Carl Legien

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Carl Legien
Carl Legien.jpg
Carl Legien
Chairman of the General Commission of German Trade Unions
In office
Chairman of the General German Trade Union Federation
In office
Chairman of the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centres
In office
President of the International Federation of Trade Unions
In office
Member of the Reichstag
In office
In office
Personal details
Born(1861-12-01)December 1, 1861
Marienburg, Province of Prussia, Kingdom of Prussia
DiedDecember 26, 1920(1920-12-26) (aged 59)
Berlin, Weimar Germany
Political partySPD

Carl Legien (1 December 1861 – 26 December 1920) was a German unionist, moderate Social Democratic politician and first President of the International Federation of Trade Unions.


Legien was born in Marienburg, Province of Prussia, (now Malbork, Poland), to Rudolf, a tax official, and Maria Legien. His parents died in his childhood and Legien grew up in an orphanage in Thorn, Province of Prussia (now Toruń) from 1867 to 1875. He became a wood turner and served in the Prussian Army from 1881 to 1884. He joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in 1885, a wood turners’ union in 1886 and worked as a turner in several cities in Germany until 1891, since 1886 in Hamburg.[1][2]

In 1887 Legien became the first chairman of the German Association of Turners and of the General Commission of the German Trade Unions (Generalkommission der Gewerkschaften Deutschlands) in 1891, a position he would hold until its dissolution in 1919.[1] He was elected a member of the German Parliament in 1893 (until 1898) and again in 1903 (until his death in 1920).[3] He became the leader of the SPD's right wing and opposed its more leftist factions.[4]

He took part in the International Workers Congresses of Paris, 1889.[5]

Legien became Chairman of the International Secretariat of National Trade Union Centres in 1903 and first President of the International Federation of Trade Unions in 1913 until its dissolution in 1919.[6]

In 1912, Legien gave a keynote address at the convention of the Socialist Party of America in Indianapolis which was credited with persuading the convention to reject the anarcho-syndicalist program of Bill Haywood.

At the outbreak of World War I he supported the war with "patriotic fervor"[4] and the SPD-majority’s Burgfriedenspolitik, a "civil truce", which assured the German government not to "obstruct the German war effort".[5][7] Legien and other leading Social Democrats expected this policy to end the animosity and discrimination of socialist workers in Germany, while the German Empire's government (particularly the War Ministry) evaluated organised labour as an important factor in war industries. As a result, workers became a mobilized, disciplined loyal force in the war effort in return for concessions, and the German labour movement became an obstacle against opposition to war.[8] In the context of the separation of the opposing Social Democratic minority, which led to the foundation of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), Legien and Gustav Bauer declared that the "Jewish gang" must be dealt with, in attempt to drive them out of their faction.[9] Robert S. Wistrich classifies Carl Legien as belonging to a group of whom some had antisemitic tendencies.[10] During the war he worked in variety of ways to help German war effort.[11] He threw down calls from socialists in USA to mediate an end of the war with the German government, while defending the resumption of submarine warfare by German Kriegsmarine as response to the rejection of "Germany's sincere offer of immediate peace negotiations"[12]

On 15 November 1918 he signed the Stinnes-Legien-Agreement with industrialist Hugo Stinnes, an agreement in which the German employers for the first time accepted nationwide unions as legitimate workers-organisations and which introduced an eight-hour day, workers councils in plants with more than 50 employees and parity employment offices. The employers agreed to stop discrimination of union members and their support of "house unions" (yellow unions) while the unions rejected radical socialists’ demands.[13][14][15] Most of the agreement's regulations became part of the Weimar German constitution.[14]

Anti-Kapp demonstrations in Berlin

In 1919 he became the first Chairman of the Allgemeiner Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund. To Legien the expected loss of Upper Silesia to Poland after World War I would intensify the 'psychological' impact of the "draconian peace" on the German working class.[16]

He countered the right-wing Kapp Putsch of March 1920 by organizing a massive general strike in Germany[17] with about 12 million employees following the joint call of the legal government and the unions.[18][19] The strike immediately halted all production, transportation, mining and public services, it was "the strongest mass movement the German proletariat ever created"[4] and "gave the Kapp régime its death blow".[19]

At that time he declined Friedrich Ebert’s offer to become Chancellor of Germany.[5][20]

Legien died after a short illness in Berlin and was buried at Zentralfriedhof Friedrichsfelde.[19][21]


In 1922 the Stinnes-line named "MS Carl Legien" in his honour.[22]

Bruno Taut's "Wohnstadt Carl Legien", a social housing project of the 1920s and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Berlin Modernism Housing Estates, bears his name as well as several streets all over Germany. A memorial was erected in Berlin-Kreuzberg.


  1. ^ a b Lane, A. Thomas (1995). Biographical dictionary of European labor leaders. Greenwood Press. p. 556. ISBN 0-313-29899-8.
  2. ^ Steenson, Gary P. (1981). Not one man! Not one penny! German Social Democracy 1863-1914. University of Pittsburgh Press. p. 96. ISBN 0-8229-3440-X.
  3. ^ Reichstag database (in German)
  4. ^ a b c Bookchin, Murray (2005). The third revolution: popular movements in the revolutionary era. Continuum publishing. pp. 71, 72. ISBN 0-8264-7801-8.
  5. ^ a b c biography at Deutsches Historisches Museum (in German)
  6. ^ Fimmen, Edo (1922). The International Federation of Trade Unions (PDF). International Federation of Trade Unions. p. 5.
  7. ^ Mommsen, Hans; Forster, Elborg: The rise and fall of Weimar democracy, page 1
  8. ^ Chickering, Roger (2004). Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-1918. Cambridge University Press. p. 151. ISBN 0-521-83908-4.
  9. ^ Heid, Ludger (2002). Oskar Cohn: Ein Sozialist und Zionist im Kaiserreich und in der Weimarer Republik (in German). Campus. p. 78. ISBN 3-593-37040-9.
  10. ^ Socialism and the Jews: the dilemmas of assimilation in Germany and Austria-Hungary,page 166, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982
  11. ^ Smith, Angel; Berger, Stefan (1999). Nationalism, labour and ethnicity 1870-1939. Manchester University Press. p. 47. ISBN 0-7190-5052-9.
  12. ^ Foner, Philip Sheldon (1987). History of the Labor Movement in the United States: Labor and World War I, 1914-1918. International Publishers. p. 98. ISBN 9780717806386. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  13. ^ Fulbrock, Mary (2004). A concise history of Germany. Cambridge University Press. p. 159. ISBN 0-521-83320-5.
  14. ^ a b Tempel, Anne (2001). The cross-national transfer of human resource management practices in German and British multinational companies. Trier University dissertation. p. 91. ISBN 3-87988-548-6.
  15. ^ Fear, Jeffrey R. (2005). Organizing control: August Thyssen and the construction of German corporate management. Harvard University Press. p. 397. ISBN 0-674-01492-8.
  16. ^ European history quarterly,Volume 31,page 112, Sage Publications Ltd., 2001 "According to the head of the SPD-affiliated trade unions, Carl Legien, the loss of Upper Silesia to the primitive Poles promised to intensify the 'psychological' impact of the draconian peace on the German working class"
  17. ^ De Gruchy, John W. (1999). The Cambridge companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Cambridge University Press. p. 12. ISBN 0-521-58258-X.
  18. ^ Der Generalstreik 1920 at Deutsches Historisches Museum (in German)
  19. ^ a b c obituary, New York Times, 27 December 1920
  20. ^ Mommsen, Hans; Forster, Elborg (1996). The rise and fall of Weimar democracy. University of North Carolina Press. p. 85. ISBN 0-8078-2249-3.
  21. ^ Archived May 17, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. (in German)
  22. ^ Kolb, Eberhard (1997). Friedrich Ebert als Reichspräsident (in German). Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert Gedenkstätte. p. 299. ISBN 3-486-56107-3.

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