Hyperinflation, hunger, need, resistance – everyday life in the Ruhr area at the time of the Franco-Belgian occupation 100 years ago was drastic. But a show in the Ruhr Museum also shows that a sense of togetherness grew.
Famine, unemployment, violence and resistance – after the First World War 100 years ago, tens of thousands of French and Belgian soldiers moved into the Ruhr area with tanks, infantry, cavalry and some with machine guns. On January 11, 1923, the Allies occupied Essen, and from there the entire area in a west-east direction within days.
“It was very frightening and martial,” says the director of the Ruhr Museum in Essen at the start of the exhibition “Hands off the Ruhr area! The occupation of the Ruhr 1923-1925” (January 12 to August 27). The show tells a piece of Revier history that many may not even know about. “Back then, the Allies had every right to invade,” says museum director Heinrich Theodor Grütter. Because war loser Germany was behind schedule with the reparations agreed in the Treaty of Versailles.
The exhibition sheds light on a phase that is important for the region, but also for the history of Germany. At that time, Essen was the seat of the important Reichsbahn – central for the removal of coal – and the center of industry. The Berlin Reich government and the local coal industry called for passive resistance, railroad workers and workers followed, as historian Grütter explains. Tens of thousands of railway and customs officials, police officers and mayors were expelled and border barriers were erected.
The year of the crisis is presented as often as possible from the point of view of the population, but also of the occupying soldiers, using a good 200 exhibits. Insights are provided by rare film material, photos, personal documents, postcards from soldiers home, but also a machine gun, uniforms and a bicycle – even bicycle units were used in 1923. Around 70 objects are on loan, for example from France or Belgium. Posters and leaflets bear witness to the propaganda effort with which the German side in particular tried to incite against the occupiers.
The term “Ruhrgebiet” came into being with occupation
Violence and arrests were the order of the day. The prominent inmates included “Ruhr barons” such as Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, who was sentenced to six months in prison, or Fritz Thyssen, who had to go to prison for four days. The museum director also makes it clear: “The misconduct of the Germans during the war, after the war and during the occupation of the Ruhr is a very important point that we are also showing here.” If the German government and Ruhr industry had supplied coal and wood in accordance with the Versailles Treaty, the occupation would not have taken place.
For the Ruhr area, this phase “in the shadow of the First World War” also marked the beginning of a regional identity, the historian knows. A cross-class feeling of solidarity grew. And the term “Ruhrgebiet” only came about with the occupation. For the first time, the region was perceived nationally and internationally as a common area.
North Rhine-Westphalia’s Prime Minister Hendrik Wüst (CDU) writes in a welcoming address: “The Russian war of aggression against the Ukraine is now also bringing the occupation of the Ruhr, its pre- and post-history, back into the present awareness, making it abundantly clear that two world wars were taking place in Europe have raged, which have been led not only, but also for raw materials and energetic resources.” Today, France and Belgium are among Germany’s closest friends and allies – a “stroke of luck” that shows that historical developments can also be filmed.
Grütter says similarly: “We are also doing this exhibition to show that history is an open process that you can actively shape.” (dpa)