German Passport History and Borders (1/4)

German Passport History & Borders: Martin Luther

In 1521, Martin Luther is on his way from Eisenach to Worms, 400 kilometers away. There he had to appear before the Diet of the Holy Roman Empire. He had a letter from the emperor with him on this journey. History German Passports Travel

We, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor by the grace of God, confess that we have promised Martin Luther our safety and the safety of the Holy Empire. Martin Luther had stirred up the Church and the faithful with his critical writings.

Geleitbrief Luther 1521
Safe Conduct for Martin Luther, Emperor Karl V, 1521

Nevertheless, the emperor’s letter of safe conduct was intended to enable him to travel safely. In it, Charles V addresses all electors, counts, free lords, knights, servants and all other subjects that the monk will encounter on his journey through the numerous dominions.

Under penalty of punishment, he orders Martin Luther to leave. Not to offend, nor to grieve, nor to allow anyone else to do so, nor to be dear to anyone in any way. A standardized passport, as is common today, did not exist during Martin Luther’s lifetime.

Safe Conduct Letters History German Passports Travel

Letters of escort were composed individually for each journey and written by hand. They often said more about the goods being transported than about the travelers themselves. A letter from the emperor was one of the most powerful documents at the time.

However, those who could afford it also used the regional power and prominence of dukes, bishops and mayors to travel safely. And they made good money doing so.

Albrecht Dürer

The painter Albrecht Dürer experienced this on his journey from Nuremberg to the Netherlands in 1520. He carried his already famous works of art with him. In Bamberg, Dürer presented the bishop with two series of engravings and a large-format painting. After paying two gold guilders to the bishop’s chancellery, he received several letters.

Expensive Customs Fees History German Passports Travel

He was allowed to pass through all customs offices up to Frankfurt am Main free of charge. Like my customs letter, they let me go. Dürer noted in his diary. Things got expensive again on the Rhine. Two gold guilders were due shortly after Mainz in Ehrenfels.

And again just a few kilometers downstream in Bacharach. 10 km further on in St. Goa, Dürer refuses to pay again. But I say I won’t give him any money. Letters of transit and customs offices are medieval methods of regulating mobility.

Control over people

on the move is an age-old desire of the authorities. Sedentariness was considered normal and desirable. For the rulers of Europe, people were subjects who had to be in their own place.

Freedom of movement

I.e. the right to determine one’s own place of residence and whereabouts, did not exist. If you wanted to travel, you needed enough money or a good reason. Nevertheless, far more people were mobile than is often assumed, says Marta Vata, Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Tübingen. History German Passports Travel

It is always assumed that people were hardly ever on the move. And only those people were on the move who may have had money, such as aristocratic students who wanted to attend universities abroad or aristocrats who were on educational trips or visited other courts.

Substantial mobility within the lower economic classes

But there was also an enormous mobility of people who belonged to the lower classes, such as migrant workers. Travelling craftsmen, day laborers, tinkers, scissor grinders, mobile traders, entertainers and bathers, the group of itinerants is large.

Homelessness History German Passports Travel

The legal historian Karl Härter estimates that up to 10% of the population in Central Europe could have lived on the streets permanently or temporarily in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nevertheless, the states were nowhere near achieving absolute control; consequently, the less affluent segment of the population, in particular, sought to evade detection when traveling without authorization.

Part 2

Joseph Fenwick – First consular post in US History

FAQ Passport History
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1. What are the earliest known examples of passports, and how have they evolved?

The word "passport" came up only in the mid 15th Century. Before that, such documents were safe conducts, recommendations or protection letters. On a practical aspect, the earliest passport I have seen was from the mid 16th Century. Read more...

2. Are there any notable historical figures or personalities whose passports are highly sought after by collectors?

Every collector is doing well to define his collection focus, and yes, there are collectors looking for Celebrity passports and travel documents of historical figures like Winston Churchill, Brothers Grimm, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Read more...

3. How did passport designs and security features change throughout different periods in history, and what impact did these changes have on forgery prevention?

"Passports" before the 18th Century had a pure functional character. Security features were, in the best case, a watermark and a wax seal. Forgery, back then, was not an issue like it is nowadays. Only from the 1980s on, security features became a thing. A state-of-the-art passport nowadays has dozens of security features - visible and invisible. Some are known only by the security document printer itself. Read more...

4. What are some of the rarest and most valuable historical passports that have ever been sold or auctioned?

Lou Gehrig, Victor Tsoi, Marilyn Monroe, James Joyce, and Albert Einstein when it comes to the most expensive ones. Read more...

5. How do diplomatic passports differ from regular passports, and what makes them significant to collectors?

Such documents were often held by officials in high ranks, like ambassadors, consuls or special envoys. Furthermore, these travel documents are often frequently traveled. Hence, they hold a tapestry of stamps or visas. Partly from unusual places.

6. Can you provide insights into the stories behind specific historical passports that offer unique insights into past travel and migration trends?

A passport tells the story of its bearer and these stories can be everything - surprising, sad, vivid. Isabella Bird and her travels (1831-1904) or Mary Kingsley, a fearless Lady explorer.

7. What role did passports play during significant historical events, such as wartime travel restrictions or international treaties?

During war, a passport could have been a matter of life or death. Especially, when we are looking into WWII and the Holocaust. And yes, during that time, passports and similar documents were often forged to escape and save lives. Example...

8. How has the emergence of digital passports and biometric identification impacted the world of passport collecting?

Current modern passports having now often a sparkling, flashy design. This has mainly two reasons. 1. Improved security and 2. Displaying a countries' heritage, icons, and important figures or achievements. I can fully understand that those modern documents are wanted, especially by younger collectors.

9. Are there any specialized collections of passports, such as those from a specific country, era, or distinguished individuals?

Yes, the University of Western Sidney Library has e.g. a passport collection of the former prime minister Hon Edward Gough Whitlam and his wife Margaret. They are all diplomatic passports and I had the pleasure to apprise them. I hold e.g. a collection of almost all types of the German Empire passports (only 2 types are still missing). Also, my East German passport collection is quite extensive with pretty rare passport types.

10. Where can passport collectors find reliable resources and reputable sellers to expand their collection and learn more about passport history?

A good start is eBay, Delcampe, flea markets, garage or estate sales. The more significant travel documents you probably find at the classic auction houses. Sometimes I also offer documents from my archive/collection. See offers... As you are already here, you surely found a great source on the topic 😉

Other great sources are: Scottish Passports, The Nansen passport, The secret lives of diplomatic couriers

11. Is vintage passport collecting legal? What are the regulations and considerations collectors should know when acquiring historical passports?

First, it's important to stress that each country has its own laws when it comes to passports. Collecting old vintage passports for historical or educational reasons is safe and legal, or at least tolerated. More details on the legal aspects are here...

Does this article spark your curiosity about passport collecting and the history of passports? With this valuable information, you have a good basis to start your own passport collection.

Question? Contact me...