Germany’s Missing Culture of Emigration

JLH has translated an academic article about the history and literature of German emigration. The translator includes this introductory note:

And now, as Monty Python used to say, for something really different: A paper by a German teaching at Stanford, given at a symposium held in Berlin on the 4th of July by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on the subject of emigration instead of immigration. The combination of who is leaving and who is coming, when you think about it, could be deadly.

The translated paper:

Germany’s Missing Culture of Emigration

Guest commentary by Adrian Daub
July 11, 2016

Immigration makes people uneasy and has a massive effect on policy. But no one talks about emigration, which is quantitatively just as significant. Germany fears being overwhelmed by foreigners, but for years has been exporting people en masse. Wilhelm Furtwängler once wrote: “The question ‘Why did I stay in Germany?’ seems strange in the mouth of a German.” That isn’t so. German history has taught us how normal this question is. At the same time, Furtwängler’s reaction is symptomatic of the change in Germany’s dealings with migration. Immigration is perforce the topic. Emigration is habitually downplayed.

In 2009, 733,000 people left Germany (156,000 of them were German citizens). The number of immigrants comes to 721,000 (114,000 German citizens). One of these statistics unsettles policy, drives citizens to the streets and pays Thilo Sarrazin’s rent. The other one is absent in public discourse. Germany is afraid of being overwhelmed by foreigners, but has been exporting people en mass for centuries. No feuilleton section fails to touch on the concepts of “adopted land” and “citizen of the world” and yet the land generally disallows foreigners the possibility of making Germany their home. There is a discrepancy here that deserves explanation. Emigration is not invisible, but the it is undervalued, while immigration is over-accentuated.

Germans in Switzerland

Three cases in point: First, the political unification of Germany in the 19th century has as its transatlantic counterpart the “ethno-genesis” of German-Americans, who constitute by far the greatest proportion of the population in the Middle West, in California and in parts of Texas — much to the annoyance of the Anglo-Saxon population.[1] Anti-German editorials and political campaigns of the time anticipate the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Second, after two world wars, after banning of German-language schools and newspapers, after prohibition, after name changes and great regional dislocations, people of German heritage are still the largest ethnic group in the USA. But they are as good as invisible. And there is still a brisk immigration stream to the USA. In Silicon Valley, there are two German schools and another in San ‘Francisco. In internet enterprises, Germans are everywhere to be found.[2]

If the Germans in the USA were the Mexicans of the 19th century, they are the Chinese of the 21st century in Switzerland. The number of German citizens here has more than trebled from 1995 to 2015. Highly qualified people especially are moving to this Alpine land, which is the favored destination for emigrating Germans. While the Swiss like to see themselves as the victims of an oncoming [immigration] avalanche from the north, the process is not without historical precedent. In 1914, there were over 200,000 citizens in Switzerland, and, since Switzerland had a small population, Germans at that time made up 6% of the population. Today, it is 3.4%. Nonetheless, Germans have become a political issue.

Third, Pacific Palisades — the “Weimar on the Pacific” — showed how emigration influenced the most accomplished of those who had left the homeland. The intelligence assembled on the California coast — Thomas Mann, Theodor Adorno, Arnold Schönberg, Bertolt Brecht — functioned after WWII not only as the conscience to the two German successor states, but as exoneration of the Weimar Republic. Collected together under the palms was everything from the first German republic that was later fondly remembered by the GDR and the FRG. When the exiles returned to Germany, they represented a cosmopolitan concept in contrast to the post-war stodginess. In a speech, Adorno told how Charlie Chaplin had mimicked him — “the greatest honor of my life.” Pacific Palisades signified the closing of ranks with an international moral community in which the Brit Charlie Chaplin could meet the German Adorno at a California party.

So why is the German diaspora comparatively invisible in its homeland? Of course, there is the Emigrant House in Bremerhaven, there are documentary films and commemorative tablets. But compared to new arrivals, little attention is paid to those departing. On the one hand, this is surely because emigration over time is characterized by its diversity. In Germany, there is no uniform culture of emigration as there is Ireland or Italy.

What Kind of a Nation Are We?

On the other hand, for a long time, the diaspora was not running parallel with nation-building — Germans were emigrants with no monolithic country of origin. German settlers, sailors, dealers, soldiers circulated with no government sanction, often under another nation’s flag. In their peregrinations around the world, German emigrants resemble the Chinese and Indians more than the Dutch or Portuguese.

I am just baldly throwing out this comparison because I think that emigration posed this elementary question: What kind of a nation are we? Mass emigration is accompanied by a certain shame. Think of the drastic brain drain. When these ideas are applied to Germany, they resonate with a crisis of the German conception of self. Where does Germany belong? Is it a dream destination, or a perpetual donor country like Greece?

The Why of leaving or staying has never had to do only with economic factors, but was always overlaid by moral considerations. Think of the exchange between Thomas Mann and Wilhelm Furtwängler in 1947. For Mann, not leaving was a moral failure; the home left behind was foreign country: “Where I am, German culture is.” Furtwängler on the contrary maintained he had not wanted to “leave Germany in its greatest distress.”

Betrayal of the Nation

In 1830 and 1848, the most politically progressive people left the land. Conservative and nationalist voices attempted to interpret emigration as treason. During WWI, Hermann Hesse admonished his countrymen from Switzerland, “O, Freunde, nicht diese Töne.”[3]

Even crossing over inner German borders was a morally charged topic on both sides. Emigration was reinterpreted as a judgment on the country, and returning as a judgment on the emigrant.

This moralizing continues unchecked today. The emigrant docu-soap “Goodbye Deutschland” has been running on Vox‘s evening program since 2006. Every episode unabashedly presents emigrant stories as didactic pieces. In the first act, the emigrants-to-be in their row house in Bottrop or Pirmasens complain about German fastidiousness and dreariness. The third act shows them after a half year at their desired destination where in the normal course of events, they are lamenting the sloppiness and grime of their new home. The moral seems to be: wanderlust is a kind of German provincialism. The purely notional plan to flee overseas is a part of life here.

At any rate, the province and the wider world are tightly entangled in emigrant discourses. When, in Karl May’s novels[4], Old Shatterhand is constantly encountering Germans abroad, usually “even Saxons,” there is something cutely provincial about it, but also something close to documentary. These people did exist. May’s tales suggest that you could see how their life is, and then return to Dresden and write novels about it. Toward the end of the 19th century, that was still somewhat fantastic. Was this the fulfillment of a yearning that is no longer imaginable for us? How many young readers may have thought of a great-uncle who moved to Australia? May seems to have dreamed of a quasi-emigration — a going away that always has the homeland in mind. This idea seems to have something very calming — it is the norm in German culture today. TV personalities spawned by the TV series “Goodbye Deutschland”, like Konny Reimann, are reality television versions of a type otherwise mostly encountered among German intellectuals — the German who produces and directs his own emigration for consumption by the German public.

I assume you can think of some name or other in addition — German authors whose feuilleton picture can be placed in London or New York. And what the featured person gets from this is obvious: a touch of the exotic, something more ennobling than the odor of the barnyard. But clearly the public in the homeland gets something too: the satisfaction of seeing that the departing person, while saying nothing but farewell, is still looking back. Mr. New-American or Londoner-By-Choice has not quite closed us off. This phenomenon is rather German. It caters to the desire to strip off German-ness on the nude beach of the cultures, but also the even more pressing desire to report this back home in great detail. We all want to be deprived of our sleep by Germany, but preferably in French beds.[5]

And add to this that it is not necessary to strip off German culture to put down roots elsewhere. For Germans have taken whole centuries explaining to humanity that German culture — from Beethoven to kindergarten — belongs to the whole world, is detached from ethnicity. There is no German-ness that can be that easily exported — except perhaps for export itself. I close with this thought: Perhaps, in the silence about emigration, two modes of national self-recognition are face-to-face. Germany is only too happy to see itself as the hard-pressed middle of Europe which — as expressed in Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics — is being crushed in the pincers between Russia and America. And this vision is superseded by another, even more uncomfortable one: Germany, the world champion exporter, indefatigably spewing ideas, products and people into the world.

Adrian Daub is Professor in the Department of German Studies at Stanford University. This essay was his paper at the NZZ symposium in Berlin on July 4, 2016 on the subject “Emigration-land Germany”


1.   I was skeptical enough to double-check this, and discovered to my surprise that the facts as they appear in the two references below from 2013 and 2016 exceed even this statement.

P.S. More than a few American German-speakers, beginning in 1914 forbade their children to speak the language outside the house. So there is some substance to the remark about prejudice against Germans. There were just so darn many of them! And maybe they supported the Kaiser.

But we no longer think of the Germans as a great invading force. Like the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Chinese, the Japanese, more recently the Vietnamese and Cambodians, to name a few, they have quietly faded into the fabric of the country. And like so many other ethnicities, they did not demand special treatment.

2.   Cf. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, who spoke on the last night of the Republican convention, whose parents immigrated here when he was a child.
3.   Opening lines of Schiller’s Ode to Joy, incorporated in turn by Beethoven in his 9th symphony. A request for a change of tone in the conversation.
4.   You might call him the German Zane Grey.
5.   Reference to famous lines from Heinrich Heine’s Nachtgedanken:

Denk’ ich an Deutschland in der Nacht,
Dann bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht


31 thoughts on “Germany’s Missing Culture of Emigration

  1. My mother’s father emigrated from Germany in the 1890s and entered America through Buffalo, New York. Walter Brant (or Brandt) was a rather successful hotelier until the Great Depression did his fortune in. He settled in Los Angeles and owned considerable properties in Bunker Hill. Too bad he wasn’t around to cash in on the Harbor Freeway and DTLA. From what my mother say he was always very methodical and that was the basis for his continued success. As for what he thought of FDR, it was unprintable. His opinions of what would come of FDR’s policies were rather prescient. Of course, the Dutch and the Germans have never gotten on very well, especially if you are a German from Austria.

  2. I only have one thing to say:

    Swiss people didn’t like Germans emigrating to Switzerland 50 years ago, and they don’t like them emigrating to Switzerland now.

    Germans who emigrate to Switzerland behave as übermenschen. They barely ever feel the need to learn Swiss, instead they expect everyone to speak German to them. They are generally arrogant and their demeanor is of “I am from the BIG BIG country of Germany and you have to look up to me you tiny little Swiss person you”.

    I have nothing but negative experience with Germans from growing up in Switzerland. From my arrogant boss at Jecklin Music Co. in Zurich where I did my 4 apprentice ship and often was the greeting girl for German celebrities such as Herbert von Karajan or Werner Herzog who were extremely overbearing, to having been around and worked with Germans all over the city of Zurich and Bern, I can honestly say they are just nothing like the Swiss.

    I also worked at the Zurich Opera for a few years where we greeted any number of German singers and directors. It was usually unpleasant.

    I can only compare it to… when one grows up in a really small town, and suddenly citizens from a really big city come and live in that small town, and they upset the balance because they expect the small town people to automatically adapt to them since they are the bringers of worldly enlightenment. Like it’s automatically assumed that small town people immediately are the ones who have to adapt to the incoming people, and not the other way around.

    But we are speaking Switzerland… and so quite a many German emigrants have left the country, frustrated, head shaking, saying things like ‘they’re hopeless and not trainable’. I’ve met a handful of very nice Germans too. But they were usually tourists.

    We have a saying in Switzerland, because every single tourist village cringes when the Germans come to town:

    “Gott behüt uns for Sturm und Wind und Schwaben die im Ausgang sind.”

    (God protect us from storm and wind and Germans having a night out)

    “Schwaben” is a word for ALL Germans in Switzerland. And the saying refers to Germans being extremely loud, obnoxious and boisterous and being generally inconsiderate towards native people and their culture.

    • But anyway, I can’t and I shouldn’t complain. I immigrated to Montana and I’m happy as a fish in the water. I’m well integrated and all that, lol

      • Congrats. Montana seems to be a wonderful piece of land. Do you recommend a part of it which is especially good for living?

        • Oh yes! If you are ok with nothing within driving distance shorter than 2 to 3 hours, I recommend the “high line”, all along Highway 2.

          If you want forest and green and beauty, I recommend west of Missoula. There are plenty liberals there, but oddly they do carry guns and rifles too.

          If you like the city and variety in surrounding, Billings and area such as Red Lodge are wonderful. It’s city and mountains at the same time. Plus it only takes about 2 hours to get to Yellowstone, about 6 hours to Denver, and 12 to SLC.

    • A long time ago, in a land far, far away . . . my wife and I used to walk through the tunnel between Maxglan and old Salzburg . . . on her way to the Mozarteum. The Schwaben – as you call them – as a group, had the habit of walking side-by-side across the entire [narrow] walkway as if they had exclusive rights to it. I had to carry my wife’s heavy bag filled with music books over my shoulder. It came in very handy as a weapon in my tactics to convince many Schwaben to share the walkway. There was an element of sadistic fun as well . . . I confess. 🙂

      • Nice, lol. I know what you mean. They DO walk side by side, as if owning the road.

      • Funny, my experience with that tactic has been with Asian students at the small school I studies at, and with Muslims elsewhere… tied to feelings of superiority in all 3 groups, no doubt.

    • Well, I don’t have too much experience with Germans, and the few I’ve met were nice enough, but I have some with musicians. When you had to deal with the big names in the music world, you were dealing with big egos too. Please keep that in mind; irrespective of nationality, music stars can be rather hard to deal with.

  3. Nash Montana, what an interesting comment you have posted. I am Hungarian by birth but my parents experienced Germans in their day and I believe my father was half-German but his parents too, lived in Hungary so became Hungarians. There really is such a thing as the German personality. Dad occasionally displayed it.

    And, having been a WWII child, I know a lot about Germans and how “nice” they are.

    I’m glad you love Montana! It is a beautiful state.

  4. Thanks, Nash Montana, for conveying your experiences with Germans in Switzerland.

    “in Karl May’s novels, Old Shatterhand is constantly encountering Germans abroad”:
    “was a German writer best known for his adventure novels set in the American Old West. His main protagonists are Winnetou and Old Shatterhand.”
    His novels were written in German, but when he depicts Germans speaking German in the Old West, was the language distinguished typographically, by having these characters’ speech written in ?

    • Holymoly, I have a confession to make:

      I have all the Karl May stories of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand and Old Surehand and Old Firehand, etc, on vinyl and I STILL do listen to my records every once in a while.

      Yes Old Shatterhand and Winnetou do encounter Germans all the time.

      In the movies they are played by Lex Barker and Pierre Brice. Both men became icons in Europe. The movies were filmed in Yugoslavia.

  5. My family is overwhelmingly Anglo and began arriving in America in the late 1600s. Some of our ancestors married among German immigrants back in the mid 18th century as they arrived in central N.C. Over time, it became hard to distinguish between German and English. So many German last names had been ‘Anglicized’ that most don’t know the origin.

  6. After my studies in Vienna (as an Austrian National) I went to Zürich for post graduate study and working experience with the UBS Bank. I had many encounters with German and Swiss Nationals at the time and later on. What Nash desribed, I cannot underwrite. The only thing which bodered me, was, that some of the Swiss Nationals had a certain attitude to treat me as the poor member of the German speaking language family. By the way, I never encountered that the Swiss did not speak German. All of them, even guys from the Italian part of Switzerland, spoke either German Hochsprache and their Schweizer-Dütsch or both. My experience with Switzerland was on all accounts pleasant.

    • Yes, Swiss are usually pleasant I think. I wrote that Germans usually didn’t speak schwyzer dütsch, and didn’t bother to learn it because the Swiss spoke German to them. it was expected.

      I get the attitude of Swiss towards Austrians, totally get it. You know that the Austrians and the Swiss have had a long standing skiing feud, the Germans weren’t even included in that. It was a Austria against Switzerland National Skiing Championship feud.

      We had a joke: “Hey see that glow on the horizon? That’s the Austrians burning their skis again”!

      • Nash, why bother to try schwytzerdütsch – hard to learn- if you are consequently ridiculized for your vain efforts? I found that people from other parts of Germany trying to mimick an other regions vernacular were often hopeless and never succeeded.You really don’ t want me to pronounce “chasplätzli” and I can not pronounce well some words from 30 miles away. So take it easy. The communication skills of CEOs and artists are indeed often questionable, let alone Mr. Sting, whom I met in St.Moritz and who was very pleasant to talk to and polite, ….. but he is not German, I forgot. It is a problem of very wealthy countries such as Switzerland or Norway that career- planning is often not too academia-oriented for decent income can be generated in other sectors and with lesser effort and this is what attracts foreigners. And where is the problem of speaking a language that is printed in papers and books ( I dined with bestselling author Martin Suter speaking Hochdeutsch)and performed on the stages of theatres in Switzerland? Excuse my namedropping.

        • Hello Herb,

          My entire premise of my initial comment was that the Swiss “IN GENERAL” don’t like Germans, precisely for their unwillingness to adapt, which includes speaking the proper language.

          So whilst I understand what you’re saying, it has really not much to do with my initial comment. Plus when you speak of the likes of Suter, who doesn’t live in Switzerland anymore I think, of course he will speak hochdütsch, he’s a bloody liberal. Liberals feel better about themselves when they speak da high german because it makes them look more educated.

          Have you met his wife Margrith. She’s an acquaintance of mine. Very briefly while I was working in media in Zurich a long long time ago.

          • Just to give a hint, when I say “Suter is a bloody liberal”, he was indignant when the minaret ban passed in Switzerland.

            His words were that he regrets that he didn’t spend more time on that issue because he thought it would never pass. He thinks islam is the religion of peace.

            He also said he was afraid of having his adopted Guatemalan daughter go to school in Switzerland for fear of her being harassed by the evil xenophobic Swiss people.

            Sadly, his three year old son Antonio died, about 8 years ago. He choked to death on a piece of Wurst. No parent should have to live through the death of their young ones…

          • hi Nash, first compliments for your endeavour in translation and editing from the germanosphere.
            Mr Suter was on his own on a lecture tour, and it is my guess that we share our attitude towards what we call Gutmenschen, i.e. plain idiot liberals by which I am surrounded.BTW I have travelled islamic countries,was a house guest and treated royally, but on occasions had to defend myself against hustlers and road bandits with brute force ,fist,car and what have you. I was the wallet on two feet as is every foreigner in those countries. You praised Highway 2 the northern route which I crossed once from Lethbridge to Great Falls and haven’ t returned since 1979! The States would be my choice should I have to emigrate. A friend lives on Cape Cod, where homes may cost seven digit figures……but I dream on.

          • Cape Cod is full of useful idiots. I’d try further inland or further south…wouldn’t go back there for anything.

  7. As far as I know, USA almost ended up speaking German, when the Congress voted on choosing English or German.
    Only a single vote decided the outcome.
    I guess, the world would have looked a little different today, if German language had won.

    • English has had a couple of narrow escapes. That was one. Another was when Geoffrey Chaucer was just about to start the history of English literature, and was choosing whether to write in French or (Middle) English. Would there have been a British Empire? Would the rulers of half the world be descendants of Louis XIV? Would the French-speaking colonies rebelled?

    • German may have had a vote, but the large majority of American colonists were Anglophones. German didn’t even end up like the French – i.e., pockets of French-speakers in parts of upper New England and, of course, Quebec. When the Brits chased many of the French out of Canada, some went back to France, some to the U.S. northeast, and some to the French-held parts of the coastal south – Louisiana.

      Even after the Louisiana Purchase from France, the enclaves of French Canadians, mixed in with the remaining Spanish and blacks and Indians, became “creoles”…with a complicated social system in the urban areas based on complexion: the lighter, the better.

      And some of the best music and food in the world. These “Cajuns” speak a patois they swear is English, but their religion is mostly Catholic-based, and their hymns are in French. The songs are Cajun.

      There are lots of native versions of great old songs…but Paul Simon’s introduction to zydeco is a good one. Modified for American ears, just the way he’s done with other genres.

      I can cook some Cajun dishes, but can’t always get the ‘real’ spices here…

  8. My best friend’s Great-Grandfather was a WW1 German Veteran (Decorated with an Iron Cross) and while he was, from my friend’s recollection very proud of it, my friend’s father decided against teaching his sons German…

    Actually there was a not small and quite active German Community in Colombia in the late 19th and early 20th century all the way to WW2. Some examples include Colombia’s main brewery (named Bavaria) and main private airline (Avianca, originally called SCADTA or Colombo-German Air Transport Society)

    Said community is quite invisible by now though, only noticeable through surnames.

  9. The only thing that interests me in German immigration or German emigration is how it affects European and Western security and prosperity. In the absence of the EU and the Euro and in the presence of strong international borders, German stodginess and culture is simply a local concern.

  10. Muslims ((Arabs, if you wish) behave as an invading force. Down deep, heart felt, they refuse to assimilate. The expectation of assimilation is not an added-on imposition directed towards Muslims (Arabs). It is the felt duty of us all. We can all illustrate that with our own ancestral memories, preserving and assimilating them various ways. In my case with paternal roots in Vevey, Switzerland and maternal ones in Denmark. The American genius of assimilation (the mystery of holding on & releasing, of taking with & leaving behind) holds even within our internal patterns of migration Though having lived most of my adult life in California, I often find my looking-about (the hermeneutics of plain living) is still tempered by being a child of the Salmon River Wilderness of Idaho.

    Am convinced this is so (must be so) for we are – by degrees and various ways – still Jews & Christians, Greeks & Latins. Am convinced the American experiment has mixed the (near) perfect assimilation batter: the yeast is just warmly right. The integration of various Asian populations, contrary to the expected template, is pudding proof of that.

    But not so with Muslims; better put, with Islam. Which needs no referencing; *Hates of Vienna* is the documentation.


    Regarding Germans in particular, the author could have included if I missed it) the several waves of German emigration into Central & South America . Will make no comment here about the post-war ratlines!). How the influx of Germans fitted into (or dominated) Argentina’s culture does assist in getting a handle on Pope Francis even if his ancestral roots were not German). In some ways Germans in Argentina behave like Muslims in America: which helps to explain Germanic Argentina’s ease (with a wink & a nod) with the parallel waves of Arab/Muslim emigration into the country (and Paraguay, and Brazil). No more on that.

    Pope Francis carries a deeply felt, sentimental (programmatic) attachment to the Muslim migration (pogrom) into Europe. It comes from somewhere. It has cause and reason.

  11. There is a very nice magazine published in the USA called “GERMAN LIFE” and it offers a broad range of articles about travel, cooking, holidays and so forth in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the USA, and other countries with Germanic settlements. The magazine “GERMAN LIFE” has a website.

  12. When Count Zinzendorf visited the colony of Pennsylvania in the 1740’s the population of Germans was already well over 100,000. Some of their descendants are known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch). They were mostly religious dissenters or various stripes who had been offered a refuge by William Penn.

    • Not far from here is a German- Swiss settlement. Some of the names appear French, but these American Swiss definitely seem German to all appearances.

      There is also a fair amount of Welsh, brought in to quarry slate in a couple of counties. While they were newly immigrant, their cemeteries’ headstones were in Welsh but they assimilated after a few generations. Only the names remain.

    • Gilbert and Sullivan wrote a famous operetta about the delicious, and economically priced, baked goods made by Penn’s aunties, “The Pie Rates of Penn’s Aunts” (sorry!)

      The musical reference does lead back, somewhat tendentiously, to Wilhelm Furtwangler, arguably the greatest conductor of the mid 20th century. He was flawed, like all of us; he made (some) compromises with the Nazis, but helped Jewish musicians escape; he expected to find a willing (paid for) woman in his dressing room after a concert, yet believed in the redemptive and spiritual power of music- especially Germanic music (which is probably why he stayed); he never joined the Nazi Party (unlike Karajan, who joined twice, and whom Furtwangler detested so much he would only refer to him as “K”). Much of this ground was covered (not entirely fairly, imho) in Ronald Harwood’s play “Taking Sides”, later filmed by Istvan Szabo, who has an obsession (?) with compromises made by artists under dictatorships.

      And yet, and yet… Thanks to the German invention of the tape recorder (“magnetophon”) in 1935, working well from about 1940, and available to radio stations in the Reich during and after WW2, we can hear him at his “live” best (he hated the studio), in decent sound, in Berlin and Vienna (whose Philharmonic he saved; the Nazis wanted to disband it as a rival to Berlin). As a record collector, I can only be grateful that such treasures survive from such an awful era.

      I also note that great artists who worked under the Soviet system, eg Yevgeny Mravinsky (director of the Leningrad Symphony 1935-85) do not receive the same opprobrium. Apologies to non-classical music fans, but I hope this is of wider interest.

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