International Association of Labour History Institutions

In Bebel's Footsteps: Some Notes on the Beginnings of the IALHI - by Jaap Kloosterman

Based on a text published in Brood & Rozen in 2009 by Jaap Kloosterman, former director of the International Institute of Social History and former secretary of the IALHI.
Jaap Kloosterman, 'In Bebels voetspoor. Wouter Steenhaut en de IALHI', in Brood & Rozen 14(2009)5, 26-35.

It was August Bebel who in 1878 was the first to call for the establishment of an archive and library for the Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei Deutschlands, thereby initiating the systematic preservation of social-historical heritage. Because of Bismarck it took some time before Bebel's wish could be fulfilled, and then initially only in Swiss and English exile; but in 1899 the library was finally opened to the public in Berlin. The overwhelming success – the annual visitor numbers exceeded one hundred thousand shortly after the turn of the century – was inspiring. In 1902, the Stockholm Workers' Library also began to collect archives, and four years later it was formally transformed into the archive and library institution of the Swedish socialist party and trade union movement. The Arbetarrörelsens Arkiv och Bibliotek (ArAB) provided a model that was replicated elsewhere in Scandinavia. Similar institutions were soon established in Oslo, Copenhagen and Helsinki, although the Finns kept the party and the trade union movement separate.

In other places the initiative came from outside the organized workers' movement. In 1894, the Musée Social was founded in Paris by liberal-republican efforts, now the longest-standing collection institution in the field of social movements. It arose from a combination of the desire to study industrial society on a scientific basis and the 19th-century enthusiasm for world exhibitions, which were often regretted to be only temporary. The money for this documentation centre came from Count Aldebert de Chambrun, a descendant of Lafayette.

In the Netherlands it was also liberals who formed the Centraal Bureau voor Sociale Adviezen in 1899, which aimed to help both workers and entrepreneurs to set up organizations, but also built a library and from 1901 made efforts to collect documentation from and concerning the workers' organizations. However, the documentary committee that dealt with this did not consist solely of liberals, but also included representatives from various movements within the workers' movement, with the Catholics noticeably missing.

Individual socialists also successfully created a number of documentation centres. In England, the Fabian Society, with Sidney and Beatrice Webb at the forefront, pioneered the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1895. The archives and books collected there now form the British Library of Political and Economic Science. In 1906, the Socialist Rand School for Social Science in New York established a library, which would later become known as the Tamiment Library and is now part of New York University. The 1900 World's Fair lured unorthodox Swiss pastor Paul Pflüger to Paris, where he also visited the Musée Social. This inspired this active Zurich social democrat in 1906 to found the Zentralstelle für soziale Literatur, from which the current Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv originated.

From the second half of the 19th century beautiful private libraries were also formed which would later become accessible to a wider audience. Well-known is the library of HPG Quack, the author of De Socialisten, now housed at the University of Amsterdam, who thus became the happy owner of a first edition of the Communist Manifesto. Other examples include the collections of Jules Perrier, now in the Bibliothèque Publique et Universitaire of Geneva, and Max Nettlau, now in the International Institute of Social History (IISH). Catalan liberal republican Rossend Arús left his books to the people of Barcelona who were able to read them in the Biblioteca Pública Arús from 1895. The large collections of German lawyer Otto von Gierke, a historian of association law, and Austrian economist Carl Menger moved to Japan after World War I, where they are now the treasures of Hitotsubashi University's Center for Historical Social Science Literature in Tokyo. Already in 1875, shortly after the beginning of the Meiji period, the collection of historical and social science literature had begun here.

In 1906, the chambers of commerce of the Rhineland and Westphalia jointly decided to establish the Rheinisch-Westfälisches Wirtschaftsarchiv in Cologne, which housed historical company archives. In 1910, the Schweizerisches Wirtschaftsarchiv was established in Basel for the same purpose, which was first placed with the local State Archives, then started to function independently, and has now found shelter at the University of Basel. Both companies would be a source of inspiration for NW Posthumus, the first professor of economic history in the Netherlands, who founded the Nederlandsch Economisch-Historisch Archief (NEHA) in 1914, long located in The Hague and later in Amsterdam. Because the social democrat Posthumus had a broad understanding of his profession, in addition to documentation about companies, he also collected material from and about workers' organizations from the start.

At the end of July of the same year, between Sarajevo and The Guns of August, Henri and Louise Leblanc in Paris decided to document the coming war, expecting it to last three weeks. Three years later, a French journalist describes what he finds in their house on avenue Malakoff: “Affiches, articles de revues, calendriers, tableaux, livres, cartes, journaux, périodiques, vaisselles, cocardes, médailles, estampes, jouets, gravures de mode, insignes militaires, photographies de camps de prisonniers, objets fabriqués, étoffes, mouchoirs avec insignes ou emblèmes, articles de bureau, cocardes, figurines de modes, caricatures dessinées ou sculptées, décorations, modèles d'armes, armes elles-mêmes, calendriers, cartes, timbres, toute la pensée de la guerre, toute la vie de la guerre, toute l'existence à l'intérieur pendant la guerre, est là. Et pour chaque pays belligérant, non seulement pour la France, mais pour l'Angleterre, l'Allemagne, l'Italie, l'Amérique.” At that time, in August 1917, the couple had just transferred the collection to the French state, which gave it the name Bibliothèque-Musée de la Guerre. In 1925 it was placed in the castle of Vincennes. In 1970, the paper collection of what had since become known as the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (BDIC) moved to the University of Nanterre (Paris X), while in 1973 the images were placed at the Hôtel des Invalides.

The BDIC is one of three major documentation centres created as a result of the First World War. The second, comparable because of the width of the collection, which similar to Paris almost automatically included beside the war also the political and social history of its causes and consequences in the broadest sense, is the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. This institution was founded in 1919 as the Hoover War Collection at Stanford University, where Herbert Hoover had studied. The future president donated all documents he acquired in his various positions during the war, including that of Chief of the American Relief Administration in Russia. In addition, he donated an amount of money and remained active as a money-raiser throughout his life. Partly because of this, the Hoover grew into a leading archive, very rich in the fields of Russia and the Soviet Union, and a splendid library, much of which has since been transferred to the Stanford University Library.

The third centre was a product of the Russian Revolution. In 1919, a Marx-Engels Institute was started in Moscow, which officially opened in 1921. Although this was formally a party institution – i.e. semi-governmental – the concept and elaboration were largely the work of one man, David Ryazanov, who had set himself the goal of editing the collected work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in a scientific way. To this end as much as possible relevant historical documents were collected, partly with the help of the new communist parties in the West. Ryazanov too had a broad view of the field, which for him encompassed everything that the almost unlimited interest of Marx and Engels had managed to arouse. In a few years a great collection was built, which in addition to a large library also brought together important archives of the Western European workers' movement, such as part of August Bebel's papers.

It should come as no surprise that it turned out badly with Ryazanov. He was arrested in 1931 and executed in 1938. His institute was merged with the Lenin Institute, founded in 1924, which had already merged with the Institute for Party History. From now on, it was less about publishing Marx and Engels than about control over the classics, who after all had not always been orthodox and had written a lot of less favourable opinions. Partly for this reason, the new Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute made attempts after 1933 to obtain the papers of the exiled Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), but partly to prevent such control the SPD chose another route that had been possible since 1935.

In that year Posthumus founded the International Institute of Social History from NEHA, with the deliberate intention of trying to save what could be saved of the heritage of the European workers' movement that was increasingly under pressure. In retrospect this institution actually arose from the run-up to World War II. It was symbolic that in early 1939 the archive of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalist movement could be removed just in time from Franco-occupied Catalonia. The IISH was supported by the Centrale Arbeiders-Verzekerings- en Depositobank, in existence since 1904 and ultimately merged into SNS REAAL, which was to be its main financier until 1940. This made it possible for the institute not only to secure numerous endangered archives and libraries, but also to make large antiquarian purchases, so that shortly after a well-equipped research centre could also be launched. However, much research could not be conducted: after the Munich Convention in September 1938, the likelihood of war was considered to be so great that sensitive archives were shipped to Britain as much as possible, so that, for example, in addition to the legacy of Marx and Engels, also part of Bebel's papers spent the war in Oxford.

The Dutch initiative was followed in 1937 when the Nationaal Instituut voor Sociale Geschiedenis (NISG) was founded in Belgium with financial support from the Prévoyance Sociale. However this brings us to the chapter of the war years in which documents of the workers' movement that previously had only attracted interest from the police and from the government became the subject of intensive searches. Just as Franco gathered the looted material of his opponents in Salamanca, the Nazis – in particular the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg – confiscated huge amounts of documents from left-wing parties and unions, peace movements and Masons across Europe and transported them to Germany. Often this was the start of a long journey, the erratic course of which was determined by chances of war and front lines. As the smoke cleared parts of the disappeared material – mainly thanks to the efforts of the Americans – returned to their old repositories, but other collections, including the NISG property, seemed lost forever. It would take almost half a century before it became known that much of it was in Moscow.

The post-war years saw a surge in interest in the history of the workers' movement, particularly in a country like Italy where a large left-wing movement felt that it had lost decades of opportunity. In this context in 1949 the Biblioteca – soon to be the IstitutoGiangiacomo Feltrinelli was founded in Milan financed with the entrepreneurial fortune that the young namesake had inherited. The institute turned out to be an active collector and grew quickly. Moreover, it did not mainly move at national level, as would be the case with many later colleagues in Europe, but was internationally oriented from the start. Such was typical of its founder who started a publishing house in 1954 where the first editions of both Doctor Zhivago and Che Guevara's diary were published.

What was also special was that Feltrinelli had money, an essential element that was long missing from all historical interest in most places in Europe. Only from the late 1960s, after years of economic growth – and the impulses of the year 1968 – new collecting institutions emerged one after the other, from the resurrected Archiv der sozialen Demokratie in Bonn (1969, part of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung) and the Modern Records Center in Coventry (1973) to the many smaller archives that flourished in Italy and France, and after the fall of the dictatorships also in Greece, Portugal and Spain. In 1980 there was of course the AMSAB in Belgium, as a late successor to the NISG. At the end of the line were the National Museum of Labour History, which opened in Manchester in 1990 and became the repository of the archives of the Labour Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain, and the Greek ASKI (Contemporary Archives of Social History), which started in Athens in 1992.

At that time the political landslide that brought about the end of the Soviet Union had already taken place. In Moscow, Ryazanov's creation had disintegrated. The museum collection, which had literally been put on the street, and the enormous library could barely be saved. Everywhere in the former Eastern Bloc the archives of the communist parties (which often contained material from other organizations) were nationalized, thus perpetuating an interesting distinction from the West where the workers' movement had always kept its heritage out of the hands of the state. In Eastern Europe, the lack of private collecting institutions, which tend to have a different relationship of trust with archive donors, is sometimes considered a loss.

At the same time, the West has for some time been experiencing more or less far-reaching forms of integration of the workers’ movement’s documentation centres into the institutionalized academic system, which is of course not without connection to the institutionalization of the workers' movement itself. In Italy and later also in Flanders legislation made it attractive to participate in the heritage administration of the government. In Great Britain, Germany and Switzerland, the unions, which have long managed their own archives and libraries, have transferred their property to institutions that work directly or indirectly with university libraries and government archives in national information systems. Everywhere centres that also conduct research have become affiliated with universities or academies of science. As a result of these and comparable developments the financing burden of Western institutions too has ultimately largely shifted to the government, which on the one hand often led to greater professionalization and on the other hand sometimes to a loss of independence. It is not certain whether Bebel intended all this, nor whether there are serious alternatives.

By the end of the 1960s this documentary world of the workers' movement felt a need for closer cooperation, prompted in part by the surge in publications in the field. It became harder to know what appeared, harder to buy everything and more interesting to exchange. At the initiative of Irene Wagner, the Labour Party librarian, the International Association of Labour History Institutions was founded at a meeting in London on 7 December 1970. It is interesting to see who the first members were: the Labour Party, the Trades Union Congress, the LSE, the Cooperative Union, the International Co-operative Alliance, the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the ArAB, the Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv and the IISH. As in Bebel's time, they all came from wealthy Protestant countries – Britain, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands – and had a strong Social Democratic slant.

Perhaps in line with that the second congress held in Stockholm said “that it was unrealistic to aim too high and that practical matters important to us should be in the shape of small, manageable projects which would not involve too much time and manpower." On the other hand the third Congress in Zurich listened to a lecture on “die Anwendung von Computern in Bibliotheken” as early as 1972. The IALHI grew steadily from 15 members in 1972 through 38 in 1974 and 48 in 1977 to 69 members from 20 countries at the tenth anniversary in 1980.

This anniversary was celebrated at the eleventh congress, which took place again in Stockholm and saw some innovations. Irene Wagner was replaced as secretary by Karl Lang from the Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv. And Giuseppe Del Bo of Istituto Feltrinelli reported on the first World Forum on the Workers' Movement and the Working Class, which took place earlier that year in Paris with UNESCO support. This Forum had been raising discussion for a number of years at the time and was one of the few points of contention in the exemplary peaceful history of the IALHI. Apart from the question of the extent to which it should engage in an initiative of a combination of members and non-members there was distrust of the intentions of a non-member, Timur Timofeev of the Institute of the International Workers' Movement in Moscow, who was suspected of wanting to place the IALHI in communist hands. In retrospect it was a storm in a teacup. The Forum organization continued for some time and held its last meeting in Moscow in early 1991. Some participants remember a reception with Soviet dignitaries who suddenly emerged as organizers of a coup in August of that year.

In 1985 the sixteenth conference of the IALHI took place in Brussels and Ghent. It was organized by AMSAB and the Institut Emile Vandervelde on the theme of the miners’ history, on the occasion of the centenary of the BSP. The annual meetings were all the more important in those years because the lack of time or money made it increasingly difficult to get the desired small, manageable projects off the ground. Plans for an ongoing bibliography on the history of the labour movement and the publication of a newsletter slowly and laboriously led to not entirely satisfactory products.

This changed in the second half of the 1980s, due to the combination of a reorganization of the IISH whose new director, Eric Fischer, was willing to invest in the IALHI and the advent of office automation that made publishing, administering and soon communicating much easier and cheaper. In 1987 in Zurich the author of this text was chosen as Karl Lang's successor and the secretariat was moved to Amsterdam. One of the changes that was made was an increase in the membership fee, which enabled the IALHI to pay the translation costs during conferences so that even small members could now take on their organization. This was given special significance by the events in Eastern Europe, which allowed the annual meeting to be held in Prague in 1993 and Moscow in 1995. In those years the number of members exceeded one hundred for the first time.

The recent history of the IALHI is relatively easy to read from the conference reports on this website. It can be learned that Karin Englund of the ArAB was elected secretary in 2002 and was succeeded in 2005 by Françoise Blum of the Centre d'histoire sociale du XXe siècle. It can also be seen that the IALHI has grown into an organization that has gained more and more professional members, has managed to break out of its old European framework and is carrying out more and more interesting projects. But what is always difficult to reconstruct from such accounts is the importance of human relationships and the influence of notable personalities. For example, it is possible to verify that Wouter Steenhaut was elected secretary in Athens in 1996 and that he held this position until 2002. You can also observe how he financed a large IALHI project and even deduce that he was a strict secretary and ruthless towards defaulters. But it does not allow outsiders to understand someone who did not hesitate to thank the organizers of the conference in Silver Spring, Maryland, with a selection of Belgian beers which he had carried personally for 6200 kilometers.

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