Why did Germans Emigrate?

The majority of German emigrants went to the USA (where German settlement had started as long ago as the 1620s). It was a much quicker and cheaper journey. When people's wages were only about £1-2 per year, it cost about £6 to sail to the USA but about £15 to get to Australia. 80-90% of German emigrants went to the USA, nevertheless Australia was the destination of a significant number of the remainder.

In his book A History of Germans in Australia 1839-1945 Charles Meyer lists four basic reasons for German emigration: religion, the economic situation, political motives, and social motives.

These four main reasons were not all significant factors at the same time, nor can they be seen as working independently of each other (often at least two of the reasons drove an emigrant's, or emigrant group's, decision to emigrate), and nor were they equally important in terms of the numbers of emigrants involved. People's reasons for emigrating are also complicated by the factor that often both "push" and "pull" factors played a role. Examples of "push" factors (circumstances that made people want to leave Europe) were: failed crops, rising prices and the desire to avoid compulsory military service. Examples of "pull" factors (attractions in Australia) were: shortage of workers, cheap (and sometimes free) land, and the lure of the gold rushes.


Many Germans who felt that government policies stopped them from worshipping in their own way left their homeland. In the 17th and 18th centuries many Germans left for England, Russia and the USA as a result of religious persecution, and this continued into the early part of the 19th century. Many governments in the German states and kingdoms saw political dangers for themselves when leaders of some religious sects told their followers not to fight for their ruler and not to pay taxes which could be used to finance wars. So sects in German-speaking Europe such as the Mennonites, Herrnhüter, Pietists, Baptists and German Quakers often were confronted with government laws that demanded that they join the State religion. The best-known example in German-Australian history is the migration of "Old Lutherans" from the Prussian provinces of Silesia, Brandenburg and Posen to South Australia in the late 1830s. They were opposed to King Friedrich Wilhelm III's enforced union of the Calvinist church with the Lutheran church to form a new state church. They disagreed with the new prayer book. Communities who stuck to the "Old" ways were persecuted; some pastors had to hide from the police and held church services secretly at night in the forests. Some pastors were imprisoned, some communities' property was confiscated.

This religiously motivated immigration always involved group immigration, with the pastor leading his people, and with their common belief uniting them against problems they encountered on the journey and at their destination. However, after the early 1840s (particularly after the death of King Friedrich Wilhelm III) religious persecution in Germany was no longer the leading reason for emigration to Australia.

Economic situation

It is generally thought that religious reasons would not have been all that motivated Germans to leave their homeland; the economic situation they found themselves in would have been a serious factor in their decision. When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, war-time markets for certain products collapsed too, and competition from cheaper British products grew as they were allowed into Europe again. Masses of soldiers released from German armies went back to their farming areas and soon there was not enough viable farming land and work to go around, especially in Prussia and south-west Germany. Prices started to rise but wages didn't - across Germany generally wages stayed constant between 1820 and 1850, but there was a 50% rise in the prices of basic items like rye, potatoes and clothing.

After 1865 (which happened to be the end of the American Civil War and the start of free land grants in the frontier parts of the USA) the number of people leaving Germany increased considerably, and some of them were attracted to Australia. The years during which Prussia fought wars against Denmark, Austria and France (1864-1871), and the uncertain situation which continued for a couple of years afterwards saw many Germans leave Europe. Once peace settled down emigration numbers dropped (1874's emigrants numbered less than half the 1873 number).

In the 1870s cheap products from the overseas colonies of European countries and from the USA began to change European markets. Prices for agricultural products and raw materials dropped, and land which used to be viable became worthless and unemployment and personal debt rose.

The newly united Germany (unification as the second Reich 1871) changed from being a basically agricultural nation to being an industrial one. New technologies meant that wealthy people invested their money now in industry rather than in unprofitable farming businesses. This of course left some small farmers with no choice but emigration.

In the aftermath of World War Two when Germany lay in ruins many refugees and homeless people took the opportunity to start a new life in Australia under the big immigration programs started in the late 1940s by the Australian Government.

Political reasons

Germans leaving Europe in order to avoid compulsory military service in the army can be considered to have emigrated for political reasons.

The failed revolutions of 1848 were for some people the final impetus to go overseas. In that year, middle-class people in the German states started an unsuccessful revolution. They wanted to create a united German nation with an emperor, but they also wanted to introduce democracy and have an elected government that would be responsible to a parliament. Some Germans who had a high profile in the events of the unsuccessful revolution were worried about their future, and emigrated. Some came to Australia in the search for a freer society, however, the number of "48ers" motivated purely by politics would have been small. Economic conditions in Germany would have played a part in their decision, and the failed revolution of 1848 would have sealed the decision for them. Emigrants motivated by the lack of political change were city people, however, the majority of German emigrants were small farmers, rural labourers and tradespeople - they weren't concerned with what was happening in the cities, they were concerned with issues in their village and with crops and soil.

In the late 1930s many Germans and Austrians fled from Germany in order to escape Hitler's persecution of artists, intellectuals and Jews; many came to Australia. The unhappy journey of the passengers on the ship Dunera, on which the British Government expelled many refugees from Germany and Austria who were opposed to Hitler, brought people to Australia who stayed after the war and made valuable contributions to Australian society.

Social reasons

Another reason for emigration was when a person's social status changed downwards as a result of social or economic changes, and when they could not come to terms with this change in their position. This could be a change from land-owning farmer to wage labourer (perhaps as a result of small farms becoming unviable, as happened in regions such as south-west Germany, where upon a father's death his land was split up equally amongst his children), or perhaps from being an independent tradesman to being a factory worker through Germany's industrialisation from the 1870s onwards. These people might have seen new horizons for themselves in a place like Australia.

Emigrants motivated by social reasons included those who were somewhat "speculative" in their actions; they weren't badly off at home in the German-speaking countries, yet they were curious to see if they could do better in another country like Australia - an element of adventure. This includes of course the thousands of Germans who flocked to Australia's (and particularly Victoria's) gold rushes in the second half of the 19th century.

Some Germans coming to Australia from the late 1950s onwards would have had similar motivations; the West German economy was starting to boom after recovering from World War II, yet there were people who saw excitement in a new life in Australia, where the economy was also in a healthy state.

During the 1970s and 1980s, although the Australian economy was not doing too well, there was great interest in West Germany in emigration to Australia. Emigrants described their feelings as: dissatisfaction with life in densely populated, hectic Germany; cleaner environment/nature; perception of greater safety in Australia in the event of a nuclear conflict in Europe. For many immigrants better weather was and still is an important reason! This German fascination in the 1980s with the idea of emigrating to Australia is reflected in the song "Australien" on the 1986 album "Weibsbilder" by the singer/songwriter Pe Werner. The song is about a young woman who wants to escape from her problems in Germany and dreams of emigrating to Australia. You can read the song lyrics here (in German).

Australia's authorities have at present strict criteria for immigration applications. In the year 2000 the numbers of immigrants born in the main German-speaking countries were as follows: Austria 72, West Germany (FRG) 582, East Germany (GDR) 2, Germany (since unification) 84, Switzerland 186. (Total = 926. The numbers refer to country of birth, not language spoken.) The website Auswandern-aktuell specialises in the issue of emigration. In 2001 the site said of Australia:

"Australia is purely and simply the dream destination for emigrants. Each year the country takes in approximately 80,000 immigrants, in the course of which an ingenious selection system separates the wheat from the chaff. You can learn here everything about the country of your dreams, who's allowed to immigrate and who isn't."

Lots of sunshine / Better quality of life / Everything's stuck in a rut here / I just can't stand the old country anymore! / New people and challenges fascinate me / A little house under palm trees, lots of sunshine... / I want to roll up my sleeves and make a new start / There's no real future here / Other reasons

Some German immigrants feel that life in Australia is more relaxed and less rule-governed than in Germany.



The skjold
The German connection with Australia goes back a long way, almost as far as that of the Dutch. When Tasman discovered Van Diemen's Land, one of his ships, the Heemskerck was captained by Holleman from Germany. Captain Arthur Phillip, commander of the First Fleet and first Governor of New South Wales, had a German background. Among the convicts he brought to Australia were several Germans. Matthew Flinders named Cape Bauer, near Streaky Bay, after the Austrian botanical artist Ferdinand Lukas Bauer, who produced some 2000 drawings on the Investigator.

German settlers were very interesting and valuable immigrants. The first Germans, including Menge, came out with the South Australian Company in 1836 and most settled at Kingscote on Kangaroo Island. The first to land, on 27 July 1836, was Daniel Henry Schreyvogel from the Duke of York to be employed as clerk for the Company. Three days later P. Keiffe, from the Lady Mary Pelham, arrived and started as a labourer at the proposed whaling and sealing station.

In November 1838 Pastor Kavel brought a large group of German Lutheran migrants to South Australia. The first group of 21 Lutherans arrived on the Bengalee on 18 November followed two days later by the main group on the Prince George. They came to escape religious persecution at home, and Kavel settled them at Klemzig with the help of George Fife Angas.

Although Angas was given great credit for bringing out these Germans, it was certainly not new. As early as 1707 a large group of Germans had left their country for the same reason. They travelled via Rotterdam and London for America. In 1708 13,000 of them were sent to America at a cost of £135,000 paid for by the English government.

Within six months the Southern Australian reported that the industry and quiet perseverance of the German character had been fully developed in Klemzig. 'Four or five months only have elapsed since the hand of man began there to efface the features of the wilderness, yet nearly thirty houses have already been erected'.

In December 1838, Captain Dirk Hahn of the Zebra arrived with another 187 Lutheran migrants who settled on land belonging to Frederick Dutton. It had not been an easy trip for these immigrants, lack of space had made it impossible to take all their belongings and twenty-five chests of clothing had to be left behind. When they finally arrived they named their settlement Hahndorf.

After the death of the King of Prussia in June 1840, religious reasons to settle in South Australia changed for economic reasons. In March 1840 an Account of the Persecution of the Lutheran Church was published in England to put on record the treatment of the last ten years of this religious group in Prussia. One of the last ships to arrive in South Australia with religious refugees was the Skjold on 28 October 1841. Built in 1839, this Danish three masted ship was under command of Captain Hans Christian Claussen and was owned by C. Petersen of Sundeborg. She brought Pastor Frietzsche and more than two hundred Lutheran migrants. Before returning to Hamburg, the captain collected samples of South Australian wheat, barley and oats. They were judged in Germany as being equal to any other, the oats were considered to be superior to any they had seen before. Naturally, when this appeared in the Altona Mercury it created additional interest among farmers to migrate.

The migrants coming out on the Skjold, which was an emergency replacement for the Mary Stewart, would have had one the worst voyages out ever. Many of them had taken weeks to travel from Posen, Brandenberg and Silesia by road, canal and river to Hamburg to meet their ship. While waiting for the ship to arrive and being repaired, loaded and eventual departure time, four of them died and were buried at Hamburg. As a result of the delays several people ran out of money even before the ship left. After the ship left Hamburg a little girl of two died and was buried at Altona. Before reaching the open sea, a further two passengers died and were buried at Cuxhaven. A further forty-two passengers died during the voyage. The last one, Mrs Luise Reich on 26 October, was buried at sea near Kangaroo Island.

Several of these Lutheran migrants were among the first to start the settlements of Lobethal and Bethany. Lobethal was started by about thirty families who had obtained some two hundred acres between them. Another group which had already settled at Hahndorf and Bethany later moved to Moculta.

Only about five per cent of all German migrants who settled in South Australia came for religious reasons. The South Australian government soon realised the worth of these hard working Germans and published information about the colony for distribution in Germany. It hoped to get many more of these first class migrants. Although many migrated to America, which involved a much shorter and cheaper trip, a substantial number settled in South Australia.

By the mid 1840s there were enough Germans in South Australia to make it worthwhile to have their own newspaper. In 1847 the first German newspaper, Die Deutsche Post, edited by Johann Menge, was established in Adelaide. In 1850 some of the earlier German settlers formed the German Immigration Society to help newly arrived German migrants settle in South Australia. The Society's aims were to find work for them and protect them against 'the knavery of those who are ever ready to pray upon the unwary'. During the early 1850s more than two thousand German miners migrated from the Harz Mountains where mining had become costly, outdated and had to compete with very low prices. Many of these men found work in South Australia's copper mines and smelters.

The Germans became strongly associated with the Barossa Valley, where they established the towns of Bethany, Langmeil, Ebenezer, Hoffnungsthal and several others. They also settled in the Adelaide Hills naming their towns Blumberg, Lobethal, South Rhine and Grunthal. German immigrants, and later their descendants, helped with the opening up of agricultural lands in the mid north, as far north as Quorn and Bruce on the Willochra Plains and the Wirrabara area. One of these was Claus Botherim, born in Schleswig Holstein. As a sailor he was involved in the German Danish war and while in the Southern Ocean decided to stay in Australia. He settled near Tothill Creek and married Margaret Murray. In 1863 he and his family moved to the Wirrabara forest where he found work at Norman's Gully.

Claus Botherim changed his name to Bathern and bought his own bullock team and eventually bought land in the Hundred of Apilla. In 1882 he used thirty bullocks to haul a steam engine into the forest to drive the circular saw. At times he acted as a saw sharpener, scribe, teacher and confidant. Other German migrants moved to the South East and the Murray Mallee. They were not interested in land speculation they rather worked their lands to sell the produce or their labour. At the same time they reproduced a pattern of self-contained village settlement previously tried and proven in Europe.

Most of the early German immigrants were extremely poor and therefore migration to South Australia was an improvement in both economic and religious matters. Although there were many exceptions, most Germans kept mainly to themselves and married their own kind, kept up their language, customs, such as the Liedertafel and skittle alley, religion and education system. Wherever they went they established their German schools.

Within six months of arrival many of the Germans showed a willingness to sign the oath of allegiance and on 24 May 1839, Queen Victoria's birthday, 123 German men took the oath. Among these were members of the Kavel and Thiele families and Johannes Menge. Four months later ten of these men were naturalised and were now able to buy Crown land.

Only a small percentage of these hard working German immigrants settled in or around Adelaide. Those who did came mainly from the middle, professional or cultured classes of the German cities. They established many important industries such as silversmithing, winemaking and the weaving of woolen cloth. Among some of the better known German migrants were Johann Menge, mineralogist, Ulrich Hubbe, 'Father of the Real Property Act', chemist Max Bernbaum. J.A. Herggott, a botanist with John McDouall Stuart, who discovered Hergott Springs in 1859, and Dr Carl Mucke. Another was Theo Heuzenroeder. Born in Schwanewede, near Bremen where he was educated, he came to Adelaide in 1859. After a few years he moved to Hahndorf where he took charge of the Post and Telegraph Office as well as running his own chemist shop. In 1866 he moved to Tanunda where he carried on a very extensive business.

Adolph von Treuer, born in 1822 in Wartzburg, Bavaria and educated at the University of Dorpat, came to Australia in 1855. While learning English he taught various languages in private schools. He became a clerk at the South Australian Railways and from there transferred to the Post Office. During the 1860s he became confidential manager for Robert Barr Smith, a position he held until his death. He served as German Council from 1866-1883. He was one of the original members of the Council of Education and a founding member of the University of Adelaide. He supported the Adelaide Liedertafel and was President of the Adelaide Orpheus Society. When he died in 1894 his funeral was attended by Members of Parliament, Officers of the Education and Police Departments, and many members of Elder Smith & Co, including Peter Wait, V.E. Phillipson and T.E. Barr Smith.

Another well known migrant was, Carl Linger, who wrote the music for Song of Australia, which impressed Charles Cameron Kingston, the Premier of South Australia, so much that he asked public school teachers to teach it to all their students. Linger was also the founder of the Adelaide Liedertafel in 1858. There were also Richard Schomburgk, a director of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens, and Friedrich von Lindrum, winemaker, billiard table manufacturer and billiard player. Others who made a name for themselves were Wendt the jeweller, Henry Steiner, silversmith, Menz the biscuit maker, Basedow the politician, Seppelt the wine maker and Gustav Gebhardt.