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Poor Relief and Welfare in Germany from the Reformation to World War I

Author(s):Frohman, Larry
Reviewer(s):Murray, John E.

Published by EH.NET (April 2009)

Larry Frohman, Poor Relief and Welfare in Germany from the Reformation to World War I. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. x + 257 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-50603-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John E. Murray, Department of Economics, University of Toledo.

One can imagine three approaches to studying poverty in the past. The most elusive would examine the experience of the poor themselves, who are the heart of the matter but who left precious few bits of manuscript evidence behind them. Alternatively from medieval times to the present, institutions that attempted to aid or control the poor have created voluminous records that illuminate the process of poor relief. Finally, writings of scholars, patrons, clergy, and bureaucrats offer their particular views on the poor and relief institutions. Larry Frohman?s book, Poor Relief and Welfare in Germany from the Reformation to World War I, examines the second and third of these categories in German history.

Frohman (History, SUNY-Stony Brook) proposes towards the end of the book that he has provided ?no single master narrative? (p. 205) of his subject. This observation is true in the strict sense that this is not a linear history, and that his command over a vast range of secondary literature in German leads to a story rich in detail. But it does not mean that the history is plotless. It might be summarized as follows. The Reformation induced a shift in the purpose of poor relief. Although Christian charity required almsgiving, the sheer quantity of beggars overwhelmed piecemeal efforts to provide for them. A more systematic approach centered on the workhouse, the spread of which was delayed by the Thirty Years? War. Late eighteenth century (Hamburg) and mid nineteenth century (Elberfeld) relief reforms focused on closer monitoring of poor relief recipients to determine their worthiness. But whereas in earlier times local officials determined the worthiness or unworthiness of individual poor people according to their moral strengths and failings, by later in the nineteenth century the poor, especially unemployed workers, were seen as unlucky victims of capitalist labor markets. The movement towards a citizen?s right to poor relief accelerated during World War I, when solidarity among the population was a high priority. This thumbnail sketch does not do justice to the insight and subtlety in much of Frohman?s presentation.

It is a loss that the poor themselves hardly enter this history. While Frohman notes that the German sources do not generally permit close examination of the poor as in English poor law historiography, he thereby omits reference to related writings on the poor, such as the massive works by Thomas Max Safley on early modern Augsburg [1].

This volume is very much a historian?s. An economist reader might grow a bit weary of references to constructions and discourses, as if poverty were a mirage in ?the social imagination of the middle classes,? (p. 161) and yearn for a few numbers. Frohman scarcely acknowledges (p. 176) that moral hazard might actually have described behavior of the poor and lower working class, and was not just one of those constructs of the social imagination (p. 207). The use of such economic notions could have strengthened his analysis and could have explained much of the conflict between poor and middle class.

As presented here, the problem of poor relief grew in magnitude over the centuries. The book itself illustrates this claim in the growing density of detail and argument as it proceeds chronologically. This may suggest a growing interest in the problem of poverty as Germany became richer, especially after the mid-nineteenth century.

In this recounting, a deeper problem appears in the nature of the German economy. Over time its condition simply worsened. Even during rare periods of economic growth, the problems of poverty magnified. In the beginning, the transition from feudalism to capitalism caused an ?expansion of poverty? (pp. 15, 18). After the devastation of the Thirty Years? War the underclass grew on into the eighteenth century (p. 42). A Malthusian crisis that predated the Napoleonic Wars persisted to the mid-nineteenth century, during which time increasing pauperism overwhelmed traditional relief institutions (p. 43). Even an undoubted period of rising wages from the mid-nineteenth century to 1913 saw greater spending on relief (pp. 96, 160), and in any case was punctuated by frequent crises in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and 1901-02 (pp. 168, 170, 172, 173). Was the history of the German economy really one of steady impoverishment, interrupted only latterly by the occasional, temporary growth spurt?

Even stranger to an economist is the relationship proposed here between economic growth and poverty. The author paraphrases without critically assessing liberal analyses of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (p. 51): ?the poverty of the laboring masses came to be seen as basic engine (sic) of economic growth and the ultimate source of the wealth of nations.? Thus did ?utopian capitalism? (p. 54) generate suffering rather than prosperity.

An ongoing theme in German writings on the poor concerned the prevention of poverty. In line with the book?s title, the source of that prevention was state welfare and poor relief policy. Since economic growth, in its only appearance in the book, is associated with increased, not decreased, poverty, it is no wonder that the poor have always been with us. This carefully elucidated history of poor relief institutions and writings about those institutions leaves out the best that economic history can offer.


1. Thomas Max Safley, Charity and Economy in the Orphanages of Early Modern Augsburg, Leiden: Brill, 1996; Children of the Laboring Poor: Expectation and Experience among the Orphans of Early Modern Augsburg, Leiden: Brill, 2005.

John Murray?s new book, co-edited with Ruth Wallis Herndon, is Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprentice System in Early America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009). His essays on German social and economic history, co-authored with J?rg Baten, have appeared in Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Journal of Family History, and Explorations in Economic History.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII