Wed 23 November 2022

The Minett, dirty or beautiful?

Steel, smoke and dust

Was the Minett dirty, or was it beautiful? How did local authorities and steel companies view industrial air pollution? How was it possible that they could represent the region’s smoky, dust-ridden skies as something enchanting? Learn more about the history of Luxembourg’s industrial region with the virtual exhibition

The graphic novel Steel, smoke and dust explores how the air pollution in the Minett was perceived at three points in time: the 1920s, the 1930s and the 1960s. During those decades, local authorities, steel companies, artists and journalists did their utmost to represent the omnipresent smoke from the iron and steel works as an uplifting phenomenon. In newspapers, on posters and in films, tall chimneys and cloudy skies were routinely framed as symbols of welfare, economic power and civic pride. The fact that the industrial emissions also caused harm to the environment and to residents’ health was equally routinely ignored. This meant that factory bosses and public authorities often evaded their responsibility to tackle the emission problem. At the same time, their official discourses created a kind of “false consciousness” for the public: if the authorities did not see air pollution as an issue, the Minett’s inhabitants were most likely less inclined to problematise it.

Why did we choose the graphic novel as the medium to tell this story? It is a basic truth for any historian that the past can never be fully reconstructed. Any work of historiography is, by necessity, a partial, fragmentary and biased construction. In turn, this construction is based on partial, fragmentary and biased source documents. Graphic novels embrace this inherent impossibility of a “perfect” reconstruction by blending elements from authentic sources with a number of invented storylines, characters and events. Occasionally, invented storylines will be “counterfactual”, meaning that they present a past that most likely did not happen as it is shown. At the same time, this “counterfactual” past is not entirely implausible either: it did not happen, but it could have happened.

Through light-hearted, humorous storytelling, the reader of Steel, smoke and dust will thus be given a view of what life might have looked like behind the official façade of the “beautiful” Minett, with its “powerful” industry and its “prosperous” smoke. Once again might, because the historical sources mainly document the façade itself and not the everyday, banal realities behind it. As such, Steel, smoke and dust is mainly based on original material retrieved from the municipal archives of Esch-sur-Alzette (photos, posters, official reports), newspapers (Escher Tageblatt, Luxemburger Wort, etc.) and the National Audiovisual Centre (films).

Air pollution visualised

ARBED’s Belval factory was one of the three ironworks located close to the town of Esch-sur-Alzette. How was Esch affected by the Belval plant from an environmental point of view? In the Minett Stories chapter Air pollution visualised, we attempt to reconstruct the geographical impact of the dust pollution created by the Belval plant. 

Contrary to present-day popular belief, the air pollution caused by the three iron and steel works in Esch (Belval, Esch-Schifflange and Terres Rouges) was not uncontested by the local population. The so-called “dust plague” soiled clothes and buildings, irritated lungs and eyes and affected animal and plant life. From the 1920s onwards, inhabitants voiced their criticism about the dusty factory smoke through numerous newspaper articles, readers’ letters and interventions in parliament and municipal council meetings. Yet how exactly were the inhabited areas of Esch affected by air pollution? Was every neighbourhood affected in the same way? Can this pollution from the past be quantified and placed on a map? And how did it evolve over time?

For Minett Stories, we have tried to create a long-term picture of past dust pollution levels, choosing the Belval iron and steel works as a test case. To this end, historians, metallurgy experts and chemists have worked together to develop a data set containing various parameters. As well as the production output of the plant throughout the 20th century, these parameters include the type of production process, typical usage of filtering systems, and the prevailing wind directions in Luxembourg over time. Based on this data set, we managed to offer a plausible approximation of how the dust emissions of the Belval iron and steel complex might have geographically affected local air quality over the decades.

Visitors to the website can investigate the dust levels near the Belval plant through an animated time-lapse map, showing the period from around 1910 until the 1990s. Additionally, they can learn more about our reconstruction project through an essay, which is available in both video and text form.

Dr Mousel looks at dusty skies

Common knowledge has it that industrial regions such as the Minett were inhabited by sturdy workers who did not like to complain. These tough men never seem to have been concerned much by air pollution: surely only the overly sensitive would find fault in smoky, dust-ridden skies! But is this image actually accurate? Did the inhabitants of the Minett simply accept air pollution as an unavoidable fact of life?

The graphic novel chapter Dr Mousel looks at dusty skies complements the short stories explored earlier in Steel, smoke and dust. This time, we are brought to a steelworks in mid-1950s Differdange, where an unusual figure – clearly not a factory worker! – is standing near the railway, carrying a strange device. Two surprised men, who work for the local steelworks, have the pleasure of meeting Dr Mousel, a government-employed physician who has been tasked with writing a scientific study on the air pollution problem… Later on, Dr Mousel pays a visit to the Esch forest school, where he investigates the effect of the “clean forest air” on children’s health.

The fictional character of Dr Mousel is inspired by Dr Léon Molitor (1901-1979), the director of the government Department of Public Health between the end of the Second World War and the mid-1960s. A physician with wide-ranging expertise, Molitor represented Luxembourg in international forums and also wrote numerous government reports on topics as diverse as school hygiene, noise pollution, urban planning and tuberculosis. In the mid-1950s, under the auspices of the Christian Democrat Minister of Public Health, Esch-based physician Émile Colling, Molitor began to investigate the air pollution problem in the Minett. He immediately turned his attention to Differdange, where the Hadir plant was notorious for its contribution to the “dust plague” – even more so than the steelworks of Esch and Dudelange. The results of the enquiry were rather ambiguous: on the one hand, Molitor acknowledged that air pollution was indeed a problem, but on the other hand, he defended the steel industry’s “right to pollute”.

Like Steel, smoke and dust, the graphic novel about Dr Mousel blends the fictional and the non-fictional. It unearths sources that have never previously appeared in Luxembourgish historiography, including Molitor’s official reports, as well as letters by readers from the Minett, which were published in newspapers such as the Escher Tageblatt and the Luxemburger Wort. These readers’ letters strongly condemned the “dust plague” throughout the 1950s, years before the present-day environmental movement would take root.

Images copyrights
Archives de la Ville de Dudelange