Hans Gottfurcht

How the TUC helped to keep European unionism alive during WWII

During the Second World War, the UK became a place of refuge for European trade unionists who, with the support of the TUC, set up Foreign National Trade Union Groups.

The rule was that workers had to be a member of a British trade union before they could set up their own trade union groups based on their nationality.

The Belgian group was the largest but the German one – the Trade Union Centre for German Trade Unionists in the UK (Landesgruppe deutscher Gewerkschafter in Großbritannien) was politically the strongest. The Landesgruppe brought together all German trade unionists based in the UK during the Second World War. The driving force behind the group was its Chairman, Hans Gottfurcht, a German Jewish trade unionist who fled from Germany to the UK in 1938.

Hans had been active in the German labour movement in the 1930s for which he was arrested and briefly interned in 1937. Once in the UK, he became an active member of both the Labour Party and the TUC, and tried to influence the British government’s plans for post-war reconstruction in Germany. Letters between Hans and TUC representatives, including the TUC’s General Secretary Walter Citrine, show the close relationship between the Landesgruppe and the TUC. In 1941, the TUC made a regular payment to the Landesgruppe to support the publication of the monthly magazine (Die Arbeit). The following is from the magazine’s manifesto, which appeared in the first issue:

“… In the face of Nazi and Fascist boasting, the publication of our journal at this moment is the clearest token of the living power of international solidarity and of the unshakeable resolve of all workers to carry on the fight which has been forced upon them, until the Nazi dictatorship and all the forces which have allied themselves to it are finally defeated. German trade unionists who have been driven into exile by the Nazi Terror and the Gestapo – and in the spirit at one with their friends in Germany – will play their part for the reconstruction of a free, democratic Europe, alongside their British comrades and in close collaboration with their colleagues in and from all parts of the world.”

Hans regularly attended, and sometimes spoke at, the annual TUC Congress and delegates of the TUC were entitled to attend Landesgruppe meetings. After the war, and until 1950, Hans was employed by the TUC as a liaison officer to establish links with the newly-formed German trade unions and even organised a TUC trip to Germany in 1948 where the country’s economic, social and political reconstruction were on the agenda.

Correspondence between German and British trade unionists discussed ambitious future plans for post-war Germany. Many were never implemented but some, such as those that envisaged the involvement of worker representatives on company boards, served as a blueprint for economic reconstruction of German industry.

Original post by Dr Rebecca Zahn, Strathclyde University and is based on records held in the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s Archive for Social Democracy?