Frankenmuthers, have you ever imagined what it must have felt like for the German settlers of Frankenmuth to come here to start a new life in a foreign county, on a different continent?
If I really try to put myself in their shoes and imagine what that must have felt like, I realize what a drastic step they took by leaving their home country behind, perhaps forever, to come here! Imagine what it would feel like to leave your family, Frankenmuth, and the United States without knowing if and when you will be able to see them again and without the intent to ever come back home permanently?
For me, this raises one big question: Why did they do it? Why did they leave their home county, their villages or cities and their families? This is not a decision you take lightheartedly or on a whim! They must have had very serious reasons for this!
But what were they?
To track down some of the most common reasons for why someone from Germany from that era – the second half of the 19th century – would take such a step and leave their country to come to the United States, let us look at a few very possible scenarios that would explain it:
The Dedicated Lutheran
Imagine you are a faithful Lutheran. You have heard about the New World and its indigenous inhabitants that live according to their very own spiritual practices and religious believes. You take your faith and the Christian commission to spread the gospel to all the nations of the world very seriously. You genuinely fear four the souls of the Native Americans and want to help bring the Christian faith to them. You decide to emigrate to the United States to evangelize and lead an exemplary Christian life among them. From your perspective, this is a very serious spiritual matter that justifies and explains the drastic step that emigration is.
The Proud Craftsman
But what if you were a skilled artisan, a tailor or weaver for example? You have worked hard to learn your craft and are proud of it! But your business has to concur with the increasing amount of factories opening up around you. With their mechanical sewing machines and weaving looms, they can produce more than you and in less time which makes them able to sell their products cheaper than you. You have to support your family and so you have to make a choice: Either you give up your business and become a factory worker or go to America. But you are proud of your profession and your skills and working in a factory, where none of them count anymore, is not an option for you. So you decide to emigrate. You hope that in the United States you will be able to open a flourishing business or you dream of your own piece of land to start a new life with.
The Passionate Forty-Eighter
Or maybe you are a so-called Forty-Eighter – a supporter of the liberal and democratic movement of the 1830s- and 40s. You are well educated, a student or intellectual and you are striving for an independent German nation state with democratic civil rights. You want to fight against the persecution and suppression of the restorative policies after the Napoleonic Wars that aimed at restoring the old powers in Europe. You want a democratic nation state, not a return to the monarchy and rule of the nobility in Europe. So you participate in the 1848 March Revolution which seems very successful at first: together with your fellow revolutionaries you achieve goals like freedom of the press. But finally your uprising gets beaten down by the Austrian and Prussian military. You have to flee and without hesitation you decide to emigrate to America.
Migration - A Complex Phenemenon
All three of these scenarios make for very valid reasons for leaving your old life and your home country behind, perhaps forever. However, emigration always has private or personal reasons too that are even more complex and individual than the structural reasons we just looked at.
And all of these situations leading to emigration are very different in character, which made the people that emigrated to the United States very different from each other too! In fact, there were probably more differences and diversity between different groups of immigrants from Germany in the United States and in Michigan, than there was unity.
Can you think of other factors that contributed to this phenomenon?
You are right, they came from very different places too. The revolution had failed and so there was no German state yet. The settlers came from the Kingdom of Bavaria, Prussia or Hannover, or from the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg West-Pomerania, for example.
Furthermore, they came from very different social backgrounds too. Some of them were farmers, some of them were very faithful Lutherans or Catholics, some were working class people and some were intellectuals.
This also made them behave differently once they had settled down in their new country. The Lutheran farmers lived in rural communities like Frankenmuth and stayed very self-sufficient for almost an entire century, whereas the workers and craftsmen gathered in cities like Saginaw and Detroit and were often able to climb the social ladder.
They assimilated much faster, as did the Forty-Eighters, who stayed politically active and often joined the Republicans to fight in the American Civil War. The Lutheran farmers were much more hesitant to engage in political activities, since they had not been able to participate in politics at home either. And if they did join a political party, it was mostly the Democrats, because – and let’s look at Frankenmuth as an example for this – as a beer brewing German town, the thought of prohibition was definitely a red flag.
What we can learn from this is that emigration is a very complex phenomenon with many different factors that come into play! Today we looked at some of what historians call the push-factors in the migration process – the factors in a person’s home country that literally push them out of it and make them want to emigrate. In another blogpost we might discuss the other side to this, the so-called pull-factors – the things in the country of destination that attract immigrants to come there.
Sonya is an FHA intern and a German graduate student pursuing museum studies.
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