German Emigration

Even though Germans have been a big ethnic group that played an important role in immigration history, “The study of German immigrants and their descendants in America has not attracted the attention of many professional historians.” (1) There are several reasons why their history has been neglected. First of all, the term “German” is an extremely vague and imprecise concept. German-speakers immigrated to the Americas not only from Germany, but also from Austria, France, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, Russia, Switzerland, former Yugoslavia and elsewhere across Europe. Germany as a political entity was founded only in 1871, but German language and culture have traditionally been of more importance than the country of origin as a basis for ethnic consciousness and nationalism. Beside that, “Germans” speak in many different dialects named after specific regions like Friesian, Pomeranian, Prussia, Swabia, Volga-Germans and others. (2)

“In a famous and much-quoted verse, those two most renowned German writers, Goethe and Schiller, posed the question which has been at the heart of much German history: ‘Deutschland? aber wo liegt es? Ich weiss das Land nicht zu finden.’ (‘Germany? But where is it? I know not how to find the country.’) They went on to put their finger succinctly on a further problem of the Germans: ‘Zur Nation euch zu bilden, ihr hoffet es, Deutsche, vergebens;/ Bildet, ihr koennt es, dafuer freier zu Menschen euch aus.’ (‘ Any hope of forming yourselves into a nation, Germans, is in vain; develop yourselves rather – you can do it – more freely as human beings!’)” (3)
Another reason was that those German-speaking immigrants “varied in religious belief, political persuasion, socioeconomic status, occupation, culture and social character as the German are, despite persistent historic stereotypes to the contrary. Generalizations about the Germans are inevitable hazardous and sure to be disputed.” (4) Situated in the middle of Europe Germany had been politically and geographically unsecured and strongly influenced by surrounding cultures and countries. Because of these diversities German-Americans “have displayed limited unity and no great interest in a common history, at least by comparison to other ethnic groups, such as Poles, Irish, or Norwegians.” (5) The lack of a shared identity resulted in an exaggerated nationalism, which was one of the reasons, which caused of the two World wars. “For many persons, thoughtless propaganda and the legacy of Hitlerian horrors transformed German identity in this country; it became a source of social discomfort, something they preferred to ignore.” (6) Being German or having German ancestors was for a long time after the two World wars not very attractive. Because of that and because documents about German communities in exile where hold back or vanished it was almost impossible to do research in this direction.

Most books dealing with immigrants and their descendants are about the United States of America, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. Latin America is a region that for much of the period between the mid-nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries rivaled North America as a destination for Europeans and others immigrants. (7) “Argentina had 1,736,490 inhabitants in 1869, 3,956,060 in 1895, and 7,885,237 in 1914. The principal cause of this marked increase in population was the massive influx of immigrants. Between 1871 and 1914, 5,917,259 people entered the country; of these, 2,722,384 returned to their countries of origin and 3,194,875 settled in Argentina. The great majority of these immigrants came from Italy and Spain, but there were sizable contingents from Central Europe, France, Germany, Great Britain and the Ottoman Empire.” (8)

Under the empire of Wilhelm I (1871–1888) and Wilhelm II (1888–1918) political life in Germany was strongly influenced by aristocrats. For a long time Bismarck, a son of a Prussian Junker, was the Prime Minister of Germany and used his power for more aggressive and expansionist foreign policy under the control of Prussia. “A largely powerless parliament (Reichstag) was complemented by an upper house, the Federal Council (Bundesrat), effectively controlled by Prussia. This constitution was to provide a basis for that of the subsequent German Empire.” (9) Germany developed an eager interest to take part in the global conquest and reinforced their fleet. The military played an important role for Prussia in order to dominate in the government “- the German army was to play a highly ambiguous, and eventually fatal, role in German politics.” (10) The importance of the military also influenced strongly norms and thinking process of German people.

Industrialization had led to a rise of a rich bourgeoisie. They took influence on politics as well. Even the working class became stronger and workers organized themselves politically. The strong position of the upper strata slowed down the development of parliament and democracy. Several attempts of coupling in order to end the empire failed. Strong political tensions about borders and power led to the general sense that war was looming, which resulted in an arms race in Europe. In 1914, the First World War started, which “was consciously viewed by members of the German elites as an ‘escape forwards’, a ‘solution to the problems of peace’, a means of deflecting attention from unresolved problems at home. German soldiers marched off to war singing patriotic songs, in the happy delusion that an early victory would allow them to be home for Christmas.” (11) But the war became a long, bloody and wearisome affair. Food and living conditions worsened and “there was a progressive loss of morale on the home front. 1915 food riots and strikes broke out and Germany surrendered in 1918. The empire collapsed and was replaced by German’s first parliamentary republic.

After the First World War, Germany as a looser had to pay reparations. “The Versailles Treaty of 1919 laid primary responsibility on Germany in the infamous ‘war guilt’ clause.” (12) The general atmosphere was aggressive because many Germans were angry about the loss and felt betrayed by their own people. The new developed political system of democracy, the Weimar Republic, was very unstable. Too many different political parties with different ideologies made a political process impossible. People suffered under unemployment, inflation and poverty. Under those conditions it was easy for the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers’ Party) to gain political power and to establish a fascist regime.

Many Germans and other Europeans immigrated before, while, between, and after the two World wars. There were several and various reasons and intentions to leave their country during political disturbance and economical problems. Some left their home in hope for a better future for themselves and their family, some of them left because of discrimination or other political reasons, some left just because of experiencing an adventure. Reasons are always different, individual and might change.

“Emigration began to rise again in 1864–65, when the American warfare was ending and the German was beginning. It was high during the late sixties – though it did not reach the 1852 – 1854 level – and dropped off briefly in 1870 – 71 before peaking again in 1872 – 73. The wars and their direct effects were probably the main causes of the year-to-year fluctuation in emigration figures within this period of the unification years, but were surely not essential causes of the movement as a whole.” (13) Bismark disliked emigration and would have liked to forbid it, but he knows that was not possible by direct legislative. “Between 1871 and 1885, a million and a half Germans emigrated oversee, a figure amounting to nearly 31/2 per cent of the population, and more than a quarter of the increase in population. Of those whose destination was known, 95 per cent went to the United States, 2 per cent to Brazil, 1 per cent to other Latin American countries, 1 per cent to Australia, and 1 per cent to Canada, Africa, and Asia.” (14)

“And with the German wars came conscription, especially severe in Prussia and in areas which came under Prussian control, which caused young men and whole families to emigrate who might not otherwise have done so. Emigration to avoid military obligation seems to have reflected less an abhorrence of the soldier’s life – though this was present – or fear of combat than an unwillingness to spend one’s young manhood under the constant threat of conscription, which inhibited the establishment of household and career; ultimately it was not very different from other frustrations of the desire for independence and security.” (15) “The second incident came when a rise in South American recruiting activities coincided with revived political energy in the Prussia of the New Era.” (16)

German Immigration in Argentina

Most German immigrants went to the United States or Latin America. Argentina was an attractive country for immigrants because it offered a very Europeanized society. “Braden wrote: ’From the earliest days of German emigration, the temperate climate, the tolerant and democratic institutions, and the solid European background of Argentina made it a favored land.'” (17) People like to move where already other people of their ethnic group live and have established a community.
The first Germans in Argentina were footloose mercenaries and adventurous young merchants who drifted to the Rio de la Plata in the unsettled years after the Napoleonic Wars. (18) Before the First World War German agricultural emigrants to Argentina were not very different to other German emigrants, who went to Brazil, the United States, Canada, Australia, or South Africa. “Life on the agricultural frontier demanded ceaseless labor, the ability to endure dust storms, draughts, floods, plagues of insects, the chicanery of officials, the rapacity of middlemen, the hostility of native people shouldered aside by Process, and the gyrations of international commodity markets over which they had no more control than over the tides. Apart from the Volga German communities of Entre Ríos and Buenos Aires Provinces, few farming settlements were predominantly German-speaking. The chances of becoming an owner-manager were scant; failure was as common as success.” (19)

But during the 1920s German communities developed an attitude. German business and agricultural communities strengthened through German intermarriages with Argentines and other Europeans of the middle class of Argentina. Thousands of German-Argentines had become professionals and technicians like doctors, bureaucrats, teachers and soldiers. They took strong influence into the Argentine education system and many German schools emerged. Many German businessmen and professionals believed that Argentina was industrializing and would become more dependent from German advanced technology. Indeed the Argentine military planned recruiting large numbers of German scientists and technologists for new steel and other industries.

A flourishing trade developed between Germany and Argentina. Germany had a privileged position in the Argentine economy. Argentina maintained a strong economic relationship with both Germany and Great Britain and supported them with supplies during World War I. “The creation, beginning during the war, of a semi-autonomous branch-plant enclave; the deliberate attempt after 1918 of rightist activists to make of Argentina a political redoubt of the Wilhelmian old regime, a continuing influx of new immigrants, the determination of German cultural nationalists to hold the German collectivity to Deutschtum against the claims of Argentine nationality, the continuing linkages to German centers of high finance, cultural nationalism, anti-Weimar politics, and military and naval networks – all strengthened this ill-defined self-perception.” (20)

“When the first wave of German physicists arrived in Argentina during the decade before 1914, they would have found a large German community centered around the capital. Between 1885 and the First World War the population of Argentina doubled with the influx of three million immigrants, 100,000 of whom spoke German.” (21) Strong German communities developed in Argentina, especially in Buenos Aires with their own schools, hospitals, shops, theaters, sport clubs and banks. “Many in the upper middle class feared assimilation and maintained strong ties to German culture, providing high-quality German instruction so that their children would not be at a disadvantage when they returned to Germany.” (22) “German power lay in the manpower of the German colonies, in the political force of the National Socialist and Pan-German ideologies, in the strong personal and political influence exerted by the two on Argentine society, and in the German economic empire extended into Argentina.” (23) During the 1920s and 1930s the German-speaking collectives took strong influence on Argentine politics.

“The military connection between Argentina and Prussia has often been emphasized, and there can be no doubt that sympathy for Germany among the general staff in Buenos Aires contributed to establishing Argentina’s policy of neutrality during the two world wars. From the point of view of Argentine strategists at the end of the nineteenth century, it was a clever move to fall in line with the strongest European war machine.” (24) Great Britain and North America became aware of the threat that Argentina’s German-speaking minority, which was a quarter million strong, acted as the Reich’s agent. “The uses the Reich was contemporaneously making of the real or alleged grievances of German minorities in Czechoslovakia, Poland, and elsewhere beyond her borders offered disturbing analogies to the Argentine situation.” (25) They became especially alarmed when they realized that a rectification of the Treaty of Versailles would not stop Hitler’s aggression and that Germans intentions and capabilities were widely unknown. When the Nazi-movement rose in Germany within the German-Argentine community evoke euphoria. The Nazi revolution promised a stronger fatherland and a renewal of the German status as a culture in the world.

“With natural increase and the residue of the 1920s immigration, the German-Argentine collective grew from the 100,000 of 1914 to a quarter million in the late 1930s. The scandals of 1938 and 1939 revealed to the arrogance, ineptitude, and dangerously unreal ambition of the Nazis; worse, they provoked government countermeasures against the German collectivity. In thus became a time of decision. Many postwar immigrants had begun to feel solid ground under their feet only in the 1930s. When Argentine sentiment began to turn against Nazism in the late 1930s, they were obliged to reevaluate their attitudes toward the New Germany. Most proved reluctant to jeopardize the economy and status gains they had made with great toil and sacrifice – however much they might have responded to the triumphs of Hitler and the Nazis earlier in the decade.” (26) During the 1930s there was also a change of attitude within the German-speaking communities. Many descended of European immigrants did not longer identify themselves with their ethnic origin but wanted to be recognized as Argentines.

“In 1937 the U.S. and British diplomatic mission sharply increased their surveillance of German, Italian, and Japanese activities in Argentina. The two principal British concerns derived from naval strategic considerations – the fear that, as in World War I, the Germans would prepare clandestine fueling and victualing facilities for U-boats and surface raiders along remote stretches of the Patagonian coast; and concern that German might sabotage railways and other facilities essential to the forwarding of foodstuffs and raw materials to Great Britain. A coast watch and an observer corps were therefore recruited from the Anglo-Argentine collectivity to keep an eye on German activities; both services were supervised by consuls. The involvement of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) in the Patagonia Plot of 1939 was apparently designed to influence those Argentine circles capable of assisting in countering potential German operations.” (27)

“By 1939 the Argentine government, without acknowledging that a ‘minority problem’ existed among the German-Argentines, had nevertheless resolved it. As the war turned against Germany, few German-Argentines and fewer criollos remained adherents of the German cause; self-interest – or the national interest, in the view of Argentines militarists – ruled.” (28) In 1939 there was a change in Argentines politics, the government of Argentina started to contain and suppress the “Nazi Menace” successfully, because they became aware of the danger. “From 1942 to 1944, Argentina was the Third Reich’s intelligence and covert-warfare platform in the Western Hemisphere” (29) After the Second World War in 1945 many German war criminals found sanctuary in Argentina, “just as they found sanctuary in many other places, including the United States.” (30) Nevertheless after 1945 German individuals and institutions suffered under harassment.

German immigration in Comodoro Rivadavia: Two Testimonies

The life histories of two Argentines of German descent, Marta Ebbeling (de Jung) and Alberto Muller, illustrate some of the experiences of German immigrants and their families in Argentina. Additionally, they provide a glimpse of what this experience was like outside of the Argentine capital, the most common case study in Argentine immigration history. These life histories are the result of oral history interviews conducted in German and Spanish during January of 2001, as part of Dickinson College’s Patagonia Mosaic program –a faculty-student research experience.

Comodoro Rivadavia is located 2000 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, on the coast of Chubut, Patagonia. This area of Patagonia is very dry and barren and lacks natural recourses like wood and water that make life there very difficult. In 1907 a group of workers were drilling for water, but they discovered oil instead. An oil industry developed by both the national oil company and private companies like Astra – a company founded by German capital. Because of a lack of skilled workers, most people who arrived first to the oil fields were European immigrants, and later native Argentines. Many of these immigrants came from Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy, Russia, Bulgaria, Austria, Greece and other countries. Together they fashioned a multiethnic working population in the company towns with a complex social life. Because most of the technological equipment came from Germany, there were many German skilled workers, especially in the private companies. (31)

Martha Ebbeling was born on December 12, 1912 in the company town of Astra, 27 km north of Comodoro Rivadavia. She was the first child born in Astra. A company contracted Martha’s father in Germany for drilling water in San Luis –in western Argentina. He came to Argentina in 1910. His wife followed one year later with their two daughters. When their contract ended they went to Buenos Aires in order to migrate back to Germany. There they got another contract to drill for oil in Patagonia for Astra, a recently founded company. The family arrived in Comodoro Rivadavia by ship on July 12, 1912. Martha still remembers the early development of the company town:

And with six, seven years then there was our first school, but there was no schoolroom, and so my parents gave then their living room, so that the teacher could hold school for us and the other children, who were there as well, but there were only few… [ ] And then there was water and then they laid a water pipe and then they build the brick factory and then they build the school. They build the hospital.

Martha’s mother was a housewife. She had three daughters and a son. Because there was hardly anything to buy in Comodoro Rivadavia she provided her family with everything they needed. She got water from a fountain, planted vegetables in the garden, and kept sheep and chicken. She did everything by herself from baking bread to producing soap: “After all men went for eight or twelve hours to work. But the woman worked much longer at home.”

Martha Ebbeling and her two sisters learned early how to work. They helped in the household. Their brother did not have to help much, “he was very spoiled, because he was the boy.” Martha remembers her lonely childhood:

Yes, the life for a girl was a little bit sad. Because there were not many families. And… there was only little entertainment, what could you do, you had to do needlework at home, what the mother taught you. Because there was no school, some institution, where you could learn something did not exist. So all you could do, was taught by the mother, in my opinion… And two or three times a year there was a dance. Dance school did not exist, so the people dragged you around, until one understand finally, that the waltz was danced right and left as well, you know? And that is it now, in the evening you read, there was a library at the Astra. It was called Reichsbund, there you could get books.

Her sisters both married Germans and went back to Germany before the Second World War started. After her father had lost his job, Martha’s parents returned to Germany as well. Mr. Ebbeling paid all his life for a pension in Germany. Even though Martha’s father disliked Germany’s present politics he still felt a strong loyalty toward his country.

…Not the old ones, they were loyal to the former German emperor, who I knew, my father as well! He always said: I swore loyalty to the emperor and he has not asked to get it back! He was in Germany three years in the military, with the Dragoners.

But Martha stayed with her French husband, Mr. Jung, and their two sons in Argentina. She experienced discrimination during the Second World War –both for being a descendent of German immigrants in Argentina as well as discrimination within the German community in Astra.

Well, I do not know spitefulness but they were very spiteful to me because my husband was French. That means, when he was born, it was Alsace-Germany and when his mother came to Argentina, my father-in-law worked here, since 1913. Then they finally needed documents, because in earlier days children were only signed into church registers, in nothing else. But if you immigrate you need documents and then it was Alsace of France, so he became French. And then all the Germans were angry with me because I married a French. That was still the arch-, the enemy of 1914.

Because her husband worked for a Dutch company at the time, she was forbidden to speak German and was forced to speak Spanish.

After her two sons had left the house in order to study in Buenos Aires and her husband had died (when he was only 56 years old, in 1962), Martha moved to Germany in order to take care of her father. She lived there for seven years. However, in 1978, after her father’s death, she returned to Argentina. Martha did not like Germany. Even though the landscape was very beautiful she felt that the people were there too cool in comparison to Argentine hospitality. Martha sees Argentina as her home. Her children and grandchildren are there. Argentina gave her everything.

Albert Friedrich Muller was born on August 12, 1928. His father had immigrated to Argentina in 1924 because there was much unemployment, poverty and hunger in Germany after World War I. His mother followed her husband with their two children in 1927. Mr. Muller’s father worked as a carpenter. They lived in Buenos Aires. He clearly remembers the time before, during, and after the World War II as important for the German community:

I experienced it when I was a child and a young man, you know, that was in Buenos Aires, the Hitler Youth, they marched up there, with uniforms and… with trumpets… They believed, they were in Germany. That was terrible in Buenos Aires… I would say eighty percent of the Germans, of Reichsdeutsche (32), were Nazis, then. But that were not all Reichsdeutsche, from these eighty percent sixty percent were Austrians. You could see that later when they controlled the Germans, you know, and took the documents away, then you could see who was German and who was Austrian… That were most of them. Most of them were Nazis too. They continued to live undisturbed. And the Germans had to pay a lot for that!

Alberto is infuriated about how German immigrants were treated in Argentina during World War II. All German documents were confiscated and all Germans had to register at the local police station.

And the Germans who where in Argentina – they emigrated from Germany because of hunger, they did not have a job – they did not have anything to do with German politics! You know? And I believe the government confiscated all German companies as well. The German associations, German schools – it was all confiscated and never given back! That was in reality larceny! Right?

Martha Jung also remembers this particular time. According the her, before the Nazi movement became powerful European immigrants lived peaceful together. “There were no politics, there was no religion! Everybody had little money and everybody got on with it.”, she remembers, “Actually the conflicts all started in 1939…”

There came some young Germans from abroad and they stirred the people here really up and convinced them […] at Astra it became really very miserable! Everything disbanded. There was a choral society which disbanded, there was an aviation club, that all disbanded.

As historian Ronald Newton states, “youthful Nazi organizers did indeed overrun German-speaking communities in the 1930s, outdoing each other in energy, arrogance, and poor judgment.” (33)

After the Second World War, Alberto Muller remembers that Argentine-Germans supported Germans by sending packages or helping them to settle down in Argentina. He explained:

You did not feel hate against anyone, you know? I believe, that the people of Germany had a bad life, as well as in Argentina, because, I think, they were not all Nazis… And here not as well…”

Alberto’s parents returned to Germany after thirty-six years only for a visit. They were firm that they would not return again to Germany because their whole family was in Argentina. Even though Alberto Muller never went to Germany and does not want to because he loves to travel through the different regions of Argentina, he is proud to be German-Argentine and idealizes the stereotypical German virtues of discipline and punctuality.


  1. Luebke 1990, xiii.
  2. Marshall 1991, iv-v.
  3. Fullbrook 1990, 1.
  4. Luebke 1990, xiii.
  5. Luebke 1990, xiii.
  6. Luebke 1990, xiii.
  7. Marshall 1991, ii.
  8. Bethell 1993, 83.
  9. Fulbroo 1990, 128.
  10. Fullbrook 1990, 131.
  11. Fullbrook 1990, 152.
  12. Fullbrook 1990, 148.
  13. Walker 1964, 175.
  14. Walker 1984, 181.
  15. Walker 1964, 180.
  16. Walker 1964, 177.
  17. Newton 1992, xiii.
  18. Newton 1992, 15.
  19. Newton 1992, 3.
  20. Newton 1992, 3.
  21. Pyenson 1985, 143.
  22. Pyenson 1985, 143.
  23. Newton 1992, xiii.
  24. Pyenson 1985, 145.
  25. Newton 1992, 1.
  26. Newton 1992, 4.
  27. Newton 1992, 5.
  28. Newton 1992, xv-xvi.
  29. Newton 1992, xv.
  30. Newton 1992, xv.
  31. Torres, 1995.
  32. Prewar Germans.
  33. Newton 1992, xv.


Primary sources
Ebbeling (de Jung), Martha. Interview by Susan Rose, Kirsten Korell, Susana Torres, Rosemary McGunnigle. Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina. 1/18/2001 and 1/18/2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

Muller, Alberto. Interview by Susan Rose, Kirsten Korell, Susana Torres, and Rosemary McGunnigle. Comodoro Rivadavia, Argentina. 1/18/2001. Patagonia Mosaic 2001, Community Studies Center, Dickinson College.

Secondary sources
Bethell, Leslie. Argentina Since Independence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Dominguez, Jorge I. Essays on Mexico, Central and South America. New York: Garland Publishing, 1994.

Fulbrook, Mary. A Concise History of Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Goldwert, Marvin. Democracy, Militarism, and Nationalism in Argentina, 1930 – 1966. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 1972.

Luebke, Frederick C. Germans in the New World. Essays in the History of Immigration. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Marshall, Oliver. European Immigration and Ethnicity in Latin America. A Bibliography. London: Institute of Latin American Studies. University of London, 1991.

McEwan, Colin, Luis A. Borrero and Alfredo Prieto. Patagonia. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997.

Newton, Ronald C. The ‘Nazi Menace’ in Argentina, 1931–1947. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992.

Torres, Susana. “Two Oil Company Towns in Patagonia: European Immigrants, Class, and Ethnicity (1907-1933).” Ph. D. Dissertation, Rutgers University, 1995.