From Germany to the United States to Germany: Emigration and Remigration Between 1800 and 1914

Thesis (M.A.), 2007

78 Pages, Grade: 2,1


1. Introduction

When switching through German television channels these days one is likely to run into programs showcasing Germans who venture a new life in another country, especially in North America.

“Goodbye Germany! The Emigrants” (VOX), “My New Life” (Kabel 1), and several other programs dedicated to German emigrants obviously intend to encourage their viewers to follow suit. Most of the accompanied emigrants are families with children, who are often dissatisfied with their jobs, although safe and well-paid, and their environment in Germany in general. One of them is the almost famous “Reimann family“ from Texas, who seem to have started this televised migration wave in 2005, when RTL covered their emigration from Hamburg in 2004.

What all of those shows have in common is their positive point of view, their optimism despite all setbacks. While this is certainly the best way to approach such an endeavor in the first place, the programs lack one important issue: the possible crestfallen return to Germany. Due to their topicality, the TV channels merely cover the preparations for leaving home, the farewell, and the first steps on new ground. During their first year most of these Germans succeed in finding a job, and even a nice home to live in. However, the viewer will not learn whether they are able to retain their job, their (rather expensive) home, and equally important, whether a successful integration, let alone an acculturation, is really taking place.

In cultural and social studies the issues of migration and assimilation have been a popular subject for decades. Numerous works on both German emigration and immigration to Germany can be found. The way that German migrants have influenced foreign countries, like the United States, in culture and language are omnipresent. It is known that some of the most famous Germans in history emigrated to the US: Strauss, Boeing, Einstein, Steinway, Thomas Mann, Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, just to name a few.

The illusion of leaving Germany and pursuing the ‘American Dream’ in the once New World is more topical than ever. In 2005 some 145.000 Germans left their home country.[1] About 10 percent of those emigrants chose the United States as their destination, only second to Switzerland (which, by the way, outran the US as the number one destination for German emigrants for the first time ever).[2] Despite its topicality in both the media and academics, the issues of shipwrecked immigrants, and their forced but often also deliberate or even planned return to their homeland is rarely touched on.

In order to shed some more light on the neglected situations and experiences of so-called remigrants, this thesis will not only be concerned with the act of emigrating but also the returning of German migrants. The most seminal works on this subject mainly deal with the 19th century. The focusing on this period can certainly be explained with the fact that emigration of Germans to the United States - and with it many of the German elements found there today - has never been that high in numbers again. Even the wave of refugees in the wake of World War II did not outnumber the movement which took place during that era. The 19th century constitutes the heyday of German-American migration, and at the same time the peak of the remigration involved. Thus, this thesis will follow suit in order to reveal the difficulties and obstacles associated with such a mass migration, not only on a national level but even more so in regard to the individual.

Emigration as a means to overcome personal hardship or discontent was - and still is - in no way always a dream come true. This thesis shall demonstrate that the whole process of migrating, especially prior to the prevalence of modern comforts, was closely connected with problems which were not apparent at first sight. Neither the act of migrating, nor the settlement in the New World, and not even the decision to return were automatically crowned with success.

In the course of the depictions and analyses in this thesis the three stages - emigration from Germany, residence in the United States, and return to Germany - will be dealt with. In doing so, connections between each of them are to be established, which shall generate an integral image of the process of transcontinental migration, with close attention paid to the difficulties involved.

Before analyzing the period of 1800 to 1914, an introduction will be given in the form of a review of early German migration to the United States. In comparison to the 17th and 18th centuries, changes and developments but also similarities become more evident, both in the motives to leave one’s home country and in the scale of migration.

The first major part of this thesis will be dedicated to the motives and the decision to leave Germany. Economic, political, social, or religious conditions are known to be the main driving forces behind the movement from one nation to another. The whole process of migration is initiated right at the home of the migrant. The grievances that burdened people at that time, and which turned their dreams of escaping into reality are brought into focus in chapter 3.

Once the decision to emigrate was made, the long way to the remote North American continent had to be ventured. In chapter 4 most attention will be paid to the primary hurdles associated with the voyage. The journey did not just commence on board of a ship, but in front of the migrant’s doorstep. In order to support the statement that the act of migrating was often an ordeal from the outset, the hardships of traveling thousands of miles in the 19th century, both on land and at sea, will be examined. This is partly done with the help of travelogues, which provide a personal yet representative insight into the conditions and incidents of that transcontinental voyage. These depictions bear witness to the true circumstances of the journey, and have already been drawn on by authors dealing with transatlantic migration in the past.

Subsequent to the endeavor of traveling to the New World, legislation on both the German and the American side will be analyzed. Did the administrations intend to contain or rather endorse migration? Did they recognize the troubles involved in the act of migrating? Again, the questions revolve around the migrants’ troubles.

The final subject will be the attempt to begin a new life in the United States. Could the reality that immigrants were to face in the New World live up to the pictures and hopes they brought with them? With the help of several individual cases of German migration the experiences of entire groups of immigrants shall be reflected. What problems did they encounter? Were they able to successfully integrate into the new environment? Did emigration eventually solve their problems? The reasons that led to the decision to remigrate will be integral to chapter 5.

In the end, the last issue to be addressed is the act of returning home. As the ultimate stage in the process of emigration-remigration the possible difficulties connected to it need to be clarified.

In any case the events and examples reproduced in this thesis will serve as illustrations of German-American migration. They clearly aim at finding evidence for the statement that emigration is literally no bed of roses. As popular as the successful examples of immigration to United States may be, both in the past and today, the flip side of the coin is a shattered dream and the bearing of several grievances without avail.

2. German Immigration Prior to the 19th Century

This chapter will provide an overview over the most important migrations of Germans to the New World prior to the 19th century. The historical depictions given are primarily owed to Heinrich Krohn’s chapter on “Auswanderung im 17. und 18. Jahrhundert”.[3]

An explanatory note should be given on the terms “Germany”, “German states” or “Germans”, that are being used throughout this thesis.

Prior to the year of 1871 there was no single country (or rather, empire) which could have been referred to as Germany. Instead, the future German Reich was split into several empires, kingdoms, princedoms. Still, in this work the term “German(y)” will be used for everything and everyone originating from the German area, no matter if the people in question were Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons, Württembergers, and so forth.

2.1 The First Germans in the New World

In 1683 thirteen families from Krefeld left the British town of Gravesend, on board of the “Concord”. 33 people entered the Nordic Sea both willing and bound to cross the Atlantic Ocean in order to reach its final destination in the New World. They belonged to a religious group named the Mennonites, a sect formed in the 16th century that furthered the reformative ideas of Martin Luther. The families headed for the rugged nature surrounding the Delaware river, where a tiny settlement had just begun to civilize the wilderness. The place was called Philadelphia, and was founded by the British Quaker William Penn, who owned the land and recruited the Mennonites on one of his missionary trips to German towns including Krefeld. Both the Quakers and Mennonites were suffering from violent prosecutions in their homeland since they championed rebaptism and strictly repudiated any kind of military service. When Penn’s father died his son inherited 16.000 pounds to be paid to him by the English state. Instead, he preferred being given some estate in the New World, large amounts of land around the Delaware River area. In honor of his father Penn named this property Pennsylvania.


[1] Wanderungen über die Grenzen Deutschlands nach ausgewählten Zuwanderungsgruppen 1993 bis 2005. Statistisches Bundesamt. 8 January 2007 <>

[2] Deutsche zieht es in die Schweiz. NZZ Online. 8 January 2007


[3] Krohn, pp. 14-55

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From Germany to the United States to Germany: Emigration and Remigration Between 1800 and 1914
Technical University of Chemnitz
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From, Germany, United, States, Germany, Emigration, Remigration, Between
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M.A. Marco Froehlich (Author), 2007, From Germany to the United States to Germany: Emigration and Remigration Between 1800 and 1914, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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