Early people traveled in groups
Reasons for emigrating
The first German emigrants were driven by religious, political or economic reasons. Religious splinter groups, for example, hoped for more religious freedom in the "land of unlimited possibilities". Many politically active people had lost hope of a democratic Germany after the failed revolution in 1848 and therefore left their homeland.
The main reason for most emigrants is and was the economic situation.
In the 19th century, famine in the cities and the scarcity of land - through a right of inheritance that divided the land into smaller and smaller parcels - made it almost impossible for many to survive in Germany. Entire professions also died out with the onset of industrialization.
Even today, the threat of unemployment and the feeling of lack of prospects drive many to flee forwards. Of course, there are also personal motives for leaving home: love, lovesickness, a thirst for adventure, the longing for better weather or a quieter life.
Emigration as martyrdom
Emigration was nowhere near as easy as it is today - on the contrary. The sailing ships with which the people of the first waves of emigration left Germany from the beginning of the 19th century to around 1880 - mostly for South and North America - were actually cargo ships. Goods were brought from America to Europe in their tween decks.
On the way back the space was free - so emigrants were a welcome additional business for the shipping companies. The emigrants had to stay tightly packed below deck as "cargo" for several weeks, often without daylight and fresh air.
The hygienic conditions caused serious diseases such as typhoid and oral rot. The people had to bring their own food - but if the journey lasted ten weeks instead of six, many passengers died of starvation. Only around 50 percent survived this ordeal.
Since many emigrants could not pay for the crossing, they let themselves be recruited and undertook to work for the new employer overseas for several years only for board and lodging. When they were "dismissed", the employer often gave them a piece of land that they could cultivate.
Comfort on the steamers
The situation was different on the steamships with which people left Germany from 1880 onwards. Even in the lowest class, in the so-called tween deck, the economical luxury with regular meals, own mattresses and entertainment in the evening amazed many a young country servant.
Emigration protection laws obliged the shipping companies to feed the passengers, ensure hygiene and provide everyone with a bunk. The emigrants were still good business, but from 1900 the steamboat operators started to compete with each other. As a result, the conditions became more pleasant and the crossings cheaper.
Emigration Destinations in History
Most of the emigrants wanted to go to the USA. There was enough land here, as well as favorable weather and good soil to cultivate one's own floe. It is different in Latin American countries like Brazil or Chile. But it could be very inhospitable here: The Germans were not used to the subtropical climate and the infrastructure left a lot to be desired.
Almost six million Germans came to the USA between 1820 and 1930. Many formed German communities in the rural areas, where the same dialect was spoken and the locations were built according to current German architectural fashions. In many places a "Little Germany" emerged, and only the grandchildren of these immigrants actually saw themselves as Americans.
Other destinations were Australia and New Zealand. Initially, only very few Germans ended up there. New Zealand was a British colony at the time and had a reputation for appreciating German virtues such as hard work and perseverance, but not the life of the individual. Not to mention the indigenous people, the Maoris, who were said to be cannibals. It was not until the gold discoveries in the 1860s that New Zealand became a country of emigration.
The USA became particularly popular with German emigrants after the Wars of Independence from 1775 to 1785. But at the end of the 19th century, the immigration policy changed there. Those willing to immigrate were more strictly controlled. Especially people from Eastern Europe were no longer welcomed because they were perceived as unwilling to assimilate.
In 1892 the government established the Ellis Island immigration authority in front of the New York harbor. On the offshore island, the authorities set up a new collection point, where up to 12,000 people arrived a day. In 1907 alone, more than a million immigrants were processed. Forty percent of all US citizens today have ancestors who came into the country through Ellis Island.
The decline of Ellis Island began with the quota system from 1924. In 1932, the number of those who were turned away was, for the first time, greater than those who were admitted. Soon the bureaucracy was no longer worth it, so Ellis Island was closed in 1954. Today there is a museum on US immigration history on the island.
Alongside the USA, Canada is now one of the most popular countries for emigrants - due to its good economic development, the country even organizes job fairs in Germany. With the European Union (EU), however, the possibility of migration within Europe has also improved.
While you need a visa and a work permit for non-European countries, it is not a problem to change your place of residence within the EU. This is particularly useful for retirees who want to spend their retirement years in the south.
For those looking for work, Austria and Switzerland are very popular - here too, Germans often find more lucrative job offers than in Germany. Every year around 150,000 Germans leave their homeland.
Nevertheless, there has been a change in the type of emigration: Today, people tend to move. Because in principle every decision can be reversed again. If the fixed-term employment contract has expired, self-employment has failed or you need solid German health care in old age, emigrants can quickly be back in Germany.
And for returnees, the following applies: even if their stay abroad was not as successful as they dreamed it would be - everyone is at least richer in the experience of what it is like to live abroad. And it is not uncommon for a returnees to see Germany much more positively than before they set out into the big wide world.
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