Reflections on emigration: the cases of 1850 and 2015

Due to the bad weather forecast yesterday’s planned trip to Lüneberg was turned into a visit to the Ballinstadt Emigration Museum in Veddel instead. Nice and warm and dry. What was first merely a convenient alternative to the original plan turned into an afternoon full of reflection and yes, also some emotions.

Today every day thousands and thousands of refugees reach Europe from troubled regions. Many of them see Germany as the promised land and set out on a long and dangerous journey with Germany in mind as the final destination. How different things were 150 years ago, when hundred thousands left Germany every year, most of them never to return. Religious and political persecution, conscription, fragmentation of farm lands, industrialization: each emigrant had another reason to board that ship to the United States and chase the American Dream far away from their native soil.



Five million emigrants passed through Hamburg’s Ballinstadt in the hundred years between the 1840s and 1940s. Most of them were Germans, but many also came from Austria, Poland or even from Russia. A substantial number were Jewish, fleeing the pogroms and prosecution in Europe. The peak of Germany’s emigration was between 1880 and 1890, just after the unification of the German Empire and at the height of the industrialization. As these poor emigrants, poor and sometimes carrying diseases, were not wanted in the Hamburg city center  the emigration halls Ballinstadt were built just outside the city. This was the last stop in Germany for millions of emigrants, where they were housed, fed and checked before the journey to a better future. As operation stopped many years ago, today it is a museum of emigration.

I too am an emigrant, drawn here mainly by economic opportunities. The job market here is surprisingly good for Dutchies: whereas back home I had to send dozens of letters before ever getting an invitation for an interview the three applications I ever sent to German companies resulted in two interviews and two job offers. Being in a similar situation, I understand Germany’s emigrants of 150 years ago all too well. I like adventure, discovering new places and learning about new cultures and I love Hamburg’s international spirit. But I would have had to think twice if emigrating to Germany would have meant leaving everything I know and everyone I know behind, without any prospect of ever returning home again. Had that been the case, I know for sure I would not have been here now.

What was it that made these people that passed through Ballinstadt make a different choice? Was it sheer desperation, longing for adventure or maybe a combination of the two? I respect their courage and determination. I am not so sure whether I would have done the same in their place.

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