People were motivated to emigrate by dissatisfaction with living conditions at home and by the hope of more favourable circumstances. During the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period, there were phases of relative overpopulation in Germany. The existing cultivated land was insufficient to feed the rural population. The younger sons were obliged to leave their parents' smallholdings. The proportion of emigrants was especially high in regions where properties were divided equally among all heirs by law, resulting in ever smaller farms over the generations. Heavy taxation and the obligation to serve in the army made people more willing to try their luck elsewhere. After the Reformation, the desire to worship freely led whole religious communities to emigrate as a group.
Rulers had been attracting settlers onto their land by granting them privileges since the Middle Ages. Among these were a fixed period of exemption from taxes, freedom of religion, exemption from military service and the privilege of living according to their own laws and customs. In the 18th century, settlers were provided not only with land, but also with house-building materials, seed corn and animals. Conditions at the destination, however, often failed to live up to the promises made.
In the Middle Ages, the resettlement of people willing to emigrate lay in the hands of location agents. These men were commissioned by rulers and regional lords. Acting at their own risk, they had to arrange the recruitment, care and transport of the settlers. They were also responsible for measuring and allotting plots of land in the new settlement area. In return, they and their descendents were granted tithe-free land, positions and privileges, such as the office of mayor, or a licence to sell victuals. Some places were even named after location agents, for example, Hermannstadt in Transylvania.
In the 18th century, recruitment was organised by government authorities of the absolutist states. Austria and Russia both had recruitment bureaus in the German cities of Frankfurt-am-Main and Ulm. Advertisements singing the praises of potential destinations were placed in the newspapers. Location agents were not welcome in the German principalities, as no ruler wished to lose any industrious subjects. Only the poor were readily allowed to leave. Some princes imposed exit bans and issued warnings against having unduly high expectations. In some areas, those wanting to emigrate could purchase permission to go. They were then given passports. Arrangements even existed, at this early date, for cashless financial transfer between individual states, in cases such as inheritance.
The journeys taken by emigrants were long, unsafe and arduous. Little is known about the exact routes and itineraries followed by mediaeval migrants to eastern Europe. In the Baltic region, wealthy merchants travelled by boat. Peasants mostly came overland. The roads were bad and the journey could take many weeks, even months.
More detailed information is available about conditions in the 18th century. The main route taken by emigrants to south-eastern Europe and the Black Sea region was by boat along the River Danube. People from south-western Germany gathered in family groups and so-called 'emigration societies' in the city of Ulm. Some groups had an early-Christian communal character, so that the poorer members were often helped with their travelling costs. The first stage of their journey took place on lightweight wooden barges around twenty metres in length. These carried up to 150 people. In Vienna, the passengers transferred to river boats for the remainder of the journey down the Danube. In spite of epidemics, shipwrecks and extreme heat or cold, most emigrants made it through the middle Danube region and arrived at the Russian border.
Monasteries played a very important part in the cultivation and settlement of thinly populated regions throughout Europe. During the High Middle Ages, the Cistercian order played a significant part in establishing settlements and clearing large areas of land. The rules of the order prescribed that monasteries be founded in remote, unpopulated areas and the land improved for cultivation. The order’s heyday coincided with German settlement in eastern Europe. Many of its monasteries in Bohemia were founded by monks from the ‘mother house’ in Bavaria, while those in Poland were founded by monasteries located in eastern Germany. The Cistercians expanded eastwards as far as the Baltic Sea and Transylvania. The monks were given land by local lords, who hoped that this would benefit their souls. In the monasteries’ wake came settlers. Although the Cistercian order had originated in France, it was a Europe-wide institution, in which a person's nationality was irrelevant. Decisions about founding new monasteries were made at the annual meeting of the General Chapter at Citeaux, in Burgundy. To found a new monastery, one abbot and twelve monks were sent, who might have quite different origins. Most monasteries were home to monks from many different countries.