Why on earth did working-class German men dress like this to attend political rallies in 1928?

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Erstes Deutsches Arbeitersängerbundfest, Hannover, 16–18 June 1928, postcard. With permission of Historische Bildpostkarten, Universität Osnabrück Sammlung Prof. Dr. Sabine Giesbrecht

This article features the research of Dr. Sabine Hake Professor, Professor and Texas Chair of German Literature and Culture in the Department of Germanic Studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

You’re a member of the working class living in a cramped urban space with at least a few other people. You’re constantly concerned about money. Frustrated with the prevailing political leadership, you decide change needs to happen and you think socialism might be the solution. For those living in the western world today, all of this might sound quite familiar. But what do the men in this postcard have to do with that sentiment?

The men in this photo are radicalized members of the German Social Democratic party who deepened their connection to their political party through choral societies. By joining together to sing songs about their experiences as workers these men found the space to express discontent, frustration, and other negative emotions associated with their worker life.

Dr. Sabine Hake explores this “politics of emotion” within German worker culture in The Proletarian Dream: Socialism, Culture, and Emotion in Germany, 1863–1933. She writes, “There are few cultural practices that attest to the emotional basis of proletarian identifications as powerfully as the act of singing in unison and, in the process, finding a voice and claiming a name – whether as worker, working man, or proletarian.”

Workers’ songs were often an hybrid of revolutionary anthems, traditional folk songs, church hymns, and bourgeois Kunstlieder (art songs). Lyrics often reflected abundant nature metaphors: the ubiquitous rays of sun, dawns of day, and storms of revolution.

Both a strength and failing of these singing groups was their deep commitment toward building all-male bonds within the worker community. This success partially came because they excluded women and children–a fact also reflected in the early history of this political movement. Women and children, who also worked in factories and mines during this period, missed out on the emotional release and support the groups offered.

Nonetheless, these singing traditions became an integral part of German working-class life, even through immigration and exile to places like Central Texas. In fact, Scholz Garten, one of the Austin, Texas’ most popular (and historic) spots to grab a beer was previously owned by one of these German singing groups! The next time you’re in town, we recommend you check out not just the beer, but think about the slightly revolutionary experience you might be in for. Prost!

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