When, in my last blog, I wrote about how I continue to develop my professional skills, I thought it might be an idea to report in a little more detail about the most interesting activities. Let me begin by talking about German emigrants over the centuries.

The German political magazine Der Spiegel publishes a series of special editions called Spiegel Geschichte (history). Its first edition in 2022 is about German emigrants, their reasons for leaving the country, how they left, and what happened next. I listened to Spiegel Geschichte’s podcast with the director of the emigration museum Deutsches Auswandererhaus in Bremerhaven, Dr Simone Blaschka.
According to Frau Blaschka, millions of Germans fled the country since the 17th century. They fled for more or less the same reasons as people who flee their countries today: starvation, war, oppression, religious reasons, or they simply wanted to escape poverty and find a better life abroad. Many people emigrated on land, often on foot, but also by rail and by boat along rivers and across oceans. Germany was among three main countries of emigrants’ origin, together with Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Between 1816 and 1914, about 5.5 million Germans emigrated to the USA.

But America with its new colonies was not the only promised land: many journeyed to Eastern Europe and to Russia (see also my blog Catherine the Great and her Great Mistake). Whatever the destination, the journey often took three to four months – in 1850, a journey from Bremerhaven to New York took six weeks, to Australia more than 12 weeks. Not everyone found what they were looking for – many returned at some stage, and many died.

Emigration was ‘big business’: it developed into a huge network of trade and services. Among the main beneficiaries were shipping companies like Norddeutscher Lloyd and Hapag (Hamburg-America Line). Tickets were sold through institutions like today’s travel agencies with agents taking their cut. Albert Ballin for example, the director general of Hapag, established Emigration Halls for those who waited for their journey abroad. Railways benefited as well as those selling food, equipment, clothes, and services for the needs of millions. At home, property was sold, providing further business.

Many people were illiterate. Letters, having taken a long time to reach their recipients, were read out aloud like newspapers, often at the table in the evening. Success stories became an advertisement for others and would lead to more people venturing abroad. Letters indicated the prices abroad which were, compared to home, very competitive. Mentioned was everything that was important for farming and agriculture, be that beer, bread, meat, seeds, or land. Letters would also mention men who were looking for a woman they wanted to marry, wishing for someone ‘from home’ with the same language, religion, and upbringing. By the end of the 19th century, about half of the emigrants were young women. Many of them not only found a husband but also work and a career. Some, however, were misled. A magazine from 1825 called Die Gartenlaube reports of girl trafficking where young women and girls – some as young as 12 years old – were lured to America in order to dance in saloons and to work in prostitution.

Due to racism, emigration was significantly easier for Europeans than for Asians, and people with disabilities were also considered undesirable. This was particularly poignant along the West coast of the USA and in Vancouver. Cultural differences were enormous, and when, at the start of the 1920s, a quota was introduced, it was oriented on the emigration figures from the 19th century so that once more, immigrants from Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and Germany were favoured. It wasn’t until the 1950s that qualifications replaced quotas as criteria to enter the USA.

Individuals often received the money they needed to emigrate from collections among family and friends. The ticket for a ship was about as much as a year’s wages for a worker. This was considered an investment: once overseas, they would send money back and support their family back home. The main criteria was to know someone who was already there. This way, whole villages and parts of towns established themselves in the new settlements which can still be seen in names like the Hanover Township in Chicago, Germantown in Philadelphia, or the community of William Penn in today’s Pennsylvania.

On arrival, the emigrants were usually directed to the emergency associations, organised by people who spoke their language and shared their history and culture, often also their regional origin. In cities, such communities existed as well. They had their own newspapers, food supplies, charities, and clubs and were looking after those in need like widows or fire victims. Later, these communities were to become co-founders of the American Unions. The instant right to vote, the freedom of religion, the choice of occupation and the variety of opportunities resulted for many in success. Whereas in Germany, about 75% of the rural population owned less than 5 hectares of land, in the USA it would be up to 60 hectares. Even in rural areas was social mobility, and the cities boomed.

Communities established many clubs and associations, from gymnastics to choirs, and kept their festivals and traditions even to this day, like the Oktoberfest in Cincinnati. Men and children quickly became bilingual, but women took a lot longer to learn English. Integration took its time, but over the span of about four generations, German immigrants were considered as fully integrated Americans.

Those who returned (about 10-20% in the 20th century), usually did so because of the different climate, economic failure, or because they felt homesick. Some, however, never planned to stay forever, or they came back for their old age, believing that the German system offered a better pension or health care.

There are striking similarities to today’s emigrants: similar reasons, becoming a minority in the new country, having to learn a new language and culture. However, there is a striking difference: in America, Canada, and Australia, there was a positive attitude to immigration at the time. Europeans considered it as their right to go and find a better life. Today, our own countries tend to fear immigrants – we speak of a loss of identity and culture, and in the case of economic migrants, we deny others what we once happily claimed for ourselves. Food for thought!