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University of Windsor

Canada's early growth inspired German expansion, historian says

Rob Nelson had the epiphany every historian dreams of about five years ago while going through archives in Marburg, Germany.

It altered his research career and led to his belief that the roots of German attempts at colonization in Eastern Europe that ultimately led to two world wars may have found their inspiration in Canada’s expansion into the western prairies.

Dr. Nelson's epiphany came while the UWindsor history professor read an obituary about Max Sering, an agrarian economics professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin, who died in 1939. The obituary acknowledged that Sering—the prominent architect of an inner-colonization effort that saw millions of Germans paid to settle and farm in German-controlled sections of what now belongs to Poland—envisioned Germany’s future in the east while studying in the prairies of North America.

“This was a fall-off-the-chair moment for a historian,” Nelson said.

Since then, he has been trying to absorb as much information as possible about the six-month fact finding mission to North America that Sering was sent on in 1883. He has read numerous letters Sering wrote home to German authorities about how Canadians were given plots of land to settle in western provinces.

Sering came to believe that Germany ought to implement the same plans in its eastern territories in order to stem the emigration of Germans to North America.

Nelson's work has landed him a Humboldt Research Fellowship for Experienced Researchers, a $144,000 award that will allow him to spend 22 months poring through federal archives in Germany over the next three years. He’ll travel to Koblenz for access to all of Sering’s personal papers and to Berlin, where he’ll study documents about German colonization.

Nelson said he will eventually write a book based on the information he collects from his research.

History professor Rob Nelson will spend 22 months in Germany researching his theories tracing the roots of German attempts at colonization of Eastern Europe to European settlement of Canada's prairies.