From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Germans/Gerhard Bassler

Since a significant number of German migrants to North America came from territories that were not part of a German nation-state, it is essential to know something about the various German homelands beyond Germany, in particular in eastern and southeastern Europe.

The movement of Germans eastward, also known as the “colonization of the East” (Ostkolonisation), is a long process that lasted from the early medieval period through the nineteenth century. Some of the earliest large-scale eastern settlements of Germans date back to the twelfth through fourteenth centuries, such as those in Prussia (modern-day Poland and Russia), the Baltic coastal region (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia), the Sudeten and other mountainous regions of Bohemia and Moravia (the Czech Republic), and in three distinct regions of the former kingdom of Hungary: Spiš/Zips (Slovakia), Satu Mare/Sathmar (Romania), and Transylvania/Siebenbürgen. These and neighbouring regions continued to receive more German colonists in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), when much of central Europe was ravaged by war, religious persecution, and disease.

During the eighteenth century, the Austrian and Russian Empires were expanding their boundaries at the expense of two states: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which ceased to exist following three partitions between 1772 and 1795; and the Ottoman Empire, which was driven out of the Hungarian Kingdom by Habsburg Austria (1683–1718) and out of lands north of the Black Sea by the Russian Empire (1783–91). Consequently, both Austria and Russia found themselves in possession of huge territories that were only sparsely settled. To resolve this problem, Germans were among the colonists invited to Austria’s newly-acquired northeastern provinces of Galicia (1772) and Bukovina (1774). At the opposite end of the Austrian Empire, on the plains of southern Hungary, Germans from Swabia and the Palatinate were throughout the course of the eighteenth century settled in the Báranya, Bačka, and Banat regions near the Danube River (much of today’s Vojvodina in Yugoslavia).

Farther east, Empress Catherine of Russia issued a decree in 1763 to initiate a program of colonization by Germans that was to last for nearly a century. The first settlers were brought to the lower Volga River valley, and then others were located in the broad steppes of Ukraine and the Black Sea costal areas, including Bessarabia and the Crimea which had only recently been acquired from the Ottoman Empire. Among the settlers in the Ukrainian steppe were German-speaking Mennonites, Lutherans, Baptists, and Roman Catholics who settled separately and developed distinct denominational communities. Finally, the Russian Empire’s province of Volhynia (in present-day northwestern Ukraine) became the destination at the outset of the nineteenth century for Germans from Pomerania and Posnania/Poznaó .

Throughout eastern and southeastern Europe, the Germans frequently referred to themselves and were referred to by others with regional names, some of which they only acquired after World War I. Among these were the Sudeten, Galician, and Bukovinian Germans in the Austrian half of the former Habsburg Empire; the Zipser Germans, Sathmar Germans, Transylvanian Saxons, and Danube Swabians in the former Hungarian Kingdom; and the Dobruja Germans in Romania. Regional names also prevailed in the vast Russian Empire, although the Baltic, Polish, Volhynian, Volga, Crimean, Black Sea, and Bessarabian Germans were sometimes lumped together under the general designation, Germans from Russia (Russlanddeutsche).

The motivations that brought Germans eastward varied greatly depending on the time of their departure and their destination. Some went as missionaries, some as conquerors, some as hired military conscripts, and some as refugees from religious persecution. The vast majority, however, were recruited by the rulers of Austria, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, and Russia or by their respective nobilities, who knew the reputation Germans had as developers of virgin or war-ravaged lands, as industrialists and artisans, as promoters of trade and commerce, and as builders of towns and model settlements. German colonists were instrumental in developing cities like Riga, Tallinn, Prague, and Budapest, and as late as the first decades of the twentieth century, most cities in east-central Europe still had an economically and socially influential number of Germans. Germans were also renowned for their agricultural prowess and technical innovation, qualities they were encouraged to develop by eastern European states which provided them with abundant land, religious freedom, and at least initially a variety of privileges such as cultural autonomy, self-government, and exemption from taxes and military service.

The favourable status of Germans beyond Germany slowly began to change in the Russian Empire during the last decades of the nineteenth century, when some of their privileges (including exemption from military service) were abolished. World War I and the civil war in Russia also had a negative impact on numerous German colonies, especially those located along the long eastern front between the German and Russian armies. But it was the policies of Hitler’s Third Reich that were to result in the ultimate destruction of most German settlements in eastern and southeastern Europe.

Hitler’s fixation on the acquisition of Lebensraum (living space) for Germany accounted for his particular interest in the Volksdeutsche, that is, the ethnic Germans living in eastern and southeastern Europe. His goal was to bring the Volksdeutsche into the Third Reich, either by expanding its borders or by population transfer. Consequently, the Volksdeutsche became pawns in Nazi German foreign policy, with some welcoming the expansion of the Third Reich and others remaining loyal to the states in which they lived. During the brief period when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies (1939– 41), the Baltic, Bessarabian, Volhynian, and Galician Germans were resettled for most part in territories in western and north central Poland that the Third Reich had annexed when it destroyed Poland in 1939. Then, on the eve of Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin’s government deported the Germans in the Volga region and Ukraine to Central Asia. Those not deported in 1941 as well as those who had not fled westward were at the close of World War II either exiled to Central Asia, interned as Nazi collaborators, or sent as forced labourers to Soviet prison camps.

The post-war fate of Germans in other countries of east-central Europe was not any better. In most cases, they were blamed for having collaborated with Nazi Germany on the eve of and during the war, and whether or not this was true they became liable to mass expulsion from their centuries-old homes. Over 3 million Germans were expelled from the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia; over 7 million from Germany’s pre-1937 territories of Pomerania, East Prussia, and Silesia, which became part of Poland; and 250,000 mostly Danube Swabians from Hungary. Aside from these state-sponsored expulsions, over half a million Danube Swabians and Transylvanian Saxons fled from post-war Yugoslavia and Romania. Most of these refugees were resettled in what became either West or East Germany; some eventually made their way to Canada.

The migration of Germans to the New World has a long history. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, an estimated 125,000 went to territories that were to become the United States. Of the almost 6 million Germans who left between 1820 and 1914, 89 percent reported moving to the United States, 2 percent to Brazil, 1.3 percent to Canada, and 1.3 percent to Australia. For the period 1919–33, Germany accounted for 605,000 emigrants. Of these, 71 percent chose the United States, 10.2 percent Brazil, and 5 percent Canada. Nearly 1.2 million Germans emigrated to North America and Australia between 1950 and 1969; 775,000 headed for the United States and 300,000 for Canada.

In the nineteenth century, German migration to North America had assumed the proportions of a mass exodus. Its chief push factor was the country’s transition from an agrarian to an industrial state and the concomitant urbanization and rising expectations. During the century 1816–1915, the population of Germany tripled to 68 million. In the southwest, the source of most of the migrants, population growth, the tradition of dividing inheritances, and occupational restructuring produced acute overpopulation and pauperization. Improvements in communications and increased promotion on the part of shipping agents facilitated the exodus, while the growth of the American economy held out the hope of rapid upward mobility in the New World. Networks of transatlantic contacts, chain migration, and prepaid tickets lowered the threshold for the individual’s decision to emigrate.

Although German industry was able to absorb the labour surplus from the 1880s on, waves of emigration continued at intervals until the 1950s. The exodus of the 1920s was triggered by the dislocations after World War I. At that time, about 1.4 million refugees from eastern Europe and from the 13 percent of Germany’s pre-war territory lost by the Treaty of Versailles poured into the country. This influx increased population density at the very moment when revolutionary unrest, civil war, unemployment, inflation, and the devaluation of the German currency caused its citizens to lose faith in the future of their country. Social and economic insecurity was pervasive even during the period of stabilization between 1924 and 1929. In the 1930s the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich turned half of Germany’s “non-Aryan” population into refugees.

Among the influx of German-speaking peoples to Canada between 1776 and 1933, natives from Germany have been a minority. From 1871 to 1914, for example, the ratio of Germans from eastern Europe and the United States to those from Germany was eight to one, and between 1919 and 1939 it was four to one. German-speaking immigrants came to Canada from virtually every central and east European country. Although it was not unusual for these individuals or their ancestors to have migrated more than once since leaving their original homelands, most had retained German language, culture, and identity.

Adverse conditions in eastern Europe in the post– World War I years provided new reasons for the emigration of ethnic Germans. Some of their homelands, such as Volhynia, had been theatres of war. Privileged minorities in the Habsburg and Russian empires before the war, ethnic Germans suffered political discrimination in the post-war succession states. Without regard for traditional ethnocultural and economic infrastructures, some of the new national boundaries cut through centuries-old areas of German settlement, especially along the Danube. Large German-speaking regions were deprived of former markets and the right to self-determination. Persecution of religion and wealth under the Communist regime dealt a fatal blow to the many once-prosperous German farming communities in the Soviet Union. Poland and the new Baltic states, too, looked upon their German minorities with disfavour.

Among areas of east European origin for German Canadians, the former Soviet Union is the largest and most diversified. From that country came almost half of western Canada’s pre–World War I and one-third of the country’s post-war German-speaking immigrants. Since the publication of Catherine the Great’s first manifesto in 1763 promising generous privileges to prospective settlers, German colonists had migrated to such regions as the Volga, Ukraine, the Caucasus, St Petersburg, Siberia, Altai, and central Asia. There they had developed distinct regional, religious, and linguistic subcultures. On the eve of World War I, ethnic Germans constituted 1 percent of Russia’s population (that is, 1,800,000), three-quarters of whom lived in three thousand more or less homogeneous Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Mennonite, and Hutterite settlements. Germans from Volhynia, which was also part of the Russian Empire before World War I, arrived in western Canada in substantial numbers from 1888 on. They were predominantly Lutheran, but included a minority of Mennonites, Baptists, and Moravians. (See also AMISH; HUTTERITES; MENNONITES.)

Next to the Russian Empire, the Austrian province of Galicia provided the largest exodus of ethnic Germans headed for Canada before 1914. Although the German presence in Galicia dates back to the Middle Ages, the only settlements of relevance to Canada are those founded in the wake of Galicia’s annexation by Austria in 1772. For over a century the Galician-German villages thrived, and by 1890 their population had increased to more than 75,000. Then a coincidence of economic and ethno-political causes halted further growth. The consequences of autonomy granted to Galicia in 1867 aggravated the region’s overpopulation and economic backwardness. Polish school laws, polonization of the parishes, restrictions on the purchase of land, and replacement of German officials by Poles turned the Germans, most of whom were Lutherans, into a discriminated minority in their own villages and drove them to emigrate.

Latvia and Estonia were the homelands of the post– World War II Canadian immigrants known as Baltic Germans. The core of this group, unlike ethnic German colonists from the Soviet Union, descended from the so-called Baltic barons – owners of large estates, prominent government servants, and highly educated officials – whose roots in the two countries can be traced to the twelfth century. Since annexation of their lands by the Russian Empire, they had served successive tsarist governments with distinction and until 1914 formed the ruling class in the region. After World War I, the newly sovereign Baltic states nationalized their large landholdings. In 1939–40 this nobility, together with the remaining urban Baltic-German population of artisans, teachers, business people, and professionals, were collectively resettled to the Third Reich by agreement between Hitler and Stalin – 59,000 from Latvia and 17,000 from Estonia.

In the 1880s land hunger and Hungarian nationalism had initiated an exodus of Danube Swabian farmers to Canada, while unemployment drew labour migrants from the area to the United States. By 1911 up to 20 percent of Danube Swabians had left for North America. Known as Hungarian Germans before 1914, they received their present name in 1922 after the partition of their homeland among five succession states to the Habsburg empire: Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Austria. The worst fate awaited Yugoslavia’s 550,000 Danube Swabians at the end of World War II, when the regime of Marshal Tito began violent ethnic cleansing. Around 350,000 fled to the West. Those who were left behind were either massacred or tortured and starved in one of Tito’s death camps or deported to the Soviet Union.

The newly enlarged Romania after World War I included, in addition to Danube Swabians from the Banat (245,000), the German colonies established in the former Austro-Hungarian territories of Transylvania (237,000), Bukovina (80,000), and Sathmar (31,000); in Dobruja (13,000); and in the former Russian province of Bessarabia (80,000). Most of these colonies developed networks of chain migration to Canada. In Transylvania, the so-called Saxons had developed a diversified economy and stratified society while revitalizing their culture by the tradition among leaders, students, and journeymen of visiting Germany. From the 1880s to 1914 some 20,000 small landholders and impoverished tradesmen migrated to the United States. Land reforms and economic changes in Romania after World War I brought labour migrants to Canada as well. In Bessarabia by 1885 entire German villages had begun to relocate to western Canada, either directly or by way of the United States.

Sudeten Germans arrived in Canada in two separate groups: in 1939 as anti-Nazi, social-democratic refugees, and after 1945 as part of the three million German residents expelled from Czechoslovakia for alleged pro-Nazi sympathies. German settlers had been present in Bohemia and Moravia from the thirteenth century. But the Habsburg rulers’ policy of imposing Catholic and German social, political, and cultural institutions on the Protestant Czechs, Czechoslovakia’s reluctance to grant ethnocultural rights to its large German minority after World War I, and Hitler’s annexation of the country laid the ground for their expulsion in 1945. A small group of socialist-oriented Sudeten Germans, opposed to Hitler’s destruction of Czechoslovakia in 1938–39, had managed to find refuge in Canada in 1939. Well organized, they maintained their own identity vis-à-vis the post-war exiles.

Many German-speaking migrants to Canada originated not in Europe but in the United States. Indeed, had it not been for the enormous and continuing appeal of the United States for European immigrants since the seventeenth century, Canada would have received fewer Germans. The proximity of that country was significant in several ways. First, it made Canada a haven for American refugees. Secondly, it enabled residents in the United States to recognize and seize opportunities in Canada unknown in Europe. Furthermore, Canada appeared to be an extension of the United States to prospective European emigrants or an alternative when American entry was blocked by war or restrictive immigration policies. Finally, Canadian ports and routes provided cheap and fast access to the American frontier and caused some United States–bound migrants to stay in Canada. German group migration to Pennsylvania had begun in 1683, and by the nineteenth century the United States was the preferred destination of those from German-speaking Europe. German Americans were attracted to Canada by the availability of cheap and abundant land as early as the 1760s, but particularly after American land became scarce around 1900. Between 1871 and 1939, some 18 percent of western Canada’s German-speaking settlers were second- to fourth-generation German Americans.