Mass Emigration to the New World

How the 19th century became an era of German emigration

Emigrants' farewell (1860) by Antonie VolkmarGerman Historical Museum

The 19th century was marked by mass emigration as oppressive living and working conditions in Europe led many people to seek their fortune on other continents. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and especially the United States were very attractive countries for emigrants.

In total, more than 5.5 million Germans left their homeland during the "long" 19th century (between 1820 and 1912).

First print of the American Declaration of Independence in German (July 6-8, 1776) by Print: Steiner and Cist and Authors: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams. Signed: John Hancock, Carl Thomson. Translator: Charles CistGerman Historical Museum

German emigration to the US did not just take place from 1800 onward, however. By the time of the American Revolution in 1776, a third of Pennsylvania's population spoke German. As a result, a German version of the Declaration of Independence appeared just 2 days after the English document.

The Silesian Weavers (1846) by Carl Wilhelm HübnerGerman Historical Museum

The US promised a way out for the poor and the politically persecuted. The first large mass emigration occurred between 1815 and 1848. Around 600,000 Germans emigrated during this period, 90 percent of them to the US.

Rising population numbers and the beginnings of industrialization led to pauperism—the impoverishment of large parts of the population—causing hunger and homelessness.

The Socialist (1885) by Robert KoehlerGerman Historical Museum

In addition, the failure of the bourgeois revolution of 1848 led many who had fought for democracy and national unification to emigrate to the US.

Good advice for immigrants to the United States of North America (1834) by J. P. Dewis (author), W. K. Riedlen (editor) and J. J. Christen (pubsliher)German Historical Museum

German emigrants were able to learn about life in the US and local conditions using handbooks and guides. In "Guter Rath an Einwanderer in die Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika" ("Good Advice for Emigrants to the United States of North America") of 1834, J.P. Dewis proposes the founding of a social collective of immigrant homeless Germans, which would serve as the basis for a "separate, fully communal home in the state of Pennsylvania."

The guide describes some of the most favorable states for emigration, provides details on the cities of Baltimore, Washington, Cincinnati, and New Orleans, and ends with a discussion of the steamboat.

Emigration document for the carpenter Wilhelm Schauf and his family from Lüdenhausen (March 19, 1858) by H. Arensberg and J. H. P. Schröder & Co.German Historical Museum

Most emigrants were small farmers or craftsmen with families. This passenger ticket, for example, was issued to a carpenter and his family. The need for emigrants' skills was so great that many communities were even prepared to subsidize the costs of the crossing.

The post room (1859) by Felix SchlesingerGerman Historical Museum

For many emigrants, the long and strenuous journey to the ports of Hamburg and Bremerhaven began at a posthouse.

In this painting, the post room is more of a passenger room. The carriage is waiting outside the door. To the left of the door the coachman talks to the ticket seller, who can be identified as a postmaster through his blue cuffs and collar.

A poster on the wall advertises crossings to America with New York as the destination.

"From the persecutions of the Jews in Russia: A trek to the West" (around 1882) by Gustaf Broling (inventor)German Historical Museum

Between 1880 and 1914, over 2 million eastern and southeastern European Jews emigrated overseas. Many of them came from the formerly Polish region of Galicia.

In the late 19th century, bitter poverty and pogroms—mass acts of religious persecution—led to the emigration of Jewish citizens from the Russian Empire as well, especially following the Odessa pogrom of 1871. The murder of Russian Tsar Alexander II (1818–81) gave rise to discriminatory laws and more violent pogrom waves against the Jewish population.

Newspaper illustration "At the emigration station in Ruhleben" from "Die Gartenlaube. Illustrirtes Familienblatt" 1895, Nr. 9 (1895) by Werner Zehme (inventor), Hermann Tafel (engraver) and Ernst Keil's Nachfolger (publisher)German Historical Museum

The emigration train station Ruhleben in Berlin became a center for those coming from the East. Here, registration, health checks, and—following a cholera epidemic in Hamburg in 1892 allegedly brought in by Russian emigrants—disinfection took place.

Information booklet "Jewish Emigration - Correspondence Sheet for Emigration and Settlement Issues (1938) by Hilfsverein der Juden in Deutschland (editor) and Schmoller und Gordon (print)German Historical Museum

The Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden (Relief Organization of German Jews) was founded in 1901 in Berlin as a religiously neutral entity. It mainly supported Eastern European Jewish emigrants to begin with, particularly from Russia and Galicia, and guided them on their trip through the German Reich. In addition to its headquarters in Berlin, the organization ran branches in Hamburg and Bremen.

After the National Socialists seized power in 1933, the relief organization looked after Jews who were expelled from Germany and forced to emigrate. This document is from 1938.

Crew members and emigrants on deck of the deep-sea passenger steamer Bremen II (1909) by Richard FleischhutGerman Historical Museum

Emigrants were accommodated on the often crowded steerage decks of cruise ships making the journey across the Atlantic. In rooms that were typically at very deep levels of the ship, they barely had more than a square yard to themselves for sleeping, eating, and relaxing. Poor hygiene and medical resources made the 40- to 80-day crossing a torment.

Emigrants aboard the deep-sea passenger steamer "Bremen II" (1909) by Richard FleischhutGerman Historical Museum

The journey time was shortened to around 2 weeks with the increased use of modern steamships in the 1890s.

Sinking of the emigrant ship "Austria" on 13 September 1858 (1858) by Josef Carl Berthold PüttnerGerman Historical Museum

In the 19th century, emigration overseas was dangerous and full of uncertainty. It sometimes ended in disaster, as with the overcrowded SS Austria on her voyage from Hamburg to New York.

Due to recklessness, a fire broke out on the ship on September 13, 1858. Instead of being washed with vinegar, the steerage area was fumigated for disinfection using barrels of tar, one of which was overturned. Only 89 of the 542 passengers could be rescued by other ships.

Emigrant Sebastian Fritz's letter to his family (September 9, 1854) by Sebastian Fritz and C. Magnus (print)German Historical Museum

Once emigrants arrived at their destinations, letters were their only connection to the Old World. Writing to those back home, they reported on their experiences and on everyday life in foreign countries. The letters often included stories of their successes, which spurred on relatives and friends in their homelands to emigrate.

A Letter from America (around 1860) by Berthold WoltzeGerman Historical Museum

This painting by Berthold Woltze shows people back home receiving happy news from the New World. The family gathers around the table to read the letter from America together.

The last lines can be made out on the back. They read: "…[wer] de ich soviel Geld haben, dass ihr auch herkommen könnt. Es grüßt euch euer Johannes, Chikago, d. 2/1 86" ("…I will have enough money for you to come here as well. Yours, Johannes. Chicago, January 2, 1886").

Though some emigrants went back, the crossing to the US was a permanent departure from home for most.

Credits: Story

Concept & editorial work: Björn Schmidt/DHM.

Text sources:
Dorlis Blume, Christiana Brennecke,
Ursula Breymayer und Thomas Eisentraut (Hg.)
für das Deutsche Historische Museum: Europa und das Meer, München 2018. Katalog zur gleichnamigen Ausstellung.

Credits: All media
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