Confrontation or Cooperation? The Labour Movement and Economic Elites in West Germany After 1945
At the end of the Second World War, Germany’s economic elites and labour organisations were seemingly locked in a bitter confrontation. While business leaders wanted to preserve a capitalist economic order and their own economic power, trade unionists demanded a radical reform of the capitalism, large-scale socialisation of at least the most important industries and to get rid of the old economic elites whom they held responsible for the destruction of Weimar democracy. However, by the middle of the 1950s, a new order of industrial relations had emerged in West Germany that was based on close cooperation and a mutual respect between capital and labour. Compared to other Western European post-war societies, the level of industrial conflict was low. How did this change come about? This article argues that Cold War disputes fostered a de-radicalisation of workers’ protests and cooperation between workers and management. As any protest movement at the shop floor could easily be denounced as communist machinations, protests could only hope to be successful if they held their distance to broader political questions and went through formally recognised channels of representative politics. In the politically charged atmosphere of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a politics of compromise proved to be the only long-term viable option for workers’ representatives.