The Politics of Emigration in Imperial Germany; or, How German Agrarians Conspired to Halt the Transatlantic Migration, 1873-1914

The late 19th century is famous as an era of protectionism across Europe. Almost entirely unknown, however, are the parallel efforts by protectionist interests in Europe to extend the containment of globalization to the burgeoning transatlantic migration. Just as international trade fueled commodity price convergence and drove inefficient producers into insolvency, mass emigration from Europe siphoned labor from sectors like agriculture, boosting wages and contributing to deteriorating competitiveness. In other words, the mounting emigration appeared to pose as great a threat to the economic viability of agrarians as did the growth in international trade. This paper examines in depth one such movement to limit emigration: that of the powerful grain-growing landlords of East-Elbian Germany. From the 1870s onward, German landlords augmented their protectionist program with anti-emigration policies. Through their lobbying organization, the Agrarian League, the landlords tried repeatedly to outlaw the departure of laborers employed under seasonal labor contracts. By examining the legislative battle over the Imperial Emigration Law of 1897, I illuminate the law’s agrarian and anti-emigration character. In the past, historians have depicted this law as a progressive and humanitarian measure that protected vulnerable migrants; but, as I demonstrate, Germany’s progressive parties were the staunchest opponents of this agrarian-sponsored law. To prove my thesis, I consult newspapers, agrarian publications, legislative records, and transcripts of Reichstag debates, mostly retrieved from the Federal Archives in Berlin. Business history perspectives are sorely lacking in the migration historiography, which is dominated by cultural considerations of identity and assimilation. I do not dismiss such approaches; instead, I insist that migration policy outcomes are inexplicable without including the employers’ organizations that were among the loudest voices shaping policy.