The coal miner’s more than a cliché

As the director of the History of the Ruhr Foundation in Bochum, historian Dr. Hans-Christoph Seidel has specialized in the social history of the Ruhr area in the 19th and 20th centuries. In this interview, he talks about the importance of mining and the companies associated with it in the development of the region.

Dr. Seidel, you are an acknowledged expert in the history of the Ruhr area with a focus on mining. Are you an ivory tower academic, or have you ever been underground yourself?

Both. I was underground at the beginning of the 2000s, 1000 meters down. The entire team working on our project ‘Forced Labor in the German Coal Mining Industry’ at that time went down a mine in order to understand the working conditions, at least emotionally.

And did that change your view of your research?

Yes, it did. It creates a kind of link to the object you are dealing with. But more on a mental level. We were able to arrive at a better understanding of why miners have such a deep emotional relationship with their jobs and working environment.

The hard coal mining industry has had a lasting impact on society in the mining regions, especially the Ruhr and Saar. Are the people in these regions different from others? Is the coal miner possibly more than a cliché?

Yes, they're more than a cliché. That is what I’m learning from our research project ‘Digital Memory: People in Mining’. In almost every one of our interviews, former miners highlighted the special comradeship and solidarity in mining. On the other hand, however, we also know about major conflicts: The history of industrial relations between employees and employers in the mining industry back into the 1950s and 1960s is above all a history of conflicts. This only changed with the crises. They made the employers and employees move closer together.

Let’s try out a hypothesis: The Ruhr and North Rhine-Westphalia would be completely different places today if mining, coal production and power generation from hard coal had not existed – would you agree?

That’s an easy one. The Ruhr area definitely wouldn’t exist without mining. Mining was an absolutely defining factor for the Ruhr area – in every respect: as a geographical map, but also as a mental map. I would even venture to suggest that without the Ruhr, North Rhine-Westphalia would not exist as it is today.

 

„The Ruhr area definitely wouldn’t exist without mining.“

Institute for Social Movements / History of the Ruhr Foundation
The Institute for Social Movements is an interdisciplinary central research unit of the Ruhr University in Bochum. It is specialized in research into past and present social movements in the Ruhr area.

The History of the Ruhr Foundation promotes research into the past and present of the Ruhr area. The Foundation’s center in Bochum also accommodates the Library of the Ruhr, incorporating the old Mining Library which is the largest and most comprehensive specialist library and archive devoted to modern industrial mining.

As part of its oral history project, “Digital Memory: People in Mining”, the History of the Ruhr Foundation is currently conducting interviews with around 100 people who previously worked in the mining industry, predominantly in the Ruhr area, but also in Aachen, Ibbenbüren and the Saarland. The research project, implemented jointly with the German Mining Museum in Bochum, is sponsored by RAG Aktiengesellschaft, and is expected to be c “ ompleted by spring 2018.

This year STEAG, founded in 1937 as Steinkohlen- Elektrizität AG, is 80 years old. How do you view the development of the company?

STEAG originated as a joint venture company and in that respect was a typical mining phenomenon. For that is where the earliest industrial associations can be observed – starting with the Association for Mining Interests in the area covered by the Superior Mining Authority in Dortmund, through the Rhenish-Westphalian Coal Syndicate and later including companies such as RWE, VEW and STEAG with a special focus – involving the entire western German coal mining industry in power generation from hard coal. History shows that this strategy worked.

Was the foundation of Ruhrkohle AG in 1969 and the incorporation of STEAG for the reorganization of the hard coal mining industry an inevitable decision, or should those responsible at the time have been more creative in their actions?

If the mining industry was really to be stabilized, this solution was inevitable. From an energy policy point of view, other possibilities can of course be speculated about today. But there was also the socio-political component. In 1958, when the first shifts were cancelled because of declining demand, there were just under 500,000 employees in the mining industry. When Ruhrkohle was founded about ten years later, the figure was just under 200,000. 300,000 jobs lost in just one decade – with all the knock-on effects. How many more jobs could be replaced in a region like this? That would not have been possible by other means. In this respect, stretching out that shrinking process was a success.

Today, one of the main criticisms is that energy companies were caught napping by the development towards renewable energy sources and distributed generation. What is the historian's view of this allegation – is it fair?

In retrospect, it is all too easy to make all kinds of allegation. Particularly, you know, if you’re a politician. I’m not aware of any situation that I would say was exactly one in which a sudden change of course was needed. I can’t see that there has been any kind of careless policy on the part of the companies.

Coal and steel – employers in the industrial state of North Rhine-Westphalia have always been synonymous with secure jobs. Can you give people a little hope that the move in these large companies towards other technologies and production sectors will compensate for the jobs lost?

I have to disagree. There have never been “secure” jobs in the sense of “jobs for life” in the coal and steel industries. That is a myth. I have already mentioned the conflicts in the mining crises of the 1950s and 1960s. But they weren’t the first ones. After the First World War, Germany experienced massive inflation. At the peak of hyperinflation in 1923, there were 500,000 employees in the mining industry. Just under ten years later, at the height of the global economic crisis, there were only 190,000 employees. To that extent, the miners’ workplaces were never as secure as is suggested in retrospect today.

The last colliery in Germany is scheduled to close in the coming year. What do you as a historian think the coal will leave behind? What do you think should be preserved as a cultural heritage?

I believe that, for at least one or two generations of the post-coal era, mining and hard coal will remain an essential aspect of identity and identification with the area. As part of our work, we have made an interesting discovery: This positive identification with the Ruhr and the industries on which its regional development was founded becomes stronger as the mining and steel industries decline. When they were at their peak, no-one talked sentimentally about the Ruhr area. Today, the Ruhr area is the world champion in proclaiming the beauty of what used to be considered ugly.

What can be learnt from the past of the Ruhr area and STEAG for the future of the state and the company?

If a glance at the past of the Ruhr teaches us anything at all, then it is that cooperation between different, otherwise antagonistic forces is possible. In the Ruhr area, a culture of compromise, of recognition, at least of the fact that other people are entitled to their own interests, has developed. That is something that should be preserved for the future.