The ILO's German Window

The ILO's German Window. Enlarge image The ILO's German Window. (© StV)

When you get inside the building of the International Labour Office in Geneva, you see a great many of artful objects, some of them shaped in a bizarre way, which are exhibited there in the main entrance hall, in front of and in the meeting and conference rooms and on the walls. You see paintings, vases, statuettes and figurines or busts of personalities, but also tapestries and steel structures; there even is an old scoop wheel, a donation from Saudi Arabia, and one of the conference rooms has an Asian door made of amply ornamented carved wood. The library reading room is decorated with a huge multicolour mural painting by a Mexican painter.

Most of these objects are gifts made to the International Labour Organization (ILO) by Member States; a great many were received from governments, but also from employers' and workers' organizations of various States that made such gifts over the decades. The beauty or utility of some of these objects may be subject to debate; quite a few integrate elegantly and discretely in their sur- roundings while others are more like alien elements. Not all of the gifts received furthermore were meant to be ornemental; there are rather practical and functional gifts and furnishing among them such as, e.g., the ceiling light fixtures in the governing body room, a gift made by the Canadian government, or the carved wood panelling on the walls of the library reading room already mentioned, a gift from the Federal Republic of Germany. Small plaquettes dis- cretely affixed under or beside the object are inscribed with its title and origin.

Among the oldest gifts made is what is called the German window (or, as the administrative staff at headquarters call it, the „vitrailles allemandes“). It is a work of Max Pechstein (1881-1955), the German artist who created it in 1926 in the shape of five stained-glass panels given to the ILO for its new head-quarters building in the same year by the then government of the Reich.

The work represents the world of labour symbolically as Max Pechstein perceived it. A variety of five sectors of work and their workers are aligned: the mining and building sectors, the metalworking industry, agriculture including viticulture and fisheries and finally trade. Honest upright workers displaying muscular force are looking serious, concentrating on their work; there is a woman worker as well stoopingly going about her work in a wheat field.

Hovering at the center of the work, there is a bell. Inspired by Schiller's Song of the Bell, the artist can be interpreted as in that way emphasizing the value of labour for peace and freedom:

In a cheerful obligation

Thousand busy hands unite

And in burning agitation

Forces all are brought to light

Master stirs, and workmen, also,

When guarded well, in Freedom's cause*

And now employ the cable's power

Raise the bell from out of the ground,

That in its roomy, air-built tower,

It may reach the realms of sound

Higher, higher, raise!

Now it moves, it sways!

To this city Joy revealing

Be Peace the first note of its pealing**

Once handed over Max Pechstein's work was fitted into the stone and concrete building of the ILO which was newly erected at the Rue de Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva, and with the afternoon sun light flooding through, the five individual stained-glass windows embellished the upper floor of a wing of the old building where various conference and meeting rooms were located.

This short account of the so-called German stained-glass window might stop here – but it goes on.

Early in 1933 the German Reich declared its withdrawal from the League of Nations and the ILO. The stained-glass window however remained the property of the organization. During the Second World War the ILO moved to Montreal and was to return to Geneva only in 1946. The German window had weathered the wartime commotion undamaged and kept waiting for Germany to re-enter the organization. This was to come about in 1951: On the basis of a two-thirds majority decision taken by the International Labour Conference the Federal Republic of Germany was admitted to the ILO and a few years later – in 1954 – declared to be one of the ten Members of chief industrial importance of the organization. From now on German delegates – government, employer and worker representatives – would regularly attend the sessions of the Governing Body and enjoy looking at the German window.

The onset of the 1970's was marked by the commencement of construction of a new headquarters building for the ILO. With the old ILO building coming close to bursting at the seams, the increase not only of the number of Member States and organizational tasks, but also of staff from all over the world just as the office files that had accumulated by then required offices for more people as well as more spacious meeting and conference rooms. So a modern building was designed that would impose itself up on a hill overlooking Geneva and house the International Labour Office. Construction of the eleven-storey building progressed rapidly; it was finished in 1974 and occupied immediately.

When the ILO moved into its new building, there also was need for space for the many gifts that had accumulated over the years. While the new building was being constructed already there arose the question a.o. of what should be done about the German window. For the fiscal year of 1973 the budget of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs included an item of 100 000 Deutschmarks for a gift to the ILO from the Federal Republic of Germany to be utilized for the new headquarters building. However, at that time no thought was given as yet to the funding of the removal of the German window; a „gift“ was understood as conveying something of a more useful nature. A so-called hanging glasswork for the main entrance hall of the new building as proposed by the ILO however was found unacceptable by the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs on account of the great expense involved.

Now in June 1973 the then Parliamentary State Secretary Helmut Rohde attended the International Labour Conference; on this occasion he handed over a cheque for 100 000 Deutschmarks to the acting Director-General Wilfried Jenks for the internal finishing and furnishing of the library of the new headquarters building. Jenks expressed his most grateful thanks but suggested that Max Pechstein's stained-glass window – also a gift from Germany – should have its place in the new library as well.

There also was unanimous endorsement of the removal of the German stained-glass window into the new headquarters building by the tripartite delegation of the Federal Republic of Germany to the Governing Body – the head of the international social policy directorate in the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Mr. Winfrid Haase, the member of the Executive Board of the Confederation of German Employers' Associations (BDA), Mr. Ernst Gerhard Erdmann, and the Vice-President of the German Trade Union Federation (DGB), Mr. Gerd Muhr. Their reasoning was simple and of political import: The gift in question had been made to the ILO by a government representing a German democracy, and that gift consequently should be kept in the holdings of the ILO.

In a letter of thanks dated 6 July 1973 to the then Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Walter Arendt, Jenks expressed his gratitude to the Federal Government for its gift for the new building; as that letter also said, the contribution would be utilized for the internal finishing and furnishing of the library reading room as well as for the removal of the Pechstein window from the premises at the time to the new ILO headquarters building and its installation there.

As Mr. Jenks thus thought the removal costs were to be covered out of the amount of 100 000 Deutschmarks already made available to the ILO (Parliamentary State Secretary Rohde's cheque handed over to Jenks). In that way however (and notwithstanding the favorable DM-CHF exchange rate at the time) not much would have been left for the finishing and furnishing of the library. Mr. Haase therefore contacted the Federal Foreign Office which in its turn wrote to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation („Deutsche Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz“). The latter accepted to contribute an amount of

41 000 Deutschmarks for the adaptation of the Pechstein window. Mr. Haase thus was able to inform the ILO in a letter dated 21 March 1974 that as a result of his efforts the Federal Foreign Office would make budgetary funds available for the removal of the stained-glass window by Max Pechstein into the new building. This came about in the form of a (special purpose) payment of 41 000 Deutschmarks disbursed to the ILO on 27 June 1974 by the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany in Geneva.

The removal of the stained-glass window by Max Pechstein and its installation in the new ILO building was terminated at the end of October 1974. Shortly afterwards the new headquarters was inaugurated by the then Officers of the Governing Body in a plain ceremony. In the old building where the internatio-nal organization concerned with world trade (now WTO) moved in subsequently, standard panes were substituted where the Pechstein window had left a gap.

The German window was to find its new place in the basement of the new building, opposite the library and next to a conference room, though not as a window as before in the old building, but rather as a sort of ornamental work. The five panels were joined and provided with a steel encasement and interior lighting, the whole of the artful work sized 7,38m in length and 4,24m in hight thus being quite effective for the visitors to look at and marvel at. A small plaquette affixed beside the window identifies the work and its creator and draws attention to the efforts of the Federal Republic of Germany to conserve the work of art for the ILO.

Geneva, 18 March 2008

Valentin Klotz