Work, Migration, Environment: The German and Central European Experience

October 3-6, 2019
Panel at the Forty-Third Annual Conference of the German Studies Association, Portland, Oregon
Conveners: Andrea Westermann (GHI West, Berkeley) and Eagle Glassheim (University of British Columbia, Vancouver)

The German Historical Institute Washington DC is organizing a panel on the intersections between work, migration, and the environment during the 19th and 20th centuries for the 2019 Annual Conference of the German Studies Association, to be held in Portland, Oregon, October 3-6, 2019.

The mining, agricultural, and lumber industries change landscapes both socially and environmentally. These industries are labor-intensive, predicated on the massive influx of migrant workers, free or indentured, from near and far. Gold and silver rushes, as well as the rise of modern agribusiness, lured thousands of Germans and other Central Europeans away from their former lives and homes. Companies and governments channeled internal and cross-border migration towards mining, agricultural and silvicultural regions.

Labor migration might stand at the beginning of intensified natural resource production, with migrants often staffing the most dangerous jobs in mines, fields, and forests. Labor migration might also be the consequence of mineral resource extraction as mining eats away the land on which adjacent cities sit or mining camps and mining towns are built. The decline of resource industries can lead to out-migration, as jobs disappear and workers seek livelihoods elsewhere. This is true for the history of coal and ore-mining regions like the Ruhr, Silesia, or the Sudetenland, as it is true for Californian and South African gold fields, or for mining sites in the Americas or Australia and Oceania, regions and continents where we find Central European companies, capital, and workers over the 19th and 20th centuries. Similarily, Central European companies, capital, and workers flocked to large-scale agrarian endeavors in many parts of the world; endeavors where techoscientific change often eliminated jobs and undermined productivity in the long run (diminishing fertility of monocultures, unintended consequences of agrochemicals and deforestation) – causing further economic migration.

This panel calls for papers exploring the multi-layered and interlocking histories of natural resources, migration, and place. In so doing, we seek to straddle approaches in the history of material culture and technology, labor history, migration studies, literary studies, the history of knowledge, agricultural or mining history, and environmental history. Possible topics include but are not restricted to:

  • Mining sites, agricultural regions, and unfolding migration patterns: How did people learn of working opportunities in mining or agrobusiness? How did companies recruit and secure their work force?
  • Migration regimes and work: Which schemes of (internal or cross-border) labor migration did governments devise?
  • The making of mining and agricultural regions from below: How did internal or cross-border labor migrants shape the social, economic, and political landscapes of these regions?
  • Knowing the workplace: How did migrant workers make sense of their new working environments and the entrepreneurial and geological or ecological rationalities underpinning them? What did labor unions know and how did they help shape or alter these rationalities?
  • Cultural production by migrants: work songs, poetry, novels, etc. of migrants working in environments defined by the development of natural resources.
  • Bodies, productivity, and degradation: In what ways were nature, human bodies, and technologies integrated into envirotechnical systems for extracting natural resources? How, if ever, did actors compare the gains and costs of exhausting human bodies, on the one hand, and exhausting the earth or the soil, on the other? 

Please upload a brief CV and a proposal of no more than 400 words by January 18, 2019 to our online portal. Please contact Heike Friedman ( if you have problems with submitting your information online. Proposals for complete panels (three papers, with or without commentator) are welcome, as are proposals for individual papers. The panel will be organized by Andrea Westermann (GHI West, Berkeley) and Eagle Glassheim (University of British Columbia, Vancouver). The GHI will provide lump sum travel grants to successful applicants from Europe (1,400 Euro per participant) and North America (up to USD 750).