COMM-ORG Papers 2002


Community Organizing and the Alinsky Tradition in Germany


Peter Szynka

Bremen / Germany


~ Introduction

~ Three Waves of Reception of Community Organization in Germany

~ Differences between the present Phase of Reception and earlier Phases

~ Description of the present Phase of Reception

~ Notes

~ About the Author


Between 1939 and 1971 Saul D. Alinsky founded several independent citizen organizations in the United States that achieved sustainable improvements of living conditions in their neighborhoods. He did this by the means of the Industrial Areas Foundation, his institute of adult education, which provided special training for potential Community leaders.

The Back-of-the-Yards Neighborhood Council was the first citizens’ or people’s organization in 1939. Parishes, Unions and all sorts of organizations that existed at that time in the neighborhood-district back of the stockyards came together “to work out their own destiny”. The Back-of-the-Yards Council was the starting point of Alinsky’s career as a Community Organizer and a milestone in the history of Community Work. Alinsky was probably the first who tried to support the principle of self-organization in immigrant neighborhoods on a rational and scientific basis. Therefore he used concepts developed at the Chicago School of Sociology.

Today many people’s organizations and training institutes in the USA acknowledge to be influenced by the findings and techniques of Saul D. Alinsky. In Germany he is seen as one of the “Founding Fathers” of Community Work2. This paper takes a look at different views we had in Germany of the topic of Community Work after World War II. It also shows what difficulties had to be solved.

I try to argue for more intensive research on the Alinsky approach in Germany and for an adequate recognition of his work.

Three Waves of reception of Community Organizing in Germany

One can distinguish between three periods of reception of Community Organizing in Germany after World War II.

The first period took place in what we call “hour zero” after World War II. At that time, the primary interest was complete reconstruction of the educational and social system in Germany. Soon the professionalism of Social Workers was an important topic in these activities of reorganization. Teachers tried to encourage international discourses. Orientation and input came from the United States and the Netherlands. This process was supported by the return or consultation of German scientists, who lived in exile during the period of nazism.

The reception of Community Organizing during this time of the newer German history of Social Work was unspecific. It did not focus on special authors. One important publication by the “German Association of Public and Private Welfare Organizations” tried to discredit the American Models of Community Organizing, because no need for NGOs beside the communal administration was seen3.

A second period began during the 70s. It was connected with developments taking place in several western countries. I think of the student-movement at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s. It was a time of increased political awareness. Especially in Germany, this period was colored by an underlying conflict between two generations: those who took part in World War II and those born after the war. This time was also colored by the special German situation as a divided country and a front-state during the cold war. During this time a strong peace- and ecology-movement developed, which still influences parliamentary politics in Germany today.

In 1971 C.W. Müller was the first to present parts of the work of Saul D. Alinsky to a German public4. Shortly after this, translations of the two major works of Alinsky were published by the Burckhardthaus-Verlag. The Burckhardthaus was, together with the Victor-Gollancz-Foundation, the most important (post-university) training-centre for community workers in Germany during the 70s. The interest in Community Organizing efforts diminished when the institutionalization of community work in municipal programs failed. Community work was declared dead5.

The present wave of the reception started at the beginning of the 90s with the work of Marion Mohrlok and others6. Hopefully today’s reception will turn out well and unabridged7.

I will try to give a comprehensive insight into this continuing phase in the rest of this paper.

The Differences between the present Phase of reception and earlier Phases

The present phase differs from earlier phases of reception in several aspects. On the one hand, we can judge earlier phases from today’s privileged position. We are not under the pressure to reorganize the training and education facilities for social workers, like we were after World War II. We are not involved in a “small cultural revolution”, as our colleagues were in the 70s.

Our present interest is influenced by a political philosophy concerning the development of civil society and citizen participation. This takes more and more room in today’s political discussions on local, national, European and even a world-wide level. Community organizing gets a new relevance just in front of this background.

A further aspect that distinguishes the present reception is the increased resources for scientific research. Essential documents concerning Alinsky have been written in the United States after the second phase of reception in Germany, Primarily the Alinsky biographies of Sanford Horwitt8, Donald C. and Dietrich C. Reitzes9, David Finks10 and Michael P. Connolly11 have to be mentioned. The works of Carl Tjerandsen12 and Robert Fischer13 are also of importance.

Essential documents written by Alinsky himself were collected and are waiting to be published and discussed14 in Germany. Alinsky’s work has not yet been adequately recognized in Germany. This is especially true of his broader work, which is appearing from the archives and libraries. However, the most essential difference is that the present phase of reception takes place in a kind of dialog with colleagues in the USA.

Description of the present Period of Reception

The new reception of Alinsky in Germany began with the book "Let's Organize" written by Mohrlok and others. "Let's Organize" was an outstanding thesis for a master’s degree at the University of applied Science at Freiburg. A group of students stayed in the USA for several months and dared a systematic comparison of Community Work in Europe and Community Organizing in the U.S. They identified several organizations, primarily in Chicago, which devoted themselves to Community Organizing, interviewed their representatives and analyzed their written material. The authors of "Let's Organize" felt that Community Organizing could be a "vitamin injection" for Community Work in Germany. Some months later a first study and training seminar was organized at the Burckhardthaus in Gelnhausen. The training session was coached by Ed Shurna from Chicago and Don Elmer from San Francisco, who were either trained by Saul Alinsky or by his colleagues. The seminar was prepared carefully. The American instructors traveled Germany in order to meet German Community Workers and to get an idea about the special German conditions. They applied their strategy to the German conditions.

These conditions may be described as above: Community Organizing was taught as a part of Social Work. Social Work was raised up as a model after World War II and was practiced during the Cold War in the ideological atmosphere of a frontier state. That means, Social Work was seen as either part of the capitalist system, accused of covering up the contradictions and controversies of the society, or it was on the other side, accused of being part of a pre-revolutionary movement to change the whole system. Since 1989, however, we observed strong civil movements in the eastern countries and the decline of the socialist systems. A new situation developed and marked the end of the Cold War.

The American coaches adapted this situation by listening to the stories of a lot of community workers in Germany. They visited several projects, which came near to what is called Community Organizing in the United States. Most of them, like Duisburg-Bruckhausen, Berlin, were concerned with urban development and pollution and had their biggest victories during the seventies, when they stopped industry-plans of demolition and replacement of housing in worker’s areas or won important improvements in their living conditions. Some of them, like Saarbruecken, resulted from former slum-clearence15. Some of them were engaged in social rights issues and unemployment later on. Other community organizing projects like Dueren were founded as tenants associations to protect renters or to improve the infrastructure in some of the bigger German housing projects (social housing).

The coaches decided to emphasize the following topics: the difference between community organizing and social work; the role of power, conflict, negotiation, and strategies and tactics in a civil society; the worth of cutting issues; and the art of compromise. In combination, these topics were somewhat new to the German participants.

The difference between doing “for” the people (social work) instead of doing “with” the people (community organizing) has been a methodological discussion within some circles of social workers. Now the discussion linked social work to citizens organizations and to politics in a simple basic way again.

The coaches’ view on power and conflict in a civil society opened space to think about new independent, self organized and self-determined organizations and how to realize them. It also provided space to think about how to free and revitalize existing organizations. In post-war Germany social work remained a practice which was financed almost entirely by the state and the municipalities. Even the so called “free”, “independent” or “religious” welfare organizations were addicted to government money. The training gave important inspirations on reorganizing and restructuring those relationships.

The art of cutting issues and the art of compromise cooled down the antagonists of internal social work discussions, who were following their fundamentalist and utopian ideas. These ideas in reality had done nothing more than make cooperation impossible. The art of cutting issues and the art of compromise helped to overcome this dead-end situation and to redefine the necessity of cooperation in concrete actions.

This was the first time that special methods for the training of Community Organizing skills were developed in Germany. They were based on American educational practice but adapted to German conditions. The American coaches were internationally experienced and were conscious of the relativity of their findings.16 The seminar was followed by another meeting for experienced community workers one year later.

The coaches role-played the Melian dialogue with us. They also let participants role play typical German negotiations and monitored it. They taught one-on-ones and practiced the art of listening and the Socratic dialogue. They showed that an experienced community organizer is able to listen to more than 25 different stories in one day.

Both courses were repeated for other groups. The participants of the training courses developed the desire to visit the major Community Organizing efforts in Chicago and went there with a larger group of German practitioners and instructors in 1995. They visited ACORN, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the National Training and Information Center (NTIC), The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the Midwest Academy and others. For this purpose FOCO e.V. was founded and became a registered association17. The letters stand for FOrum for Community Organization. The journey to Chicago was documented in a book titled "Forward to the roots ... ". The trainings were documented and published on video. Key-texts were translated and translations were published. In its broader work FOCO e.V. grew to a national network of practitioners, community workers and people, who are active in citizen’s organizations. FOCO signed a time limited contract for counseling and advice with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), which is the well recognized Training Institute founded by Saul D. Alinsky and provided some money for the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) to start organizing in Germany.

A further training was organized with the American coaches, namely Leo J. Penta18 and Edward T. Chambers, Alinsky's successor in the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). The purpose of this seminar was to create Community Organizing Projects in Germany. Following Chicago or New York patterns, these projects were to be carried out and financed by a broad base of existing organizations. So far FOCO had no success with these projects. Until this time no German foundations or organizations could be found who were willing to provide a sufficient financial contribution for a starting phase. At the moment, a creation of a Community or Citizen's Organization, financed by communal or state means, cannot be imagined by anybody concerned with the subject.

FOCO members are involved in organizing projects and institutional changes all over Germany. They are building up new groups, networking, and revitalizing and reorganizing existing organizations. Others are teaching social work at universities and are counselors in organizationl development. But at this time, there is no organization that could play a role or might be presented like the Back-of-the-Yards-Project. Because of this, we are to this day waiting for a model community-project in Germany.


1 An earlier version of this paper was part of a presentation in German language at the conference of the German Society for Social Work in Frankfurt/Main, 2001-12-01 (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sozialarbeit, Arbeitskreis „Soziale Arbeit in und mit Gemeinwesen“). It was also part of a presentation in English language at the conference of the Inter-University Consortium for International Social Development (IUSCISD) in The Hague / Netherlands, 2002-09-27. Because English is not my mother tongue, I have to thank Martin Asmuß, Edewecht (Germany), Gisela Broers, Oldenburg (Germany) and Randy Stoecker, Toledo (USA) for their help and remarks on the translation.

2 See: Arbeitskreis Kritischer Sozialarbeiter (AKS) – Berlin, Gemeinwesenarbeit als Ideologie und Kontrolle: Ein Beitrag zur Sozialarbeit im Stadtteilbereich, in: Arch+, Febr. 1974, S. 27-42, Reprinted in: Victor-Gollancz-Stiftung, Materialien zur Jugend und Sozialarbeit 8, Reader zur Theorie und Strategie von Gemeinwesenarbeit, 1974. See: Karas, Fritz / Hinte, Wolfgang, Grundprogramm Gemeinwesenarbeit, 1978, S. 42

3 Vogel, Rudolf/Oel, Peter, Gemeinde und Gemeinschaftshandeln: Zur Analyse der Begriffe Community Organization and Community Development, 1966

4 C.W. Müller, Die Rezeption von Gemeinwesenarbeit in der Bundesrepublik in: ders. / P. Nimmermann, Stadtplanung und Gemeinwesenarbeit München 1971, S. 228-240  C.W. Müller, Wie Helfen zum Beruf wurde, Bd. II, S. 97- 132, Weinheim und Basel 1982

5 C.W. Müller, 1982, S. 131

6 M. Mohrlok, M. Neubauer, W.Schönfelder, Let´s Organize!, Gemeinwesenarbeit und Community Organizing im Vergleich, München 1993, AG SPAK

7 Oelschlägel, Dieter, Bürgerengagement-Gemeinwesenarbeit-Community Organization, in Saul D. Alinsky, Anleitung zum Mächtigsein: Ausgewählte Schriften, Lamuv, Göttingen 1999, p. 183

8 Horwitt, Sanford D., Let them call me Rebel: Saul Alinsky, his life and legacy, New York 1989

9 Reitzes, Donald C. and Reitzes Dietrich C., The Alinsky Legacy: Alive and Kicking, Greenwich 1987

10 Finks, David P., Ramsey, New Jersey, 1984

11 Connolly, Michael P., An Historical Study of Change in Saul D. Alinsky’s Community Organizing Practice and Theory, 1939-1972, University of Minnesota, Ph.D., 1976

12 Tjerandsen, Carl, Education for Citizenship: A Foundations Experience, 1980

13 Fisher, Robert, Let the People Decide: Neighborhood Organizing in America, New York 1994

14 Beside his well known books “Rules for Radicals”(1946) and “Reveille for Radicals”(1971) Alinsky published more than 25 articles on Community Organizing. A connoted bibliography of his writings is prepared to be published in Germany by the Author.

15 That´s the nearest translation for the German „Auflösung von Obdachlosensiedlungen“, which means the clearance of areas, where homeless people lived under worse hygienic and legal conditions in real estates owned by the state or municipality. Often these real estates have been abandoned military barracks.

16 See: Heiner, Maja, Power to the People! - Ein Relikt aus der Revoluzzermottenkiste, in: sozialmagazin 18/1993/11 pp. 48-51

17 See:

18 see also: Penta, Leo J., Islands of Democratic Practice: Organizing for Local and Regional Power in the USA: The Industrial Areas Foundation and its Organizing Networks as an Example, in: Salustowicz, Pjotr (ed.), Civil Society and Social Development: Proceedings of the 6th Biennial European IUSCISD Conference in Kracow 1999, Berlin 2001

About the Author

Peter Szynka was a Social Scientist and Social Worker, Community Organizer in Duisburg-Bruckhausen during the 70's. At present he is a regional advisor, responsible for the organizational development of services for homeless people run by the Service Agency of the Protestant Church (DIAKONIE) in North-West Germany. He was trained in Community Organizing by Ed Shurna of Chicago, Don Elmer of San Francisco, and the IAF of Chicago. He is currently chair of FOCO (Forum Community Organizing) in Germany.