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Emigration - Introduction
by Dieter Garling

Flag of Mecklenburg H


In the middle of the past century the country in Europe belonged to the areas that were worst affected by the emigration movement

Ich kann den Blick nicht von Euch wenden;
Ich muß Euch anschaun immerdar:
Wie reicht ihr mit geschäftgen Händen
Dem Schiffer Eure Habe dar!"

I can't turn my eyes away from you;
I have to watch you all the time:
How you liberally give
the skipper your last dime!

(Poem by F. Freiligrath, translation: Daniela Garling)

Painful feelings moved the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath, when in the middle of the past century he was confronted with the fate of German emigrants, that left Germany over the harbours of the North Sea, heading for other continents in the hope for a better, more independent life. Feelings, that we can understand.

The emigration of thousands of people from Mecklenburg belongs to the darkest chapters in the history of that region. With the annulment of serfdom in 1820 many landowners stopped caring for the poor - they decreased the number of appartments on their land and made it much harder to receive the right of abode. Even in the "Domanium" (land owned by the grand duke of Schwerin), it was hard to find work or housing. "Hüsung" (=housing) quickly developed to a term, which united both the wistful expectations of thousands of people, and the horror of bitter plight. - Due to the system of guilds in the cities the hope of the citizens to set themselves up in life by working hard and being economical decreased. As a result of those problems among the people of Mecklenburg a mass emigration started in the early 19th century, and about one fourth of the population left their homes. For many of them Hamburg was the last stop on German grounds.

Mass emigration is a signal for a 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. 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 hit, in fact, after 1850 it was after Ireland and Galicia the third worst of emigration affected region in Europe.

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

Many of the 261,000 Mecklenburgers that left their home country (the Grand duchies Mecklenburg-Schwerin and Mecklenburg-Strelitz) between 1820 and 1890 would have answered just that, if one had asked them that question. Many people, especially those from lower social classes, didn't have any perspectives, since they were totally uprooted by the change from feudal rule to a civil- capitalist one.

Most of the emigrants went overseas, especially to the USA, but also to South America. Between 1850 and 1890 about 146,000 people emigrated overseas. Between 1820 and 1890 they accounted for two thirds of all emigrants from Mecklenburg. The defeat of the civil-democratic revolution in 1848/49 and the return of old social and political problems emigration gave a fresh impetus to this movement.

The loss of population mostly affected the so-called flat land. 88.5 % of all emigrants came from urban areas. Most of them came from the knightly part of the country, from the manor houses of noble and titled big land-owners. That lead to the most important reasons for people to leave Mecklenburg. It was mostly the social damages, caused by the miserable right of abode and the right of establishment. It existed almost unchanged between 1820 and 1860.

After the annulment of serfdom in Mecklenburg in 1820/21 many landowners used the chance and got rid of a lot of their now personally free day laborers, so they wouldn't have to pay for them if they were injured or grew old, and to run their land with a minimum of workers. It was very difficult for day-laborers to be employed elsewhere, because they had to receive the right of establishment from authorities. But that wasn't easy to get. The profound expert on mecklenburgian history, Ernst Boll, wrote in 1861 in his "Abriss der mecklenburgischen Landeskunde": "The entire mecklenburgian rights of abode are as great as they could be. Every Mecklenburger doesn't belong to the whole country regarding his home, rather the city or the one village that he happened to be born in or where he received the right of establishment." The granting of the right to marry depended on the granting of the right of establishment. The usual subjects needed the permission to marry before they could found a family. The main problem for a simple luck of a mortal in Mecklenburg was to get his own "Hüsung". A lot of people that needed paid labor were refused the right of establishment for their whole life. That way they only had a limited right to residence - only for as long as they had work, and they did not get "Huesung". These unhumane conditions - that Mecklenburgers could become homeless in their own country - inspired Fritz Reuter in his famous poem to write the following lines:

Und Keiner will uns Hüsung gewen?
Hir unner unsen eig'nen Hewen
Kein Platz für uns, für mi un Di?
Kein Platz in unsern Vaderlann'?
Dat wir 'ne niderträcht'ge Schann'.

Who would be surprised there when ten thousands decide to emigrate rather than strolling around homeless in their own country. In fact, the knights encouraged emigration at times. The loss of population in urban areas grew bigger and bigger. While there still was a population growth of 55,000 people between 1830 and 1850 despite of emigration, births couldn't make up for the high number of emigrants between 1850 and 1905 - The urban population dropped by 25,000.

After the German Empire was founded in 1871, industrialization spread and some metropols expanded rapidly, the number of people that emigrated overseas decreased and internal migration increased. The people that were willing to emigrate went to cities and industrial towns out of Mecklenburg such as the areas of Berlin and Hamburg rather than to America. Around 1900 about 224,692 Mecklenburgers by birth lived outside of their home country, that was almost one third of the mecklenburgian total population. On December 1st, 1900 53,902 emigrants from Mecklenburg-Schwerin lived in Hamburg-Altona.

Article from the "Mecklenburg Magazin" 1990/9 by Dr. sc. Klaus Baudis, translation: Daniela Garling


The wave of emigration from Mecklenburg between 1820 and 1890 is a research topic at the University of Rostock. In this article the "Mecklenburg-Magazin" is going to introduce new facts out of a doctoral thesis by Reno Stutz. This chapter of Mecklenburg's history is going to become a research center at the alma mater of the Hanseatic city within the next few years. One is currently trying to establish relationships with Historians in Hamburg, Bremen and Oldenburg.

Mass emigration, a phenomenon, that formed the grand duchy Mecklenburg - Schwerin substantially. Between 1820 and 1890 about 250,000 people left their homes in Mecklenburg in several waves. People especially went to the USA or to other cities in Germany, such as Hamburg and Bremen, as well as the province of Schleswig-Holstein.

This movement was caused by several things. One of the reasons were the mideavel home- and poor-man-laws in this region, as well as the guild regulations in the cities or the hard working and living conditions of the rural people.

But one thing was of a much greater importance. Almost every peasant or farmer hoped to one day live on and cultivate his own piece of land and that would have been almost impossible to achieve in their home country.

Even though people were extremely economical and diligent whole generations remained socially and economically dependent.

Due to this fact a lot of people from Mecklenburg were attracted to the fertile regions of North America. Anyone could purchase land there for very low prices.

The government did not support this movement at any time. The landowners on the opposite did. They supported emigration because a lot of them wanted to save the church- and schooltaxes and they did not want to support their older workers in their old days. They used all kinds of methods to get rid of their workers and their families.

Some landowners harassed some of their day laborers until they finally left. Others lent money or paid for the crossing to the US. English teachers were hired in Grabow to encourage the will to emigrate. In some cases the landowner even bought land in North America to make people want to emigrate.

In some regions of the grand duchy this attitude was fatal: The population rate sank 10 to 15%, despite of the high birth rate. This caused an acute man power shortage, which lasted until 1914 and lead to the employment of Swedish, Polish and Galician people. For a short period of time even some Chinese were hired. The number of the so-called "Schnitter" increased continually so that by the eve of the first World War every third agricultural worker in Mecklenburg - Schwerin was a foreigner.

Article in "Mecklenburg Magazin" 1990/13 by Reno Stutz; translation: Daniela Garling

Emigration Time Table

May 18th: Emigration prohibition to America for the subjects from Mecklenburg - Schwerin by grand-ducal decree
June 8th: The German Federal File allows in article 18b the emigration to other states of the Federal Republic of Germany
January 18th: announcing of the abolition of serfdom in Mecklenburg starting from Easter, 1821
September 3rd: A grand-ducal decree rules the granting of passports to emigrants from Mecklenburg-Schwerin
February 5th: A grand-ducal decree announces the "general abolition of the charge of emigration" in Mecklenburg-Schwerin
June 1st: decree about the acquisition and loss of the character of a subject from Mecklenburg is being passed
April 15th: decree by the landlord about the emigration to outer-european countries
June 25th: constitution of the North German Federation, which Mecklenburg belongs to, grants total freedom of movement in the States of the North German Federation as well as outside of the borders for all Federation members. The usual marriage restrictions, that were common in Mecklenburg until this date, are not applicable anymore.
Federal law rules the emigration movement

(taken from: Mecklenburg Magazin 1990)

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Design & Production: Carol Goshman Bowen, Dieter G. H. Garling info@eMecklenburg.de