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The General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), formed in 1899 to control a national strike fund, spent their early years linking British trade union organisations with their counterparts across the world. This flourishing internationalism was cut short at the outbreak of war in 1914, and almost overnight the GFTU found themselves awkwardly managing well-established friendships with leaders in what were suddenly thought of as hostile states. Until that point, messages of congratulations on industrial victories, commiserations on political upheavals, and encouragement for burgeoning trade union activism were central to the GFTU’s role as a communication hub for British workers’ organisations. The personal correspondence between national leaders was also routinely published as a way of displaying their professional friendships and feelings of solidarity and kinship. The outbreak of war ruptured both the physical communication lines and the emotional connection of solidarity between these trade union leaders, as their allegiances and loyalties were now torn. Through close analysis of private correspondence that the GFTU made public against the wishes of their German counterparts, this paper demonstrates how previously cohesive feelings of worker solidarity were challenged by the perceived need to show patriotism. By replacing their friendly, affectionate public letters with bold, jingoistic statements, the GFTU used their communication network to place patriotism before internationalism, and so fundamentally changed the course of the European international trade union movement. 

Dr Edda Nicolson is a historian of twentieth century trade unionism. Her PhD thesis, 'Under One Banner: The General Federation of Trade Unions c. 1899-1926' was completed in 2022. Edda currently works as an organiser for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) Union.

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