Immigration and the Diffusion of Technology: The Huguenot Diaspora in Prussia

Erik Hornung

American Economic Review, Volume 104, Issue 1 (2014), Pages 84–122


This paper examines the long-term impact of the forced migration of French Protestants (Huguenots) from France to Brandenburg-Prussia in 1685. The author estimates the impact of the Huguenots refugees on the productivity of textile manufactories in Prussia more than a century later. In 1685, approximately 200,000 French Protestants (Huguenots) fled religious persecution in France and settled in neighboring Protestant countries. Approximately 16,000 to 20,000 Huguenots fled to Brandenburg-Prussia, with a population of 1.5 million at the time, and were settled in Prussian towns that had suffered large population losses during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), as shown in the map below. The Huguenots were, on average, more skilled than the native population; they tended to be well educated and had been employed in skilled occupations in France, in particular in the textile sector. Moreover, from 1686 unskilled Huguenot workers were refused entry into Brandenburg-Prussia. Skilled Huguenot immigrants found work in Prussian textile manufactories that had been depleted of workers due to war and disease.

To address the potential endogeneity of immigrants choosing to settle in towns with better economic conditions, the author employs an instrumental variables (IV) approach: using the population losses during the Thirty Years’ War (arguably exogenous to a town’s economic conditions) as an instrument. The analysis is based on Huguenot immigration lists from 1700 (disaggregated by town) and Prussian firm-level data from 1802 detailing input and output for all 750 textile manufactories operating at the time.

The empirical analysis demonstrates that textile manufactories in towns hosting a higher share of Huguenot refugees in 1700 achieved higher levels of output and employed more technology in 1802. Despite the possibility of knowledge diffusion to towns that did not receive Huguenot refugees, the impact of knowledge transfers is still observable in the original host towns more than 100 years later. The effect is limited to textile manufacturing, the industry that was the main field of occupation among Huguenot refugees.

The author argues that any productivity gain from immigration during this historical period is most likely due to direct interpersonal transfers of knowledge and technology to the local population as well as intergenerational transfers of knowledge, given that indirect communication (e.g. written and electronic media) was negligible in this era.

The author concludes that the immigration of highly-skilled Huguenots led to technological diffusion and knowledge transfer between Huguenots and the host population, which led to long-term productivity increases in the textile sector. The findings demonstrate the potential long-run benefits of immigration, which overcome any short-run frictions within 100 years.

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