The Migrant’s Spirit. Germany’s Rise to Economic Power in an Age of Transatlantic Migration

Book manuscript (in progress)

In 1885, the progressive satirical magazine Der Wahre Jacob (“the honest Jacob”) published this cartoon depicting Uncle Sam nourishing himself on European immigrants. To this very day, such an interpretation provides the dominant framework for understanding the nineteenth century migrations to the Americas

Summary : In 1850, German-speaking Europe still constituted an economic backwater. But over the next half century, what would become the German Empire (1871) rapidly developed into a global economic powerhouse second only to the US. How did this happen?

Ein Brief aus Amerika. Oil on canvas by Berthold Woltze (ca 1860).

Ein Brief aus Amerika. Oil on canvas by Berthold Woltze (ca 1860).

This book argues that Germany’s rise as a global economic power in the nineteenth century is best understood in the context of its expanding relationship with the Atlantic World, and in particular with North America. Between 1820 and 1900, an estimated five million German speakers migrated to the Americas, more than 90 percent of them to the United States. The Migrant’s Spirit reveals how such US-bound emigration, which is often dismissed as a mere symptom of an already extant industrialization process, in fact catalyzed the German lands’ transition to industrial and capitalist modernity in ways we are only now beginning to grasp.

It is a story that reminds us just how futile it can be to explain economic development within a nation by looking at that nation in isolation. In the case of German central Europe, our traditional focus on technological ingenuity, state institutions, or even the region’s proximity to Britain has obscured this nation’s most important peculiarity, its intimate relationship with North America. During the second half of the century, the United States and the German Empire both grew rapidly into modern industrial and capitalist nations. They did so not just at the same time but in tandem. The challenge this book takes up is to explain why.  

With its deliberate focus on the stories of individuals—from freedom-seeking peasants and disgruntled artisans to petty politicians and unscrupulous railroad barons, bankers, and corporate titans—The Migrant’s Spirit promises to bring alive the twin human dramas of migration and industrialization for non-specialist audiences. Drawing on empirical evidence assembled from archives in five countries on three continents, it tackles pressing ethical questions about globalization, “backwardness,” inequality, and the yawning rural-urban divide.