Coun Franz Moritz von aLacy marble bust HGM

Emigration Routes from Austria-Hungary: Germany – Part I

By Allison Schmidt

On November 26, 1908, police in Tetschen (“Děčín” in today’s Czechia) stopped a young man about to cross the border from Habsburg territory into Imperial Germany. The 21-year-old Hungarian, Bernhard Toth, had planned to emigrate to America via Hamburg, yet he did not have the required proof of exemption from military service. Habsburg authorities confiscated 18 K (crowns), his 266 K steamship ticket, and his Arbeitsbuch (a quasi-resumé of the time). Toth spent 48 days in a nearby jail until the police released him when his home district failed to grant extradition. In a later complaint filed for reimbursement of his ticket and wages lost while he was held in detention, Toth revealed that he had purchased the ticket from the emigration agency of Eduard Ichon in Bremen, issued by the travel agency Russel & Company in Vienna.[i] Of the various ways he could have traveled to the United States, and given the eventual trouble it caused him, why did Toth choose to sail from Germany?

Emigrants from the Dual Monarchy departed via northern instead of Mediterranean harbors during the age of mass movement (ca. 1880-1914) for a number of reasons. Thanks to earlier waves of British and German transoceanic migrants, northern port cities already had shipping lines and infrastructure to move massive numbers of people for a reasonable price. Emigrants from Bohemia, Austria, and Hungary could reach Hamburg and Bremen as easily as Fiume or Trieste due to the layout of railway networks in East Central Europe. Travel agents representing Norddeutscher Lloyd and other northern steamship companies built a customer base in Austria-Hungary through word-of-mouth and surreptitious advertising.

While the Austrian government recognized the post-serfdom ‘freedom of movement’ promised in the 1867 constitution, government officials feared population loss.[ii] This tension played out on the ground. Travel agencies were not allowed to actively encourage emigration–though they did. Military-aged men could not leave without permission–though they did. Ironically, most of the emigrants from Austria-Hungary at this time were young and male, looking to make money in the United States and, as a quarter to a third did, potentially return. To avoid outright rejection at domestic harbors, young men evading military service sneaked past Austrian gendarmes at the German border. Officials on the other side mostly looked the other way as long as the men were healthy and had tickets for approved steamship lines.

In small villages like Szamoskér in eastern Hungary, where Toth originated, the journey to America via Germany usually began with a walk or cart ride to the nearest train station. At that time, the vast majority of proletarian migrants bound for US industrial cities came from rural, agricultural areas. Some migrants said long goodbyes to friends and family while others, afraid of familial or official disapproval, left without a word. Emigrants had either received pre-paid steamship tickets through family or local recruiters or planned to buy them at a steamship agency along the way (the steamship companies could sell tickets but not actively encourage emigration). Occasionally, travel agents led groups through the railway journey and assisted with translation. Sometimes young men would buy return train tickets to make it seem they were taking a short trip instead of avoiding conscription. They rode in packed fourth- or third-class carriages to the next major railroad hub, say Vienna or Prague,[iii] and continued to the German border.  Young men watched for Austro-Hungarian authorities who would ask for a ‘military passport’ that stated they could leave. In another tactic, they would hide among groups of seasonal laborers or tourists until they had crossed the border.

Though not bound to military conscription, Austro-Hungarian women emigrants were also policed. On April 30th, 1909, a civil watchman at the Brno (Brünn) train station stopped 17-year-old Anna Valášek and 21-year-old Anna Machalik, along with five male emigrants, after they bought tickets to Bremen and admitted they were traveling to America. None of them had identification or the required travel documents. After a short detention and investigation into whether the young men had attempted to evade conscription, police could find no evidence and set them free. The men claimed they would return to their homelands. The police justified sending the “girls,” considered minors, back to their home county because they had no relatives in the group and no proof of parental permission. The chance that they were trafficked or kidnapped “had not been ruled out.”[iv] Authorities feared what was then called “White Slavery” or forced prostitution of young women, particularly those en route to the Americas. Young women sometimes carried a ‘workbook’ with the names of past employers as a type of resume and identification, to prove they had a ‘respectable’ history. These stipulations, though ostensibly meant to protect women, could at times restrict their movement, especially once they reached Ellis Island, where women often had to prove they had a husband or a guardian to provide for them. Indeed, the police at Brno argued the girls would have been rejected for these reasons from an American port.

Once the migrants reached Germany, they entered, what Tobias Brinkmann calls the “transit corridor.”[v] My own research investigates the evolution of this transmigration (i.e., “process of migration”[vi]) monitoring system in the province of Saxony, which bordered the Habsburg land of Bohemia and thus screened mainly Austro-Hungarians. Exact German border controls varied throughout the years, but two conditions remained the same for proletarian transmigrants from the 1880s until the First World War. First, unless sponsored by an aid organization, migrants needed to possess a steamship ticket from the German cartel or 400 Marks as proof of financial independence. Very few had the latter, so this stipulation was ultimately monopoly enforcement. Second, migrants needed to be healthy. When the disease cholera broke out in Russia and Austrian Galicia in 1904, Saxon officials limited travel to three border stations and examined transmigrants for symptoms. Cholera is a waterborne illness that spreads mainly due to poor sanitation, but enforcement theater has its own prerogatives. Both steamship companies and the state could take credit for their safety measures, and, in the meantime, catch more visible illnesses such as trachoma, an eye disease.

Once they crossed the border into Saxony, transmigrants from Austria-Hungary would then travel in special wagons or trains, though this separation from other travelers was not always enforced, to the Saxon railroad hub of Leipzig. There they passed through an emigrant registration station (Registrierstation), where steamship company agents recorded demographic information into a book with a copy for the Leipzig city council. Upon that moment, the shipping companies took official responsibility for the travelers, whether that meant return, health, or burial costs. This policy incentivized the German state to support the registration system, with police and health officials directing migrants to the station. State-owned German railroads also prospered from masses of travelers, and train personnel would assist with directing migrants. After registration and a quick medical inspection (the turnaround at Leipzig was about an hour), the migrants continued via trains to harbor cities.

(Continued in Part II)

Author’s Biography:

Allison Schmidt is a historian of Central Europe and its global connections who is currently turning her dissertation, “Crossing Germany: Eastern European Transmigrants and Saxon State Surveillance, 1900–1924” (University of Kansas, 2016), into a book.

Reading List:

 Cities and Overseas Migration in the Long Nineteenth Century, special issue of the Journal of Migration History, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 209-376.

 Points of Passage: Jewish Transmigrants from Eastern Europe in Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain 1880-1914, edited by Tobias Brinkmann (New York: Berghahn Books, 2013).

Barry Moreno, Encyclopedia of Ellis Island (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004).

Christiane Reinecke, Grenzen der Freizügigkeit: Migrationskontrolle in Großbritannien und Deutschland, 1880-1930(München: R. Oldenbourg, 2010).

Annemarie Steidl, Wladimir Fischer-Nebmaier, James W. Oberly. From a Multiethnic Empire to a Nation of Nations: Austro-Hungarian Migrants in the US, 1870-1940 (StudienVerlag, 2017).

Tara Zahra, Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016).


[i] Národní Archiv v Praze (National Archives, Prague), Ministersvo vinitra Víden (MV/R), Carton 296, reports from the Ministerium des Innern in Vienna regarding Bernhard Toth.

[ii] Tara Zahra, The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2016).

[iii] For more on urban hubs of mass European emigration, see Cities and Overseas Migration in the Long Nineteenth Century, special issue of the Journal of Migration History, vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 209-376.

[iv] Národní Archiv v Praze (National Archives, Prague), Carton 228 Folder 2, report from Statthalterei in Brünn to the k.k. Ministerium des Innern, June 23, 1909, pp. 451-455.

[v] Tobias Brinkmann, “Introduction,” Points of Passage: Jewish Transmigrants from Eastern Europe in Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain 1880-1914 (New York: Berghahn, 2013), 8.

[vi] Gur Alroey, Bread to Eat and Clothes to Wear: Letters from Jewish Migrants in the Early Twentieth Century (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2011), 1.