Flag of Mecklenburg

by Carol Gohsman Bowen

Flag of Mecklenburg H


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 In fact, after 1850, Mecklenburg had the third highest emigration count in Europe, superceded only by Ireland and Galicia ( land which is currently Poland and the Ukraine).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 farm land. 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 land-owners. 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 which existed almost unchanged between 1820 and 1860.

These conditions came about when serfdom was annulled in Mecklenburg in 1820/21. At that time, many landowners took the opportunity to get rid of a lot of their day laborers 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 laborers who were injured or take care of them when they grew old. It was very difficult for day-laborers 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 abode and 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 marry also 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 needed paid laborers 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, industrialization 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 Hamburg rather 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. On December 1, 1900 there were 53,902 emigrants from Mecklenburg-Schwerin living in Hamburg-Altona.

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

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