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Winfried R. Garscha

Networking Labour Studies: The ITH Experience (1965–2005)

Contribution to the 9th Australian Labour History Conference (Sydney, 30 June 2005)

The International Conference of Labour and Social History was founded in 1964/65 as Internationale Tagung der Historiker der Arbeiterbewegung (ITH), i.e. "international conference of historians of the labour movement". In September 1964 some forty scholars, specialized in the history of Central European social movements, met in Vienna in order to prepare the implementation of labour studies into the program of the 12th International Congress of Historical Sciences to be held there in the following year. The outcome of the meeting was that the presence of a considerable number of historians from communist-ruled countries at the International Congress of Historical Sciences in 1965 should be used for organizing a special conference about labour history in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its successor states. For practical reasons the conference had been organized outside Vienna.
This convention of East and West European labour historians turned out to meet a general interest in exchanging results of research into a then highly politicized topic like labour history across the "iron curtain". Therefore the participants agreed upon the instalment of the conferences annually in mid-September, before the academic year starts at most of European universities.
The conveners had chosen the provincial capital of Upper Austria, Linz on the Danube, an industrial town some 180 km west of Vienna, for their conferences. The Upper Austrian chamber of labour offered a convenient educational facility there: the "Jaegermayrhof", a former inn on the top of a hill outside the city, where already Franz Schubert had given concerts, and later on workers had held their meetings – until February 1934, when the site became a centre of the fights during the civil war between the labour militia "Schutzbund" and the government with its fascist "Heimwehr" auxiliaries. Thus the conferences have been held on a historical site with special reference to the "heroic" side of the history of Austrian labour movement.

After the death of Stalin, and Khrushchev's revealing of the Stalinist falsifications of the history of the communist movement at the 20th and 22nd Congress of the CPSU, labour history became a major field of research in communist-ruled countries in East and Central Europe, thoroughly controlled by the party officials though. As the communist movement justified its existence from the "treason" of social democratic party leaders, not only the "own" history, but also the development of social democratic movements were tackled with remarkable keenness. And as the communist governments derived the establishment of the "people's democracies" in Europe from the role of communists during the anti-fascist resistance movements in those countries, also the history of fascism/Nazism became a crucial issue of both political education and scholarly research. Huge institutes were created, and apart from the edition of the works of the "classics" (Marx-Engels, Lenin, and national communist leaders) research into labour history on both national and international level had been the main task of those institutes of "Marxism-Leninism" until 1989. Part of the public performance of those institutes was the publication of academic journals like the East Berlin monthly Beitraege zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung (since 1959).
West European social democratic parties answered the challenging communist publication activities on the field of history by the creation of own research institutions in the 1960's (or the extension and political upgrading of existing institutes) and many academics close to the social democratic movement devoted their scholarly research to the refutation of communist interpretations of labour history in general, and especially to the disproving of Stalinist falsifications. After social democratic parties came into power in West and Central Europe (after 1968) they discovered the potential of the implementation of labour history as part of the national history for gaining hegemony in the civil society. Exhibitions, documentaries, new museums, and series of scholarly and popular publications depicted numerous aspects of labour and social history, and generations of students turned to labour studies.
Whereas in Scandinavia those institutes have been close to the (social democratic) unions, in Italy the communist movement offered facilities for research and publication also outside the "party line". Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, communist and millionaire, who had founded a library in Milan devoted to the study of contemporary history and social movements, edited a yearbook (Annali) since 1958, which was open to all currents of the labour movement.
In the English speaking world labour studies had never been thus politicized and became part of social sciences, dealt with by the academia since the early 1960's. Already 1956 the most important archive and library for labour studies, the Amsterdam based International Institute of Social History (IISH), started a pioneering journal, the International Review of Social History (later on published by Cambridge University Press). 1960 the British Society for the Study of Labour History followed with its Bulletin (three issues a year, like the IISH journal, 1990 renamed in Labour History Review) and the New York University with its quarterly Labor History. Since 1962 the Australian Labour History Association has been publishing Labour History twice a year, 1965 the Scottish Labour History Society, followed up with its Journal, 1967 renamed in Scottish Labour History. These journals, understandable to a large scientific community, provided an exchange of ideas and research results even without any networking activities.
In Central Europe labour history remained one of the central "battlefields" of the East-West conflict even after the replacement of the Cold War by the policy of detente in the 1970's. This applied most of all to the two Germanies, because there the common language facilitated the exchange of ideologically led interpretations of the common labour history (often enough "spiced" with coarseness). The leading scholarly institution for labour studies in West Germany, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, had existed already before the war. Dissolved by the Nazis it had been reinstituted in 1947. Since 1961 the foundation has been publishing a renowned yearbook, the Archiv fuer Sozialgeschichte. Since the 1980's the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung have been opening an increasing number of bureaus in up to now 33 countries around the globe including all former communist-ruled countries and China, and is employing almost 600 staff members. Although the main task of the foundation is aiding the implementation and reinforcement of democracy, it still deals with labour history, maintains a special library with more than 700,000 items, holds the largest labour archive in Germany and sponsors labour study related activities, among them the annual ITH conferences.
By the creation of the ITH East German historians got the opportunity to meet those authors on the other side of the "iron curtain", whose books they had reviewed before in a scathing way, for the first time personally – and vice versa. Normally East German scholars had no opportunity to attend conferences in the West, because they hardly got exit permits, and to West German scholars it was strongly recommended not to take part in any way in the academic life in communist-ruled countries.
Austria as a neutral state between the two blocks could host such meetings. The main organizer of the Linz conferences was Herbert Steiner, an Austrian communist scholar with close contacts to social democratic leaders in the West and to dissident communists in the East (the Czechoslovak secret service refused him entry visas for that reason). From 1970 Austria was ruled by the social democrats, and in the 13 years of Bruno Kreisky being federal chancellor of the Republic, labour studies both taught at the universities and conducted by grass root associations received considerable public subsidies. The ITH conferences got additional support by the chambers of labour and the unions. An important contribution to the financing of ITH's activities have been the annual fees of the member institutes: ITH was conceived as an umbrella organization of institutions and associations. The full fee of around 600 AUD had been paid by both social democratic and communist party institutes. University institutes and labour history associations pay a reduced annual fee of around 300 AUD. In Austria until the end of the 1980's the ministry of education paid the membership fee for the university institutes being members of ITH. The Linz conferences were open to representatives of member institutes only, because it was their annual membership fee which secured the maintenance of the organization. But no scholar who wanted to participate had been rejected: they were adopted by member institutes. Some member institutes even looked for such "freelancers", if they had no expert for the respective conference topic. The opening of the organization to individual membership in the late 1980's did not attract additional members, because the ITH wanted the Linz conference to be open for all scholars (subject to the available places – the prerequisite of registration in advance still applies) and did not demand from conference participants to join the organization.
Until 1989 ITH's "diplomatic" function remained the main task of the organization. In the early 1980's, after almost two decades of sharp tensions between the Chinese and Soviet communist parties, labour historians of both countries used a Linz conference for a first reapproach, and also one of the first face-to-face dispute between Chinese and Japanese historians about Japanese colonialism in China took place in Linz – during the 20th ITH conference (1984) which dealt with the attitude of labour parties and unions towards the colonial policy of their respective countries. (By the way, it was this Linz conference, which opened the organization to members in Latin America, Africa, and Asia, where only Japanese labour historians had been involved into the network until then.)
The negative side of this "diplomatic" function was a certain neglect of the scholarly function of the conferences. Boring papers without any contribution to the development of the topic of research had been accepted when they fitted into the "diplomatic" pattern. On the other hand the recording and publication of the discussions in the conference papers ("ITH Tagungsberichte" have been published almost annually since the end of the 1960's) provides a valuable source for the study of the history of labour historiography and its role in the East West conflict.
But in addition to their "diplomatic" function the Linz conferences offered for labour historians from different (non-communist) European countries the possibility to meet, to exchange information about new research projects and recently published books and articles, and to discuss methodological problems.
With the end of communist rule in East Europe the "diplomatic" function of ITH had expired. The organization tried to redefine its mission statement – to be one of some forums for international exchange of research on the field of labour studies. The peculiarity of Linz was its history and therefore its close ties to historians in former communist-ruled countries. Young colleagues of those countries had little sympathy for plans to dissolve ITH after the fall of communism. They regarded the Linz conferences as an opportunity to get familiar with current discussions among West European and North American social historians. Additional advantages of the conferences for young scholars have been the low conference fee (around 140 AUD for conference papers, meals and – though moderate – accommodation) and a specialized team of interpreters (English/French/German).

The 27th Linz conference (1991) discussed "Labour Movement in a world that had changed" – the contributors tackled with "blank areas" in the history of communism, and one could feel that for some of them it was like a "day of reckoning". Most of them – both from West and East Europe – had already been contributors to previous conferences. Only six of the twenty-six papers were given in English, none of them in French.
The central theme of the first Linz conferences after 1989 might be described as "changing identities". Topic of the 1990 conference was "Labour Movement – Church(es) – Religion" (a bilingual [English/German] edition of the conference papers was published in 1991), subsequent topics were gender, nation, and rites & symbols.
Whereas the 1991 conference was in some way like a relapse into the early days of the organization, the 1992 conference was in many respects a new experience: To this conference on "Gender – Class – Ethnicity" for the first time on a large scale scholars who did not represent ITH member institutes had been invited. By the way, one of the invited scholars at this conference was Lucy Taksa from the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. Organizer of the conference was Gabriella Hauch, who was to be elected ITH president in 1999.
Also the next conferences followed this mode of inviting internationally renowned experts in their respective field of research in order to make tho conferences more attractive for young scholars, because most of the member institutes continued to delegate the same persons over the years which led to an aging process of the audience during the conferences. This mode of invitation applied for the conferences about "Labour Movement and National Identity" (1993), "Labour Movement and Migration" (1995), "Sources and Labour Historiography after the Collapse of 'Real socialism'" (1996) and "Rites, Myths and Symbols – Labour Movement between 'Civil Religion' and Popular Culture" (1997). After each of those conferences a trilingual (English/French/German) edition of the papers had been published in the subsequent year.
The 30th Linz conference in 1994 was dedicated to the ITH itself. The title of the conference reader was "The International of Labour Historians". An Austrian (Josef Ehmer) and a Japanese (Masao Nishikawa) historian analysed state and perspectives of labour historiography 30 years after the foundation of ITH. The "grand old lady" of German social democratic historiography, Susanne Miller, told the audience about outstanding figures of the last thirty years. Among the contributors was the Polish Jewish historian Feliks Tych, who depicted ITH's influence on the emergence of new tendencies in labour historiography in East Europe. The trilingual edition of the conference papers ("Die Internationale der 'Labour Historians'. Stand und Perspektiven der Arbeiter/innen/ geschichtsschreibung im 30. Jahr der ITH") was done by the new ITH general secretary, Christine Schindler.
Also the 34th Linz conference in 1998 ("New Departures – the Labour Movement and Social Movements in the 1960's") happened to become a nostalgic event: Despite interesting political and sociological analyses, e.g. of the Anti-Semitic policy of the leaders of the Polish communist labour party in the late 1960's, the discussion was – at least partly – focussed on the personal experience of the participants during the student's "revolt" in 1968. Some of the conference papers had been published in journals for contemporary history later, but the organizers were not able to produce the traditional ITH conference volume.
Although the Linz conferences had become scholarly conventions of remarkable quality, it became evident that the dwindling interest for labour studies in most European countries and Japan also affected the ITH as organisation. Former ITH member institutes had been either dissolved or renamed in a way that the word "labour" was eliminated. The 35th Linz conference (1999) consequently asked: "What means 'Labour Movement' at the End of the 20th Century?" The publication of the conference papers was called: "The Labour Movement – a Failed Project of Modernity?" In 2000 even the Linz conference avoided the dealing with genuine labour issues: subject of the 36th conference was a theme which fitted well in the topical discourse on politics of memory, which gained much more interest among students and scholars than labour studies: "Memory of Dictatorship and Persecution in International Comparison". It was high time to organize a conference which showed the potential of labour studies. This was done by Helga Grebing (Germany) and Josef Ehmer (Austria) in 2001. The 37th Linz conference dealt with "History and Future of Labour", the trilingual publication is one on ITH's best books, because the different papers had been compiled in a coherent manner that makes the volume much more than an edition of conference papers.
For 2002 (38th Linz conference: "Sexuality, the Working Classes and Labour Movements") the preparatory group published, for the first time, a call for papers – with an overwhelming result: more than fifty proposals were seriously discussed by the organizers, but in the end less than one third of the submitted papers could be invited to be presented at the conference. Although the edition of the conference papers has only a German title ("Sexualitaet, Unterschichtenmilieus und ArbeiterInnenbewegung", which means "Sexuality, Lower Class Milieus and Workers' Movements") and contains a considerable part of French texts, including the preface, a lasting interest in the volume can be observed also on the part of English speaking historians.
By attracting a remarkable number of participants who never had heard from ITH and also were not interested in other issues than the conference topic, the 2002 conference showed the fundamental dilemma of an organization like ITH: A precondition for any network is the interest of those whose activities are to be linked. But why should people be interested in networking labour studies, who only want to attend a conference dealing with "their" respective topic of research? On the other hand only such conferences can fuel a constant interest in the organization among the academia. The majority of social historians has no more perspective to become staff members in an academic institution some day. And the existing institutes suffer from diminishing public subsidies. Therefore a reduction to a network of member institutes only, i.e. periodical conventions of representatives of scholarly institutions and associations without attractive topics of discussion and/or prominent invited speakers, risk to turn into meetings of old friends and colleagues with little scholarly output.

A solution might have been the creation of a stronger secretariat – since the late 1980's the ITH staff has been one part time employee over the year and some 3-4 assistants during the conferences; all other duties have been done by volunteers.
But the constant fall of financial supplies did not allow an expansion of the secretariat activities. The only improvement was the creation of a website (in 1999) which has been updated every second or third month since (/start/index.html). In the 1970's and 1980's several academic institutes and scholarly associations in Austria had supported ITH's activities by assisting the preparation of the Linz conferences and taking care for the publication of the conference papers. Also the mere presence of scholars during preparatory meetings aided the small staff. Since the decline of labour studies in Europe in the 1990's no such assistance had been given, hardly any member institute is interested in contacts between the conferences, only some four or five member institutes are contributing regularly to the newsletter which is published three times a year.

At the annual general meeting of the organization in 2003 the former ITH president, Helmut Konrad, proposed to the representatives of the member institutes the dissolution of ITH. Until the next annual general meeting the member institutes should decide the following alternatives:
• Continuing the Linz conferences as long as the financial means allow that (i.e. until 2009 or 2010), because otherwise topics like labour history and history of social movements disappear from public discourse, or
• evaluation of ITH's activities in more than four decades of existence at a great final conference 2005 or 2006 and closing the secretariat by then.

Only a few member institutes took part in the discussion between the annual general meetings 2003 and 2004, but among them were such important members like the German Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Dutch International Institute of Social History. The outcome of the discussion was that ITH will continue to hold the annual Linz conferences. Member institutes are encouraged to organize conferences or workshops on special topics in addition to the Linz conferences, the secretariat will provide the ITH network and, although on a moderate level, financial support for the preparation of such additional conventions. The annual general meeting during the 2005 Linz conference will discuss structural reforms, a new direction (president, general secretary) will be elected.
Despite this interior disputes the "normal" activities continued. At the 39th Linz conference (2003) invited papers on "Labour and New Social Movements in a Globalizing World System" were discussed, a bilingual (English/German) edition of the conference papers is available since 2004. For the 40th Linz conference ("Mercy or Right" – Development of Social Security Systems) a call for paper was launched, almost 50% of the proposals could be accepted; for the first time since the 1980's staff members of Austrian labour organizations took part in the scholarly preparation of the conference, among them Brigitte Pellar, director of the research institute for the history of unions and chambers of labour. The meeting of the international preparatory group was held at the Viennese chamber of labour. A trilingual edition of the conference papers will be published in September 2005. The 41st Linz conference (September 15th – 18th, 2005) will discuss "Labour Biographies and Prosopography", the preparatory meeting in January was held in Paris, because the main organizer of this year's conference is Bruno Groppo, a French professor with close ties to Latin America, who has been contributing to the organization of the conferences since the mid-1980's

The ITH experience shows that a precondition for a functioning international network is the existence of a national network of people interested in labour history or a group of academics dealing with labour studies. Although it is possible to organize international conferences on a regular basis, to publish the papers and to maintain a website also without such a local support, this cannot be regarded as a functioning network. This might provide only a framework for more efficient networking activities in the future.
Certainly, it would have been a failure to dissolve that framework as long as it is supported by public subsidies and the annual membership fee of a group of scholarly associations and institutes around the world. But without a remarkable input from outside it is likely that ITH will not survive.

Winfried R. GARSCHA
Born 1952 in Linz, Upper Austria, studied History and Linguistics at the University of Vienna, PhD in 1981 with a thesis about the "Anschluss" movement in the 1920’s and 1930’s in Germany and Austria.
Archivist and supervisor for scholarly projects at the Documentation Center of Austrian Resistance/DOeW (1987); co-director of the Austrian Research Center for Postwar Trials (1998-).
Deputy secretary (1978-), vice president (1990-) and treasurer (1994-) of the International Conference of Labour and Social History (ITH).
Books and essays about Austrian history, about labor movement and about the dealing with the Nazi past in Austrian arts, politics and judiciary.


The convention of West and East European labour historians in Vienna from 7-9 September 1964(in preparation of the International Congress of Historical Sciences, CISH, 1965)

Herbert Steiner (left)
and Rudolf Neck (right),n the "founding fathers" of the ITH