Julius Kaliski, editor of the SPD party newspaper Vorwärts, had become a prominent member of the SPD’s revisionist faction. In late 1904, he was incarcerated for lèse-majesté and spent several months in the Berlin-Tegel jail. His series of articles titled “On the Road with Ballin” [“Unterwegs mit Ballin”] provides direct insight into the largely unknown everyday reality of mass migration from eastern Europe via Germany (and Hamburg) to the United States around the turn of the century. Even a superficial reading reveals a sarcastic, polemical tone. The primary target of Kaliski’s criticism was HAPAG’s general director, Albert Ballin, one of the most successful businessmen in Imperial Germany. As a young man, he had taken over the small emigration agency from his father, a Jewish immigrant from Denmark. In 1886, Albert Ballin was appointed director of HAPAG’s passage department. In this role, he played a major part in HAPAG’s rise to one of the world’s largest shipping companies. Even after he was appointed HAPAG’s general director in 1899, Ballin remained an outsider in Hamburg society due to his humble origins, however, and he became the target of numerous antisemitic insults.
Ballin was the architect of a tightly organized migration system, which most eastern Europeans on their way to the United States could not bypass. The system was a result of HAPAG’s close cooperation with the Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping company headquartered in Bremen and the Prussian government. Social Democrats considered it scandalous that migrants were not allowed to cross Prussia on their own, but instead were forced to travel with either HAPAG or Lloyd at an exaggerated price. Kaliski sought to prove that HAPAG systematically exploited eastern Europeans on their way to North America and secretly cooperated with Russian authorities. Migrants were repeatedly refused passage. In late 1904, these refusals were particularly dramatic, as the Russian Empire was unsettled by political unrest and was at war with Japan. Jewish migrants fled from a surge of anti-Jewish violence while young men tried to evade conscription into the military. In case of a rejection, draft dodgers were faced with draconian punishment. Kaliski, who himself was of Jewish origin, put on a disguise in order to get a glimpse of “Ballin’s darkroom.”
The background for Kaliski’s report was the increasing migration from eastern Europe to the United States after 1880 and especially in the years after 1900. While Russian authorities made legal emigration difficult, they did little to hinder the mass migration of Jews, Poles, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians. Checks along the extensive land border with Prussia were superficial and easy to evade with the help of smugglers. The Prussian government was unable to effectively police its extensive eastern border. While the number of migrants classified as “undesirable” upon their arrival in American ports remained small prior to 1914, repatriating Russian subjects in particular was difficult since most of them had left their homeland illegally and did not have enough money for the return trip. As the country of transit bordering on the Russian empire, Prussia usually had to organize and finance their repatriation.
In the 1880s, the two leading German shipping companies, HAPAG and Lloyd, successfully developed the lucrative eastern European passenger market. They profited from Imperial Germany’s convenient geographical location since eastern Europeans had to cross it on their way to the North Sea ports. In 1887, Ballin succeeded at assuaging the concerns of the Berlin government. HAPAG and Lloyd pledged to cover all costs for passengers denied entry into the United States. Hamburg’s 1892 cholera epidemic lead to a reorganization of transit migration from eastern Europe. In 1893, American authorities stipulated disinfection and several days of quarantine for all Russian migrants in their European port of departure. Following lengthy negotiations between Ballin, Heinrich Wiegand, Lloyd’s general director, and the Prussian government, the latter eventually agreed to a factual privatization of the previously sketchy border controls at its eastern border. HAPAG and Lloyd established “checkpoints” at the most vital railroad border crossings, where all migrants had to undergo disinfection and a medical examination in compliance with the provisions of American immigration law. The model for these checkpoints was the “migrants’ station” at Ruhleben near Berlin mentioned by Kaliski, where migrants had been kept isolated from the population since 1891. Following the Hamburg cholera epidemic in 1892, they were also examined and disinfected. The checkpoint system cemented the monopoly on the eastern European migrant market held by the two German shipping lines. The Social Democrats were among the early critics of this system and HAPAG’s anti-union policy.
In the mid-1890s, Ballin organized a cartel of the most important transatlantic shipping lines, the North Atlantic Steamship Association Nordatlantischer Dampfer-Linien-Verband. HAPAG and Lloyd granted their competitors a symbolic share in the lucrative eastern European market. The formation of this cartel meant that migrants had to pay inflated prices for their passage to North America. In 1901, HAPAG’s migrant facilities in Hamburg-Veddel began operations. This modern complex located at the port’s southern periphery isolated especially Russian migrants from the city’s population. At the same time, migrants enjoyed a relatively high level of comfort and were protected from swindlers. Even Kaliski admitted that HAPAG’s modern migrant facilities differed vastly from the run-down facilities at the eastern border. The cartel broke up in early 1904, however, and a massive price war ensued between HAPAG and Lloyd on one side and the British Cunard-Line on the other. HAPAG and Lloyd employees at Prussia’s eastern border systematically turned away migrants with Cunard tickets although they were in compliance with American immigration rules. Among those turned away were many Jews and draft dodgers. With the exception of Vorwärts and the SPD Reichstag faction, the German public ignored this practice for several months, even when it became known that HAPAG supported the Russian navy with coal shipments during the Russo-Japanese War. Revelations about Russia’s cooperation with HAPAG seemed to confirm the accusations made by the Social Democrats. The St. Petersburg government was considered the epitome of “barbaric despotism” not just by the Social Democratic public. Leading representatives of Jewish communities in Germany, western Europe, and the United States held the Russian government responsible for a surge of brutal anti-Jewish attacks.
It wasn’t until October 1904 that the liberal press, including the Berliner Tageblatt, openly started criticizing HAPAG and Lloyd for their rejection of Russian migrants. Speaking for the Aid Organization of German Jews Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden, German-Jewish publicist Paul Nathan publicly held Ballin responsible for the treatment of Russian migrants. While HAPAG had basically ignored the Social Democrats’ criticism, the attacks by liberal newspapers and by Nathan effected a change of mind. After a meeting between leading members of the Hilfsverein and Ballin, the policy of rejecting Cunard passengers at the eastern border was reversed. Cunard came to an agreement with the German shipping lines and eventually rejoined the cartel in 1904.
Calling himself “Joel Kalischer,” Kaliski embarked on his journey in early December, shortly after the end of the conflict with the Cunard-Line. Vorwärts intended to show that a return to normalcy had by no means taken place. Kaliski’s criticism of border controls by private companies was sound. However, it is quite likely that the Prussian authorities would have carried out much more rigorous border checks than the shipping companies, who had an interest in transporting as many migrants as possible. Kaliski’s judgment that disinfection procedures at the checkpoints were humiliating and chaotic as well as ineffective is valid as well. His report demonstrates the unfriendly and unconscionable treatment of migrants during transit. Their strict isolation is indeed evocative of prison transports: “They are not prisoners in custody but ‘voluntary’ passengers of the Hamburg-America line, who are forcibly confined.” Vorwärts, January 5, 1905: “Sie sind keine Untersuchungsgefangene, sondern ‘freiwillige’Passagiere der Hamburg-Amerika-Linie, die man der Freiheit beraubt.” Like Mary Antin, Kaliski was moved by the migrants’ fascination while their train passed through Berlin: “The bright light is greeted like the appearance of a better future, and some Jews call in an almost devout manner: “Jetzt wird’s lichtig!” [“Now all will be bright!”] Vorwärts, December 27, 1904 (“On the migrant train”). The sealed train did not stop until it had left Berlin and reached Ruhleben, where the migrants were once again examined by a physician. In the end, Kaliski was not able to prove any major infractions against existing law on HAPAG’s part. His polemical and sarcastic tone can be explained by the target audience for his articles. Supporters of Social Democracy were generally opposed to capitalism and had little sympathy for the governments in Prussia and Hamburg, which were not fully democratically legitimized due to the existing class-based electoral system. In an internal memorandum dated January 14, 1905, Hamburg police inspector Kiliszewski, who had performed a check on Kaliski at the migrant facility in December, called the articles “imagination and exaggeration.” Memorandum by Kiliszewski, January 14, 1905, “Der Redakteur des Vorwärts, Julius Kaliski,” II E III P 45, Auswanderungsamt, 373-I, Staatsarchiv Hamburg. The files in the archives of the Auswanderungsamt Emigration Office and the reports written by the Aid Organization of German Jews Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden show that migrants did indeed have the right to file complaints and that they made use of it. Thus Kaliski’s articles are valuable less for their commentary than for their detailed observations, for example those of the transport and the frightening disinfection procedure at Tilsit.
The articles also provide an insight into everyday antisemitism in Imperial Germany. For Kaliski implicitly accused Ballin of not showing enough sympathy for his fellow Jews from eastern Europe. Both his articles and the extremely critical coverage of Ballin in Vorwärts raise the question whether the newspaper inadvertently supported the antisemitic agitation against Ballin. While it is true that Ballin’s transit system meant huge profits for HAPAG, the shipping line also opened the doors to North America for many people from eastern Europe who otherwise would have been rejected by the authorities or who would not even have had the opportunity to buy tickets for the passage to America. The disinfection procedures and medical examination were primarily meant to assuage the concerns of American authorities. Indeed, American representatives repeatedly praised the German migrant transit system. Inflated ticket prices and rough treatment of migrants notwithstanding, passengers of HAPAG and Lloyd had a much better chance at passing the health checks at Ellis Island than the passengers of most other shipping lines did.
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Tobias Brinkmann (Thematic Focus: Migration), Dr. phil., is Malvin and Lea Bank Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History in the Department of History at Penn State University. His research interests focus on the history of migration, especially Jewish migration from Central and Eastern Europe to North America.
Tobias Brinkmann, “On the Road with Ballin—Experiences Made by a Russian Emigrant” (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-169.en.v1> [April 21, 2021].