Beyond History Blog

Emigration from Germany: Ranging the fields – reasons for emigration and formal requirements to meet before leaving the country

Avatar of Andrea Bentschneider Andrea Bentschneider - 11. April 2020 - Emigration, General, German-American, Germany, Historical Events, History, Knowledge

Globalization is one of these words that have been on everyone’s lips for the past years. Currently the worldwide spread of the Corona virus illuminates once again the global interlacing between countries due to trade and tourism, or any other kind of traffic and its consequences. 

That the whole world is linked and that events on the other side of the globe can have effects on other parts of the world is, however, nothing new. The most severe volcanic eruption in human history tells such a story: it was the eruption of Mount Tambora, a volcano on one of the Indonesian Lesser Sunda Islands, in 1815 that had massive impacts on the global climate. Do you have doubts? Well then, do you remember the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland in 2010? Its comparatively small ash clouds led to the collapse of the European air traffic. Mount Tambora’s eruption resulted in crop failures and the dying of cattle in large numbers all across the northern hemisphere in 1816 and the following years. 1816 became known as the “Year Without a Summer” or “eighteen hundred and froze to death”. July 1816 saw snow falls in Southern Germany and Switzerland; in August 1816 it still snowed in Quebec, Canada. Which followed was the greatest famine of the 19th century. This was the last straw that broke the camel’s back, as Europe’s population had already suffered for years from wars, revolutions and occupations. Just in 1815 Napoleon’s forces had withdrawn. Countless starving people were hoping for a better life and packed up, mostly having in mind to reach Bessarabia (located in today’s Moldavia, back then part of the Russian Empire). The burdens of taxation and the hereditary principle of the division of the estate (which meant that the handed on plot was divided evenly among the heirs, leaving descendants with a conceivably small basis of existence after a couple of generations) worsened the situation. Up until approximately 1842 the majority of people immigrating to Bessarabia were peasants coming from Southwestern Germany and Eastern Prussia. Apart from the economic reasons, the flight from poverty and hunger, many emigrants had as well in mind to flee from unpleasant political circumstances or were looking for a place where they would find free exercise of religion.

The truly large wave of emigration, however, formed between 1845 and 1855 und moved towards different shores: towards Northern America, especially the USA. Reasons for this were multiple, including a continuous economic crisis and politically troubled times, particularly the German revolution of 1848-1849 (March Revolution) and the subsequent years of reactionary politics. Additionally, in the 1880’s, the massive industrializationhad a great impact on the increase in emigration because laborers, craftsmen and tradesmen lost their employment and fell into poverty in large numbers. Many were forced to leave home in the hope of finding a better life elsewhere. However, the shipping companies played their role, too. On their behalf, emigration agents were sent out to recruit emigrants throughout all of the German States alluring them with dubious promises about what could allegedly be expected upon arrival. The chances to make a good profit with the transport of emigrants sometimes outweighed the obligation to ensure the wellbeing of the passengers. The letters from emigrated relatives or friends sent home and the prospects to receive a relatively inexpensive piece of land in the United States or Australia, or to try one’s luck in the search for gold did the rest.

Whoever decided to emigrate could not simply do so. The Grand Duchy of Hesse legally allowed emigration from 1820 on. In Prussia, the freedom of emigration was implemented in 1818; however, from 1842 on, emigration had to be granted by the authorities. Some German States temporarily decided not to dispense passports or to implement laws preventing emigration. Throughout the German States individuals wishing to leave their country had to apply for an official permission to emigrate. Further requirements for the permission to exit were generally speaking the completion of the military service, the clearance of any debts and legal irreproachability, meaning the absence of any previous convictions. In addition, emigrants lost their local citizenship rights and had to sell all their property prior to departure. People could range the fields in their own German small state at any time; but obtaining a permission and passport to emigrate was an impossibility in some cases.

Many a person unable to meet all these requirements tried to make their wish for a better life come true illegally by indicating a different name or age. The shipping companies were mostly interested in the costs of passage being payed for and the passengers being healthy.

Popular destinations for both legal and irregular outgoing passengers were Bessarabia until approximately 1842, in the 1840’s and 1850’s Australia, North America continuously from 1845 on, and beginning in the 1880’s South America (particularly Argentine, Chile and Brazil).

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Joseph Loerzel

11. April 2020

Very informative!