Lithuania, Poland and Volhynia have been closely linked with one another throughout history. Germans came to live in these regions during the early days of statehood in Polish and Lithuanian territories. In the second partition of Poland in 1793, central Poland was taken by Prussia. In 1815, it was awarded to the Russian Empire as part of 'Congress Poland'. In order to stimulate economic recovery after the Napoleonic Wars, the Prussian administration and, subsequently, Polish landowners and the government of Congress Poland, invited German-speaking clothmakers and weavers from Swabia, Baden, Silesia, Saxony and Bohemia, amongst other places. Łódź, where there had been a settlement since the 14th century, developed into the centre of an internationally important textile manufacturing region.
In the 1830s, mechanical looms were introduced to central Poland; artisan weavers and master clothmakers working by hand were no match for the huge new factories and lost much work. Łódź did not prove to be a 'promised land' for everyone. Many people emigrated to Volhynia, which had fallen to Russia in the second partition of Poland in 1793. Volhynia experienced the largest influxes of German craftsmen and farmers in the 1830s and the 1860s.
The first Germans arrived in Lithuania in the 14th century. They mostly occupied trading posts for partners from neighbouring Baltic regions and so gained little influence. In the centuries that followed, Lithuanian noblemen specifically addressed German farmers when inviting settlers to cultivate their lands. Other Germans made their own way to the areas bordering Prussia, in the hope of escaping poverty. In 1860, Lithuania began to industrialise: a significant contribution was made by German workers who emigrated there during the second half of the 19th century.
Many Polish towns and cities, among them the capital Kraków, had a high proportion of Germans in their population as early as the Middle Ages. In the 19th century, the region around Łódź attracted immigrants from all over Europe, among them Germans from Bohemia, Moravia, Saxony, Silesia, West Prussia, Posen (Poznań), Hesse, the Rhineland, Westphalia and Thuringia. Around 1820, a number of central Polish municipalities were designated 'factory towns' by decree. Among them was Łódź, which overtook Dombie (Dąbie), Ozorków and Zgierz, the traditional textile centres of the region, in the 1830s. In 1817, Friedrich Schlösser from the Rhineland had established central Poland's first large textile business in Ozorków. In Łódź, it was Carl Scheibler who played a key role in developing the town into a centre of the Polish textile industry.
Under the terms of the Zgierz Agreement of 1821, anyone opening a textile factory in Łódź received not only free land, loans and tax relief, but also a say in local politics, exemption from military service and permission to found societies to maintain cultural traditions. Between 1870 and 1914, industrialisation progressed rapidly in the region, favoured by a receptive Russian market, the adoption of west European technology and the influx of cheap labour. Between 1810 and 1827, there were some 50,000 Germans in Congress Poland, almost three-quarters of whom lived in the industrial region around Łódź.
In the Middle Ages, Volhynia belonged to Lithuania, and later to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In 1795, it fell to the Russian Empire; today it lies in the north-western Ukraine. The area had contacts with German regions from the Middle Ages onwards. In the 19th century, a large number of ethnic German craftsmen and farmers came to Volhynia from Silesia, Pomerania, Posen, East Prussia and West Prussia. Many left central Poland because of the mechanisation of the textile industry and after the Polish November Uprising of 1831.
The rate of immigration increased after the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861. The reforms provided a legal basis for leasing and buying real estate, leading to an increased demand for labour. In addition to this came the ethnic Germans fleeing to Russia from the second Polish insurrection of 1863/64. Whereas settlement programs in other regions of the Russian Empire were state-sponsored, the initiative in Volhynia was taken by landowners. The German immigrants founded self-governing colonies of farmers and craftsmen there, introducing innovations in handicrafts, livestock and crop farming
Beginning in the 1880s, the Russian government attempted to slow the influx by rescinding the many special rights accorded to ethnic Germans. Although many emigrated overseas, the German community in Volhynia continued to grow, peaking at almost 210,000 in 1914.
In the 19th century, Lithuania was part of the Russian Empire. It did not lie on the main transportation routes and it was economically underdeveloped. The region lacked skilled workers. In 1851, construction work began on a railway link between Warsaw and Saint Petersburg, including a branch line from the latter to Kaunas in Lithuania. This meant that Lithuania, too, was connected to the west European metropolises of Berlin and Paris. The luxurious Nord Express ran on the Paris-Saint Petersburg line. Skilled workers and engineers from Germany were recruited especially for construction of this important link; they were joined later by workers from East Prussia. Since the Russian railway system used a broader gauge track, the trains halted in the Prussian town of Eydtkuhnen (Chernyshevskoye) for the rolling stock to be switched.
In the course of construction, a colony of German railway workers grew up on the border with East Prussia (and therefore the German Empire) at Wirballen (Kybartai), where German customs officials also lived. German transportation firms based facilities there, which attracted other German workers and their families. In Kaunas, two German iron industry factories were set up, which mostly employed German labour. Around 1900, some 4,500 Germans were living in Kaunas.