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Conditions in Germany
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Conditions In Germany Which Led to Mass Emigration

We do not know the exact reason that our forebears emigrated from Germany, nor do we know for certain yet, who came at what time.  We do know that they were not alone in leaving. The history of Germany at the time indicates that between 1830 and 1855 a steady stream of people left Germany for greener pastures. Many went to the United States, some to Canada, others to South America and Australia. Between 1846 and 1857 more than 1 million Germans emigrated to the United States alone. It was not only young people, but men and women in their forties and fifties, with families, newborns included, that left in this exodus. This attests to how very poor the conditions must have been.

The following excerpts serve to paint the picture of overall bleak conditions in Germany over a 60 year or greater, period. The following excerpt is from the history of the Schaus family, written by Lloyd Schaus (my maternal uncle), whose ancestors also emigrated from Germany, in the region of the Black Forest.

This first paragraph details factors of political unrest.

First of all, these people had just come through an exhausting period of war. For a quarter of a century, from 1790 to 1815, the armies of Napoleon had been marching back and forth across Europe, and Germany was under Napoleon's power for many years, supplying the necessities of war, such as food and manpower. During this period it is not surprising to find in Germany, records of births, marriages and deaths recorded in French. With the defeat of Napoleon and the terms of the Continental Congress of Vienna in 1815, the people of Germany looked forward to an era of peace.  Although the German states received considerable political independence, all attempts to bring the many separate principalities into some form of union failed.  As a result of this disunity the autocratic rulers were able to suppress any efforts to establish democratic forms of government.  From 1820 to 1848 there were numerous revolts against the authorities and, when the great revolts of 1848 failed, the leaders of the outbreak despaired of freedom ever being established and fled by the thousands to other countries. [i]

Another reason, no doubt, that many German families left their homeland was overwhelming economic hardship. 

The war years had left their mark on the economy of the country and the political unrest slowed the rebuilding process.  Germany was one of the last countries to throw off the feudal system under which the peasants were still at the mercy of the landowners.  Add to this a series of crop failures in the 1830's and 1840's and you have the main reason for looking elsewhere for the means to exist and raise a family. [ii]

The following text taken from “In Search of your German Roots” by Angus Baxter also sheds some light on the social or religious strife at this time in German history.

By 1818 one bad harvest had followed another, the Napoleonic Warshad taken their toll of life and property, and religious disputes within the Lutheran Church had led to ill feeling and a disruption of orderly life. All these events led to another wave of emigration - this time from Bavaria (Bayern) and Württemberg, and later from Hesse (Hessen), Thuringia (Thuringen), and West Prussia (Westpreussen). By 1840 all the Germanic areas were contributing to the floodtide, but the majority still came from the southwest-mainly because of the close association with America and family connections with those already established in the great republic beyond the ocean.

The religious disputes I mentioned above were caused in the main by a compulsory union of the Reformed and Lutheran churches ordered by King Frederick William III of Prussia. A breakaway sect opposed to union and known as the “Old Lutherans” took the lead in the new emigration. More than a thousand went to the United States in 1839 - 700 to Wisconsin and the rest to Buffalo. In 1847 a large organized party left Lippe-Detmold in the North Rheinland for Missouri and Wisconsin and in the following year more Missouri settlements were established by immigrants from Westphalia (Westfalen) and Hamburg. Smaller family groups went to the cities of Milwaukee and Cleveland.

At this time many Germans who were destitute had their passage overseas paid by their local community to save the increasing costs to the public purse. In the early 1840s a number of emigrant societies (generally known as Auswanderungsverein) were set up in various parts of the German area. They were organized on a cooperative self-help basis with the support of the various state governments. Their objectives were to help members to emigrate, and this help included both money and advice. The records of many of these societies--but by no means all--are in the state or city archives in Germany, together with copies of early newspapers devoted to the subject of emigration. The main centers were in the following places (the name of the existing state is given in parentheses):


Hannover (Niedersachsen)                    

Breslau (now Wroclaw, in Poland)

Karlsruhe (Baden-Wurttemberg)

Darmstadt (Hessen)                              

Leipzig (Sachsen)

Dusseldorf (Nordrhein-Westfalen)

Mainz (Rheinland-Pfalz)

Frankfurt-am-Main (Hessen)                 

Stuttgart (Baden-Wurttemberg)

Giessen (Hessen)


The high points in immigration into the United States in the nineteenth century were in 1854 when more than a quarter of a million Germans arrived, and in the period 1866-1873. The latter years saw the emergence of Prussia (Preussen) as the dominant state in the German area and a series of wars against Austria, Denmark, and France, culminating in the proclamation of the German Empire in 1870. In 1880 more than 200,000 Germans immigrated to North America. The estimates - and they can be no more than that - are that between 1820 and 1900 the number of immigrants totaled between three and five million.

Since those days there has been a steady flow of German immigrants, but not on the scale of the last century. The end of constant wars between the various states, the unification of Germany, and the end of cheap land in the United States all made the Fatherland a more attractive place in which to live, and this was reflected in smaller immigration figures. In 1900 the annual total was down to 20,000.[iii] 

The following excerpt entitled “REASONS FOR EMIGRATION-ONE OUT OF THREE MECKLENBURGERS LEFT HIS COUNTRY”, edited by Carol Gohsman Bowen also paints a picture of bleak conditions in Germany in a district just north of our forebears’ home province of Sachsen-Anhalt, that province was Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

In the middle of the past century Mecklenburg was one of the areas in Europe that was most affected by the emigration movement. Mass emigration is a sign of severe social crisis in any country. What reasons did so many people have to leave their country and hope for a better life abroad in the 19th century?

The emigration wave was not limited to Mecklenburg alone. It also covered all other parts of the fragmented German Empire. In all, several million people emigrated from Germany. The emigration movement spread to other European countries as well, but Mecklenburg was especially hard hit. In fact, after 1850, Mecklenburg had the third highest emigration count in Europe, superseded only by Ireland and Galicia (land which is currently Poland and the Ukraine).

"And why have you left Germany?" asked Heinrich Heine in 1834, when he met some German emigrants in France on their way to North Africa. "The land is good, and we would have liked to stay", they replied, "but we just couldn't stand it any longer."

If asked that same question, many of the 261,000 Mecklenburgers that left their home country (the Grand duchies of Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz) between 1820 and 1890 would have given the same answer. Many people, especially those from the lower social classes, didn't have any prospects or future in Mecklenburg, since their lives were totally uprooted by the change from feudal rule to a civil-capitalist one.

Between 1850 and 1890 approximately 146,000 Mecklenburgers emigrated overseas, most going to the United States of America, but some also going to South America. Between 1820 and 1890 those going overseas accounted for two thirds of all the emigrants from Mecklenburg. The defeat of the civil-democratic revolution in 1848/49 and the return of the old social and political problems gave fresh impetus to this emigration movement.

This loss of population was most prevalent from the so-called flat or farmland. 88.5 % of all emigrants came from rural areas. Most of them came from the lands of the knights, from the manor houses of noble and titled big landowners. These were the people who had the most compelling reasons for leaving Mecklenburg. This was mostly due to the miserable social conditions caused by the right of abode and the right of establishment rules that existed almost unchanged between 1820 and 1860.

These conditions came about when serfdomwas annulled in Mecklenburg in 1820/21. At that time, many landowners took the opportunity to get rid of a lot of their day labourers who were now considered personally free according to the law. They began to run their lands with a minimum of permanent workers. The landowners did this so that they would not have to pay for any labourers who were injured or take care of them when they grew old. It was very difficult for day-labourers who were thrown out to find permanent work elsewhere because they needed to receive the right of establishment from the new employer. But that wasn't easy to get.

In 1861, an expert on Mecklenburg history, Ernst Boll, explained the right of abodeand right of establishment in his Abriss der Mecklenburgischen Landeskunde this way: "a Mecklenburger does not belong to the country as a whole as far as his home is concerned. Rather, he belongs to the one city or village that he happens to be born in, or to the city or village where he has received the right of establishment."

The granting of the right to marryalso depended on the granting of the right of establishment, and all subjects needed permission to marry before they could have a family. A man or woman who did not have the right of establishment could never establish a home. Therefore, the main problem for a common Mecklenburger was to get his own "Hüsung", but many did not succeed. A lot of people that worked as paid labourers were refused the right of establishment by the ruling class for their whole lives. They were given only a limited right to residence - only for as long as they had work. These were the inhumane conditions that existed. Mecklenburgers could become homeless in their own country.

Therefore it is no surprise that tens of thousands decided to emigrate rather than walking around homeless. In fact, the knights and landowners encouraged emigration at times. The loss of population in rural areas grew larger and larger. While there still was a population growth of 55,000 people between 1830 and 1850 despite the emigration, new births could not make up for the high number of emigrants between 1850 and 1905. The rural population dropped by 25,000.

After the German Empire was founded in 1871, industrialisation spread and some cities expanded rapidly. The number of people that emigrated overseas decreased and internal migration increased. More people that were willing to emigrate went to cities and industrial towns outside of Mecklenburg, such as the areas of Berlin and Hamburgrather than to America.

In 1900 approximately 224,692 people who were Mecklenburgers by birth lived outside of their home country. That was almost one third of the Mecklenburg total population. [iv]

[i] The History of the Schaus Family in Canada 1846-1979, Dr. Lloyd H. Schaus, 1979

[ii] The History of the Schaus Family in Canada 1846-1979, Dr. Lloyd H. Schaus, 1979

[iii] In Search of Your German Roots, by Angus Baxter, Third Edition. Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc, 1001 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD, 21202.

[iv] Article from the "Mecklenburg Magazin" 1990/9 by Dr. sc. Klaus Baudis, translation: Daniela Garling. Found on the internet home page entitled “Emigration From Hamburg”, Edited by Carol Gohsman Bowen

The following link to the Mecklenburg-Schwerin Homepage also gives insight into the hopeless situation many Germans of the day faced. It states that one out of three Mecklenburgers left their country. Similar situations surely faced inhabitants of other parts of Germany.

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Last modified: February 11, 2003