A New History of the Labor and Union Movement

This research group »A New History of the Labor and Union Movement« aimed to open up a new perspective on the history of the labor and union movement as well as the intellectual and academic cultures related to it. This was being achieved through closely aligned case studies, a cooperative working approach that provides young scholars the opportunity to research the project topic as independently as possible while simultaneously remaining in constant dialogue with one another. The project was structured as a scholarly network in which the epistemological focus lies on significant individuals in the worker and union movement – both prominent and hitherto largely unknown individuals. The biographical approaches to these individuals did not, however, aim to create traditional biographies of scholars, functionaries, or oeuvres, nor to concentrate on the history of organizational processes. Rather, the case studies focused on the intellectual and lifeworld experiences of the respective actors. Their biographical paths, which function as a historical source and a historical medium at once, served the illumination of the historical validity of concepts, categories, and imaginations within the worker and union movement.

The timeframe examined here – with different focal points depending on the individual scholar – reaches from the nineteenth century into the 1980s. It thus encompassed the period from the emergence and establishment of the organized worker and union movement through to the final phase of the Cold War. Yet the central point of reference for the entire project was an event that posits a downright erratic moment between these two eras shaped by the social semantics of the time: World War II and the Holocaust as its most central event.

The constant reference to the Holocaust is based on its epistemological significance for the labor and union movement. The annihilation of the European Jews has left neither the periods before nor after the Holocaust untouched. The civilizational rupture of the Holocaust damaged the central categories of the worker and union movement that had without exception emerged from the age of the first industrial revolution. The concepts of »work«, »progress«, and »class« that emerged in the nineteenth century were consequently devalued. This also cast the emergence of categories and imaginations of the worker and labor movement in a different light: The impact of the damage they endured reaches back to the time of their emergence. This reflection on their devaluation sharpens our perspective on the validity and durability of the worker and union movement as well as on those traditions that it intended to continue fostering in the future.

Project Manager
Prof. Dr. Yfaat Weiss

Head of the Research Group
PD Dr. Jan Gerber

Research Projects

A New History of the Labor and Union Movement

The Last Citizen
An Intellectual Biography of Max Horkheimer

Dr. Magnus Klaue (affiliated)

A New History of the Labor and Union Movement

A Labour Man in Berlin –
Richard Löwenthal and the Social Democratic Party of West Germany (SPD)

Felix Pankonin (affiliated)

A New History of the Labor and Union Movement

Boundaries of Perception
The Left and the Holocaust

PD Dr. Jan Gerber


The research project was funded by the Hans Böckler Foundation and the Free State of Saxony.