19th Century German Immigration In Historical Context
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

1806 marked the end of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation. This “First Reich”—founded in 962 A.D.—was defeated by Napoleon. In 1815 a German Federation was formed, another lose association of sovereign states with an appointed, not elected, Federal Diet in Frankfurt. By 1830 emigration began to pick up.

German-Americans represent the largest group of immigrants arriving in the United States in all but three of the years between 1854 and 1894. Before the end of the century more than 5 million Germans had arrived and in the twentieth century another 2 million came. They came from a wide geographic area and for a variety of reasons. They were a highly diversified group in terms of regional origin, religious and political orientation, education and socio-economic standing.

Although conditions in the German states were not as bad as in Ireland, crop failures, inheritance laws, high rents, high prices, and the effects of the industrial revolution led to widespread poverty and suffering. Relatives and friends who emigrated first would write back and encourage others to follow. This led to “chain migrations” and group settlements. Fairly well-to-do farmers who saw a bleak future, poor ones with no future, paupers whom the authorities often paid to leave, revolutionaries after 1848, and many artisans, professionals, and some adventurers made up the spectrum of the 1840s and 1850s.

The French Revolution (1789) had not spread to Germany, but led to reforms, designed to break up feudal rule and give more power to the citizens. However, these reforms did not go far enough and eventually were stalled altogether. In 1848 a democratic revolution for “Unity, Justice and Freedom” failed

In 1866 the Austro-Prussian War led to the exclusion of Austria and the end of the German Federation. It was replaced by the North German Federation with Bismarck as Federal Chancellor. The Swiss had gained their legal independence from the German “Reich” in 1648.

1870/71 marked the Franco-German War. Southern German states joined the North German Federation to form, through agreements among the princes, and under Bismarck’s leadership the “Second Reich” (Empire). The Prussian King, William I, became German Emperor. Prussia had become so large and powerful that to many the “Reich” appeared not like a German but a Prussian Empire. Bismarck, the “Iron Chancellor,” did not understand the democratic tendencies of the time and fought especially the left wing of the liberal citizenry, the political catholics (“Kulturkampf”) and socialist labor (“Socialist-Law”). Many opted to leave. In 1890 Bismarck was dismissed by the young Emperor, William II.

Comments to: Dolores J. Hoyt,


The German Empire, 1871 – 1918

Pommern (Pomerania) between 1830 and 1945

This map from 1913

The Germany of Our Ancestors As Divided after WWI and WWII