Deindustrialization in historical culture

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Editor’s note: This post, by TPH guest editor Christian Wicke, is the first in a series of posts on deindustrialization and industrial heritage commissioned by The Public Historian, expanding the conversation begun with the November 2017 special issue on the topic. 

Zollern coal mining complex in Dortmund, Germany, in 1969, before it became heritage protected. Courtesy of the LWL-Industriemuseum/Archiv.

Zollern coal mining complex in Dortmund, Germany, in 1969, before it became heritage protected. Photo credit: LWL-Industriemuseum/Archiv.

In our ever faster-paced society, most histories go untold and many others are unheard. While every student of modern history studies the causes and effects of the industrial revolution, few have thought about the significances of deindustrialization, which has also been a fundamental feature of the globalizing world. The social and personal consequences of deindustrialization can be heartbreaking, and romanticizing such a historical process would be immoral. Nevertheless, deindustrialization can also be very exciting! I am not thinking primarily of the postindustrial aesthetics that have attracted the imagination of artists and tourists, but of the future histories of these spaces, which are so incredibly open.

My fascination with the complexities of deindustrialization developed a few years ago after moving from Australia to Bochum, a former coal mining and steel city in the German Ruhr. In the first half of the twentieth century, Europe’s economic heartland turned into a huge polycentric city larger than Berlin. It is not easy to comprehend the odd urban structure of the Ruhr, which some have referred to as Ruhrbanity. The industrial logic that determined the organization of the Ruhr cities from the late nineteenth century has continued to dominate them during deindustrialization, which began with the coal crisis of 1958. Sixty years later, in 2018, the last coal mine in the region will close.

A protest for the preservation of a workers' settlement in Duisburg, Germany, 1979. Courtesy of Frank Baier.

A protest for the preservation of a workers’ settlement in Duisburg, Germany, 1979. Photo credit: Frank Baier.

In (West) Germany, the deindustrialization of the black coal sector has been reasonably managed, and decelerated, with federal subsidies. Arguably the social consequences and the cultural trauma working-class communities have experienced under conditions of deindustrialization have perhaps not been as severe as in many other nations, including the United States and Great Britain—though they are very visible. The Ruhr cities today remain among the poorest of the German nation, and the environmental costs are tremendous. What is left are the so-called “burdens of eternity” (Ewigkeitslasten): for as long as human beings live in the Ruhr they will, for example, have to artificially pump water to maintain the natural river catchments from sinking and flooding, mutilated by more than a century of mining and heavy industrialism.

How does such dramatic transition affect public memories, histories, and identities? That is a big question I started exploring with Stefan Berger, Jana Golombek, and scholars and heritage activists from around the world at Bochum’s Institute for Social Movements and within the newly established European Labour History Network. The November 2017 issue of The Public Historian is one of the results from this lively collaboration. During the first period of the project I greatly enjoyed taking international visitors on a “tour de Ruhr.” They usually became very excited by the amazing industrial heritage network that developed with the International Building Exhibition Emscherpark (1989–99) across the region.

In other deindustrializing regions, this type of heritage has not usually enjoyed the same status. Still, I am not so sure if the history of industrial heritage in the Ruhr should be told to others as a success story. There currently seems too little space for critical narratives of the past. Looking at the origins of industrial heritage in the region, however, we can learn a lot. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the Ruhr witnessed a powerful industrial heritage movement. Starting in the form of civil society actions from below concerned about the preservation of industrial aesthetics and working-class life, the movement soon became institutionalized and, since the late 1980s, predominantly a state-sponsored movement from above. Industrial heritage became increasingly valorized and touristified. From that perspective, the shining example of the Ruhr appears in a different light. Industrial heritage has become part of neoliberal urbanism.

And we can also learn a lot from regions where industrial heritage remains even more contested, or where the value of the industrial past has not been recognized. Often it is disclaimed, suppressed, or sanitized as “dirty” heritage. We need to pursue further comparative studies to understand the reasons for such great variations in the historical cultures of deindustrializing regions. It seems that it is usually only under conditions of deindustrialization that the heritage discourse over the industrial past evolves.

Global comparisons also show that the histories of industrialization and deindustrialization are highly place dependent. It is very difficult to globalize industrial and postindustrial eras. Both are incredibly uneven processes, with overlapping and differing temporalities from place to place. Often we tend to think of industrialization, industrialism, and deindustrialization as a linear process of the modern era. Combining micro- with macrohistorical perspectives, however, we can see that different industrial places have very different experiences, although they are economically, politically, and culturally connected to various degrees. This ensures that comparing industrial heritage movements around the world will remain a challenging enterprise.

The Brass Band of Petrila, Romania, in front of the Petrila Coal Mine. Photo courtesy of Andrei Dăscălescu.

The Children’s Brass Band of Petrila, Romania, in front of the Petrila Coal Mine shortly before its closure. Photo Credit: Andrei Dăscălescu.

The current issue of The Public Historian comprises academic and activist perspectives on Detroit, Glasgow, three regions in Australia, the Romanian Jiu Valley, and the Ruhr. With this post, we begin a series that adds Melbourne, two cities in Canada, provincial France, Pittsburgh, and the smaller cities of upstate New York to the conversation. These examples demonstrate that our historical cultures are being shaped by multiple actors outside of academia and we need to think out of the box to forge networks of critical memory activism to overcome silence in the public histories of deindustrialization. The hegemonies of narrating the past are not static; they can be manipulated and need counterbalancing by radical democratic action. Donald Trump’s election and his campaign, promising to reindustrialize America, are a symptom of national nostalgia, deindustrialization, and its mismanagement.

While Trump is in denial, I wonder for example whether human-induced climate change will encourage us to further change the public memory of industrialism and the meaning of industrial heritage. Paul J. Crutzen’s influential notion of the Anthropocene, beginning with the invention of James Watt’s steam engine, might one day unite industrial memories around the world. Imagine provincial coal mines as humanity’s lieu de mémoire, where the distinction of planetary and human history would be overcome! Yet, for now, industrial heritage remains closely connected to very local, regional, and national identities—as these articles and posts make clear.

~ Christian Wicke works as a historian at Utrecht University. He is the author of Helmut Kohl’s Quest for Normality: His Representation of the German Nation and Himself (New York: Berghahn, 2015).  He is active in a research network on historical cultures under conditions of deindustrialization and is currently working on a history of urban movements in the 1970s.

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