Why Did So Many People Leave Germany in the 1880s?

Steamships were taking millions of Germans to the United States. Why?

Andrew Gaertner
7 min readMay 16


My Great-Grandfather, Henry Carl Gaertner — born 1876 in Germany — photo from my aunt Gail’s album

German Emigration to the USA, Part Two: My Grandpa’s Side

Do you have ancestors who came over from Germany? How many people of German ancestry do you know? For me, the answers are “yes,” and “too many to count.”

Between 1800 and 1919, more than 7 million Germans immigrated to the United States. Today, descendants of those immigrants make up 17% of the US population, numbering more than 49 million people. German immigrants were key in shaping the United States and understanding their immigration stories helps us to understand how we got where we are today and can potentially help us to welcome new immigrants.

Growing up in Wisconsin, I was surrounded by people of German ancestry. In Wisconsin, 40% of the population can claim German heritage, and Milwaukee is the most German city in the USA. Many or even most of the people in my schools and certainly in my church had German last names. German foods, like bratwurst, pretzels, and sauerkraut, are considered essential Wisconsin foods. In Wisconsin, we love our Christmas trees and public schools, both German imports. Our local festival is Oktoberfest, and in the part of the town where I grew up it smelled like beer because of the local brewery.

In a recent essay, I speculated on why so many Germans came to the United States in the 1800s. My focus in that essay was on the first part of the 1800s, when many Germans left because of factors like population growth, potato crop failures, and the collapse of the cottage industries of flax spinning and linen weaving. I linked the collapse of cottage industry textiles to the rise of industrial weaving, which was dependent on cotton grown by enslaved people on forced labor camps.

Those factors made sense for my grandma’s people, who left between 1820 and 1850, but my grandpa’s people arrived in the 1880s, and their immigration was likely driven by different forces.

The 1880s were the peak of German emigration to the United States, with 1.5 million people arriving during the decade, and 250,000 arriving in 1882 alone, the peak year for German…



Andrew Gaertner

To live in a world of peace and justice we must imagine it first. For this, we need artists and writers. I write to reach for the edges of what is possible.