Migration to and from Germany, 17th Century to Today


The Empire in 1705 / Wikimedia Commons

Germany can look back on a long history of migration.


By Dr. Vera Hanewinkel and Dr. Jochen Oltmer
Professors of Hisory
Universität Osnabrück


Migration Flows during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries

The Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) led to serious destruction and a significant reduction in population in some German regions. The respective sovereigns therefore recruited employable and tax-paying people from other overpopulated regions who were looking to settle in the war-ravaged areas (“population policies”). As a result, they transformed into Central European immigration regions. Religious refugees from other parts of Europe were also drawn to early modern Germany. The largest as well as economically, culturally and politically most significant group of immigrants were the Huguenots. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1598) in 1685, thirty to forty thousand Huguenots immigrated to the German territories, primarily north of the Main River (especially to Brandenburg-Prussia, Hessen-Kassel, the Guelph Duchies and the Hanseatic Cities).[1]

After these immigration flows, which continued until the middle of the 18th century, the continental emigration to Eastern and Southeast Europe prevailed until the 1830s while transatlantic emigrations, especially to the United States, were predominant until the late 19th century. From the 1680s to the year 1800, more than 740,000 people emigrated from German-speaking regions to Eastern, Central Eastern and Southern Europe. And from 1816 to 1914, more than 5.5 million German emigrants departed for the United States. There, from 1820 to 1860, German immigrants represented the second-largest group of all immigrants behind the Irish at around 30 percent; from 1861 to 1890, they were even the largest. The extensive expansion of economic opportunities due to high industrialization and agricultural modernization in Germany as well as the economic crisis in the United States finally led to a significant reduction in transatlantic migration flows.

Flight and Forced Labor during and between the Wars

The “Century of Refugees” began, starting with World War I. The Weimar Republic became the destination for hundreds of thousands of refugees who escaped the aftermath of the Russian Revolution in October of 1917, the subsequent civil war and the implementation of the Soviet system. The same fate was shared by tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews who were looking for protection from pogroms and anti-Semitic developments in many parts of Eastern Central, South Eastern and Eastern Europe. With the National Socialists’ rise to power, Germany yet again – as before World War I – became an asylum-opposed state. The new rulers also cast out more than half a million people. This affected political opponents of the regime, those who the regime deemed to be opponents and especially all those who were being increasingly dehumanized and persecuted due to the racist ideology of National Socialism. Primarily, it was the Jews of whom about 280,000 to 330,000 were able to flee the Reich from 1930 to 1940. Approximately 195,000 German Jews, who were not (or no longer) able to escape, were murdered by the end of the war. Only about 15,000 to 20,000 survived the camps or remained hidden in the Reich. Asylum for those refugees was granted by more than 80 states worldwide; frequently – and increasingly during the 1930s – this occurred with reluctance and hesitation because the people seeking refuge from Germany were perceived to be a burden on the economy and social security systems, especially against the backdrop of the Great Depression. 

During both world wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945), the need for labor force (especially in the weapons industry) resulted in strong migration by laborers from various other countries. Generally, this was not a voluntary process: Forced labor was typical of the employment of foreigners during wartime. The first few years after World War II were dominated by displacement and flows of refugees. More than 14 million “Reichsdeutsche” and “Volksdeutsche” (members of German minorities without German citizenship) fled from Eastern, Central Eastern and Southern Europe towards the West. In the Federal Republic of Germany, the booming economy of the 1950s and 1960s fundamentally facilitated the economic and social integration of refugees and German expellees. At the same time, they represented a qualified and highly mobile potential for labor, which helped carry the economic recovery.

“Guest Worker” Recruitment, the Labor Recruitment Ban and Family Reunification

During the 1950s and 1960s, the young Federal Republic of Germany experienced an economic boom which went hand in hand with an enormous expansion of the labor market. Since the domestic workforce was no longer sufficient to cover demand, Germany entered into the first agreements for the recruitment of workers with Italy in 1955, and with Greece and Spain in 1960. Treaties with Turkey (1961), Morocco (1963), Portugal (1964), Tunisia (1965) and Yugoslavia (1968) followed suit. The migrant workers generally assumed unskilled labor and positions with minimal training requirements in industrial production with high physical stress, health burdens and wage conditions that many locals were not willing to accept (anymore). The recruitment of so-called “guest workers” was terminated during the oil (price) crisis and due to increasing unemployment in 1973. Yet, this decision can also be ascribed to the increased permanent settlement of foreign workers in the self-proclaimed ‘non-immigrant country’ of Germany. From the late 1950s until the stop in labor recruitment in 1973, approximately 14 million foreign workers came to Germany, of whom 11 million only stayed in the country temporarily and eventually returned to their home countries. The others remained and their families joined them. Because of this development, the number of foreign workers decreased after the end of the recruitment period – from 2.6 million in 1973 to 1.6 million in 1989 – but the foreign population grew from 3.97 million to 4.9 million during the same period.

Immigration in Unified Germany: Asylum Migration and the Influx of Ethnic German Resettlers in the 1980s and 1990s

With the opening of the “Iron Curtain”, the transformation of the political systems in the former states of the “Eastern Bloc” and the collapse of the GDR in 1989/90, the migration patterns in Europe drastically changed. In Germany, the number of asylum applications rose significantly, especially from Eastern, Central Eastern and Southern Europe. It surpassed 100,000 in 1988, climbed to approximately 120,000 in 1989 (the year of the European Revolutions), reached 190,000 in unified Germany in 1990, and finally soared to almost 440,000 by 1992 (see “Flight and Asylum”).

In addition to the immigration of asylum seekers, the number of ethnic German resettlers increased significantly in the Federal Republic of Germany in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. The designation “resettler” comes from the early 1950s. After the end of refuge and displacement caused by World War II, approximately four million ethnic Germans still lived in Eastern, Central Eastern and Southeastern Europe in 1950, according to official numbers. The Federal Expellee Law from 1953 assured them acceptance as German citizens. Between 1950 and 1975, a total of 800,000 ethnic German resettlers, and between 1976 and 1987 616,000 more passed through West German Border Transit Centers for Resettlers. Then, once the “Iron Curtain” was lifted, their mass immigration set in: Starting in 1987 and against the backdrop of “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” in the USSR, the numbers quickly increased and more than three million resettlers came to the Federal Republic of Germany in the subsequent 15 years. In total, 4.5 million ethnic German resettlers immigrated to Germany between 1950 and 2016.

Current Developments

Fig. 1: Migration across Germany’s Borders

Immigration reached its first climax in reunified Germany in 1992. During that year, more than 1.5 million people immigrated to the Federal Republic of Germany, while 720,000 left the country. The result is net migration of approximately 782,000. During the following years, immigration significantly decreased. Statistically speaking, Germany was an emigration country in 2008 and 2009: The number of people leaving the country was higher than those arriving from abroad. Since 2010, the influx of migrants has been increasing again. In 2015, immigration was at its highest in the history of the Federal Republic of Germany especially due to the large influx of asylum seekers (cf. Fig. 1).

Fig. 2: Immigration in 2015 by the Ten Most Frequent Countries of Origin

In 2015, a total of 2.14 million people immigrated to Germany, while approximately 998,000 people left the country during the same period. This results in a migration surplus of approximately 1.14 million people. Over the past few years, the majority of immigrants arrived from European countries, especially from EU member states. One exception was the year 2015. Due to the large number of asylum seekers from countries outside of Europe, the share of citizens of the European Union among all immigrants was only around 40 percent.[3] Syria was the main country of origin of new immigrants, ahead of Romania and Poland (cf. Fig. 2).

The Immigrant Population

Fig. 3: Population with Migration Background in the Federal States

The regional distribution of the population with migration background varies. Among the old West German states, especially the city states of Bremen, Hamburg and Berlin, as well as the federal states of Hesse, Baden-Wurttemberg and North Rhine Westphalia have a high percentage of persons with a migration background: Immigrants and their descendants represent more than 26 percent of the population of these states. In contrast, the share of persons with migration background is less than seven percent in all the “New Länder” (cf. Fig. 3).


Originally published by Bewerten Sie diesen Beitrag, 11.01.2018, under the terms of a Creative Commons Namensnennung – Nicht-kommerziell – Keine Bearbeitung 3.0 Deutschland license.

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