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Volume 5.2 1997
ISSN 1048-3721
This page was last updated on 03/15/99


Brenda Melendy
Book Review


One intriguing feature of Germany today is that while the country acts as a magnet to migrants from all over the world, its government maintains that Germany should not encourage immigration. Germany is struggling with the structural implications of being a de facto destination country without having legal provisions for immigration in place. Unified Germany is working to integrate migrants from both parts of Germany as well as recently arrived ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe, many of whom speak no German and practice "foreign" religions. In addition, it is searching for the proper status for a large non-German population, some of whose families have lived in Germany for several generations with scant hope of receiving German citizenship. Due to this anomalous situation, questions of ethnicity, citizenship, and national identity have come to the fore in historical and contemporary debates in Germany. Who is German, who may be so, and how did or do they become so?

Germany, as a major contributor to continental and intercontinental migration over the past 200 years, and now as a recipient, is central to European migration histories. German emigrants have received, by and large, warm welcomes and opportunities to acculturate—opportunities denied to past and current in-migrants to Germany. Paradoxes such as this form the backdrop to People in Transit: German Migrations in Comparative Perspective, 1820-1930, a collection of essays edited by Dirk Hoerder and Jörg Nagler. In his introduction, Hoerder asks "why some nations accept ethnic pluralism and multiculturalism as part of their heritage, while other nations ... continue to resist the very idea" (16). Indeed, this veiled reference to the xenophobia common in many immigration countries stands at the heart of the debate and is one of two central questions raised in the volume. The other one is posed by Klaus Bade in the concluding essay—just how did Germany change "from a ‘classical’ emigration country to a new type of immigration country" in just one century, from 1880 to 1980 (405)?

The answers to these questions are not to be found in this collection of essays. Instead the essays provide very interesting insights into other issues—why individuals chose to emigrate, how migration and labor history reinforce and explain each other, and how the histories of German and other European women immigrants fit into the larger picture. This volume grew out of a conference held in August 1991 in Bremerhaven, sponsored jointly by the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Labor Migration Project at the University of Bremen. Both the conference and this volume report on changes and additions to the state of migration research since the pivotal conference held in 1983 in Philadelphia. While the focus of the Bremerhaven conference was to address current issues of refugees in Germany by looking at the state of historical research on German migration issues, the natural time lag between the research presented at the conference and the publication of this work in 1995 perhaps detracts from the timeliness of the effort.

Nevertheless, the essays in this volume reflect what must have been cutting-edge immigration history at the time they were researched and written, and they point to new directions for research. The focus is on the westward migration of Germans from Europe to North America from the 1820s to the 1930s, and the basic assumption is that in-migration, internal migration, and out-migration are interrelated. Divided into four sections, the work investigates migrations from East Elbian Germany, internal migrations, factors in women’s trans-Atlantic migrations, and acculturation in the United States.

Rostock University’s project focusing on nineteenth-century East Elbian emigration is showcased in Part I of the book. Rainer Mühle, Axel Lubinski, and Uwe Reich base their case studies of emigration from Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Strelitz, and Frankfurt/Oder on the Konsensakten, local district files pertaining to emigration applications. The files contain a wealth of information about individual emigrants. Using these and supplementary sources, the researchers have achieved a more comprehensive portrait of the emigrants and have drawn effective conclusions concerning their motives for emigration. Their case studies suggest that it was less the economic promise of destination countries such as the United States that pulled Germans out of their home towns than it was the lack of any chance for economic or social advancement at home. Increasing restrictions at home on employment and marriage encouraged those affected to seek a better life elsewhere.

The value of an interdisciplinary approach to issues in migration history is apparent throughout the book. The essays in Part II illustrate the natural link between immigration and labor history, providing portraits of working-class culture in Duisburg and Georgsmarienhütte. Horst Rössler, James H. Jackson, Jr., and Susanne Meyer demonstrate that internal migration in Germany was not just an aspect of the journeyman’s training phase for skilled laborers but was also a tool consciously employed by artisans and laborers to react to and control working conditions in their home towns. Such a link between migration and working-class cultural history may provide the bridge to contemporary issues of labor migration in Germany today. Karl Marten Barfuss’s essay "Foreign Workers in and around Bremen, 1884-1918" provides a first step in this direction.

The role of women in trans-Atlantic migration is, surprisingly, still considered a novel subject for research. The essays in this book are fine contributions to the field, yet they demonstrate how much remains to be done. Almost all of these essays consider German women in only a comparative context—compared to Swedish women, for instance, or Polish or Irish women. The essays indicate that a start has been made in researching the lives of German women; they may also indicate that there are more productive ways to study immigrants to the United States than sorting them by country of origin.

Another major new opportunity for research in the field is that of return migration. This work offers only one essay that addresses this phenomenon: Karen Schniedewind’s examination of return migration to Bremen from 1850 to 1914. Return migration studies typically examine what local innovations may have resulted from migrants being abroad as well as the degree of social mobility demonstrated by return migrants. Schniedewind concludes that in urban Bremen, return migrants did not effect any noticeable innovations, and social mobility depended greatly on a migrant’s economic position before emigration. Schniedewind’s research, if integrated into a project similar to the Rostock East Elbian emigration project focused on specific localities, could provide the basis for a comprehensive portrait of return German migrants.

The strength of this collection of essays lies in its inclusion of newer directions in migration history (primarily the work on women migrants and return migration) as well as the focused regional histories from the Rostock project. These efforts point to exciting work being done in the field. Klaus Bade’s call for a more temporally and geographically universal interpretation of German migrations needs to be heeded in the next collection of essays on German migration. Clearly the current effort was hindered in this respect by its perfectly legitimate focus on the long century 1820-1930. But by limiting the time period in this way, the book falls short of engaging the question of how Germany will accommodate its switch from emigration country to immigration country. To be sure, Germany is still grappling with this problem, but the fact that the issue is being hotly contested in Germany and Europe is not reflected in the scholarship presented here.

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