests. As a consequence, the DAP’s major goal after its founding was to unite the fractious, highly-independent nationalist labor organizations and to convince them of the need to take a more organized, cooperative stance with each other and with the DAP. 

To this end on April 29th, 1906, the Party organized the first common conference of all nationalist workers’  associations, held in Leitmeritz, Bohemia. Represented were delegates from the various ethnic-German bakers’, miners’, builders’, assistant-metalworkers’, and woodworkers’ associations, among others. The conference’s purpose was to convince these groups of the necessity to reconstitute themselves as formal trade-unions; to establish guiding principles for the national labor movement; and to set out binding statutes for future collaborative work. The event was considered a success by its attendees, and although the organizers found it necessary to maintain that the conference was not formally affiliated with any one political party, the links forged at Leitmeritz between the unions and the DAP grew strong enough over the following years that, by 1909, the unions had officially recognized the Party as their “greatest ally” and official political representative. Reproduced below are two short documents from this conference: a brief extract from Alois Ciller’s report on the German trade-unions’ goals and tasks (Ciller was another DAP co-founder and the author of the Party’s original programme), along with the four guiding principles unanimously adopted by the conference delegates. –Bogumil

Goals and Tasks of the German Trade-Unions (Extract)

The German trade-union has the task of winning rights and recognition for the German working-class within its own Volk. To this end the international principle proves itself, particularly in the Austrian peoples’ state, utterly unsuitable and detrimental. Where the economic struggle involves making common cause [with non-Germans] this is self-evident from the outset. The cultural work of German workers in associations with Slovaks, Croats, Poles, etc. is in all circumstances an absurdity. We wish for the working-class of every nation to create better conditions through their own resources. We have to think of ourselves and our duty. That duty consists of tireless German trade-union work.

* * *

Guiding Principles for the German Trade-Unions

1. The German trade-unions unite the German worker to a national-economic labor-policy to the exclusion of any religious and party-political activity. They strive for the intellectual, economic, and cultural progress of the German working-class and for their full equality of rights in state and society.

2. The German unions stand on the ground of social reform. Their work is dedicated to every progress possible. They reject, however, that revolutionary wordplay that is only suitable for diverting the worker away from his real goals and diminishing his involvement in the organization’s daily social-work.

3. The next tasks of the German trade-unions extend to wage- and occupational-questions, working-hours, the implementation and expansion of social-protection and social-insurance legislation, as well as the self-help of the German labor-force. As the medium for occupational activity: organizations, workers’-committees, negotiating with employers collectively.

4. The German trade-unions reject so-called ‘international’ organization as harmful and pointless for the German workers back in Austria. Where, however, workers’ interests are advocated in common, German unions or local groups respectively can make common cause with other organizations on a case by case basis.


The German Labor-Union Leader


One of the decisions agreed to by delegates at the 1906 conference was the establishment of a central union commission to direct the growing unification of the nationalist workers’ groups and to prepare the ground for an expanded general conference in 1909. It was further decided that this new commission would publish its own official organ to help keep workers abreast of its activities and to aid in the coordination of the national labor movement across the Empire.  Hans Knirsch, DAP chairman for Bohemia and another Party co-founder, was elected leader of this commission, further cementing the organizational and ideological ties between the völkisch unions and the new Workers’ Party. The paper published by his commission was titled German Labor-Union Leader (‘Deutscher Gewerkschaftsführer’) and its offices were headquartered in the Bohemian city of Aussig-an-der-Elbe, the birthplace of the DAP. The first edition of the Labor-Union Leader appeared on July 5th, 1906; its opening editorial, most likely written by Hans Knirsch himself (who as commission-leader doubled as the newspaper’s editor-in-chief), is translated in full below. The editorial essentially draws a clear line between the internationalism of the social-democratic unions and the nationalism of the ethnic-German unions, arguing that true reform work and the workers’ real interests as a class can only be realized with the latter. Sentiments like these, with their roots directly in the industrial labor movement, provided the groundwork on which National Socialist ideology was built. –Bogumil 

Issue No. 1, July 5th, 1906

Fellow Workers!

The many words of introduction or welcome we could use today are inadequate. When our paper goes out from workplace to workplace, so will the organized workmates greet it with honest joy: it is a valuable ally in the struggle for German trade-union organization, i.e. for a better, freer future for German workers in Austria. They will welcome it as a crusader against apathy, disunity, and sentimental idleness within the circles of professional comrades; they will be engaged with and through the press in the vital enlightenment and education of German brother-workers in trade-union solidarity and serious social work.

But the German Labor-Union Leader does not just support the workers, the shop-stewards, nor the progressive pioneers of the trade-union organization alone.  It commits itself to all colleagues in German-Austria in order to win them over to our good cause. Our cause is also the cure! Forwards, to work!

The lessons which have engraved themselves on the minds of the German working-class in the last year are vivid enough. Wherever we look, the social war rages in every form. It is not the time for we German workers to wait passively for the course of events to be resolved, to entrust the protection of our interests to merciful fate. The honor of our class [Stande], the self-confidence of the German worker, our concerns for the future, they obligate us to pursue vigilant, precautionary protective work. Everywhere the concept of trade-union organization comes to life, and new occupational structures arise on the firm foundation of national-economic German labor-policy.

The task of our central organ is to expand these unions, to train and supply their members, to draw in the indifferent German workers, and to bring about the amalgamation of the individual professional associations into a powerful, unified movement. While the unions champion economic interests, the press accomplishes the educational work of the organization.

With firm confidence we go to work. It is true that the work that awaits us is not easy to accomplish. The German trade-unions understand that they are still in the early stages of their development, and teething problems cannot be ruled out. But the movement and its goals are as fit as a fiddle, and must surpass their difficult beginnings to arrive at a fruitful progress. Already the path to the current state of affairs is joyous evidence that we must succeed, with active untiring agitation, in gaining ground for the movement among the German working-class.

If, in addition to more fertile areas, stonier ground exists on which the seed of enlightenment has to be sown two or three times before the harvest slowly ripens, then we should not let this work annoy us. The more difficult the victory is to achieve, the richer its reward. The recognition that the German workers of Austria can otherwise find effective protection against social oppression and the devastating Slavic flood only within German trade-unions – in the end this truth prevails in spite of everything.

When the first local groups of our associations came into being, the social-democratic and ‘Christian’ prophets were on hand immediately to predict an early demise. German-National Trade-Unions! – And today? The two oldest of the German associations, those of the commercial clerks and the railwaymen,1 have become recognized by the megalomaniacal ‘comrades’ quite attentively, because without their vote an industrial action in the German area can no longer be effectively carried out. And so this recognition will come even more often.

The national trade-union concept celebrates its joyful resurrection even in the social-democratic camp. The “International” has perhaps managed to press the German comrades into a single organization with Polish, Czech, Slovak, and Slovenian proletarians, but this ‘masterpiece’ is about to come apart at the seams, and the days are counting down to when we will have nationally-distinct, socialist trade-unions in Austria.

The lesson of the “International’s” bankruptcy supports our point-of-view: let the German labor-force, which is the most advanced culturally, work with all its available strength for the expansion of the German trade-unions in order to represent their own livelihood, their demands, and their interests. Otherwise we desire for the working-class of every nation to create better conditions out of their own resources.

We German workers in Austria are faced with this decision, and therefore we must not waste an hour that could be spent on trade-union work.

Brother workers! We appeal to your oft-tested spirit and convictions. The next tasks which lie ahead of us are, above all, the strengthening and development of the smaller German trade-unions, an intensive agitation in the foundation of new local groups, the dissemination of our press, and the creation of new professional associations. We have brought our numbers up to 12,000 German trade-union colleagues; a year’s work must double that number!

We also hope for all possible funding and support on the part of the General German Workers’ Educational Association.2

German trade-union colleagues! German workers of Austria! Unite to safeguard your interests, campaign tirelessly for the German trade-union! We do not call for class-struggle, but we demand our rights. And in this sign we shall conquer!3


 Translator’s Notes

1. The “oldest of the German associations” referred to here are the German National Commercial Clerks’ Association (‘Deutschnationaler Handlungsgehilfen-Verband‘, DHV) and the Reich League of German Railwaymen (‘Reichsbund deutscher Eisenbahner‘, RDE):
The DHV was a white-collar workers’ union founded in Hamburg, Germany in 1893 which mainly represented commercial employees, store clerks, and office workers. It swiftly grew to be the largest white-collar union, comprising over 50,000 members in 1903 with branches in Bohemia and Lower Austria – by 1931 its membership had swelled to over 400,000. Although völkisch-nationalist in ideology (Jews were barred from membership), the DHV in Germany refused to tie itself to any one party; its branches in Austria-Hungary were more closely-aligned with the DAP, particularly in Bohemia.
The RDE was founded in 1902 as an independent German-nationalist union by railway worker Otto Kroy. The railwaymen were undoubtedly the most nationalistically-inclined workers within Austria-Hungary; by 1905 the RDE had grown to over 12,000 members, and by 1914 it was the largest nationalist union in the Empire. Railwaymen and the RDE made up the backbone of both the national labor movement and the DAP – around 25% of the German Workers’ Party’s total membership were railway workers.

2. The General German Workers’ Educational Association (‘Allgemeinen Deutschen Arbeiterbildungsvereine‘, ADAV) was founded in Leipzig on May 23, 1863, by socialist leader Ferdinand Lassalle. It was the first mass workers’ party in Germany, and its merger with the Social-Democratic Workers’ Party in 1875 led to the creation of the party which eventually became the famous and still-influential Social-Democratic Party of Germany. This merger was not accepted by all members, however, resulting in a breakaway movement which retained the General German Workers’ Educational Association name and claimed to be the true heir to the original ADAV’s Lassallean philosophy. Inherent within this Lassalleanism were certain nationalist tendencies; the breakaway ADAV was openly supportive of  Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws and established links with the pan-German movement. This ADAV still existed by the time of the 1906 national labor conference, although by this point it was a relatively minor group in comparison to the DHV and RDE.

3. In German: “Und in diesem Zeichen müssen wir siegen!” This is the German for the Latin phrase “In hic signo vinces” (“And in this sign we shall conquer”), words which supposedly appeared to Emperor Constantine in a religious vision sent from God. The author is stating that German workers will be assured victory so long as they faithfully follow the line of national labor.


Extracts translated from Hans Knirsch’s Aus der Geschichte der deutschen nationalsozialistischen Arbeiterbewegung Alt-Oesterreichs und der Tschechoslowakei (1932), Verlag der deutschen nationalsozialistischen Arbeiterpartei

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