Background: I've been doing some digging on nineteenth century trade, and so far have found this list of Britain's major imports to be an extremely helpful big picture guide. Sadly, I've yet to google up anything both as straightforward and comprehensive on France and Germany in the same century, which are my other two areas of interest.

Question: Could somebody please give me a run-down of the major French and (post-unification) German imports and exports for the latter half of the 19th century? Relating that list to their colonies and biggest trading partners would also be much appreciated, but isn't necessary for an answer.

  • 2
  • 3
    Pre-1870 it is going to difficult to find data from Germany, because it was still divided in a lot of different countries; not only data will be more disperse but its meaning will change (buying coal from Prussia to send it to Baviera would have been an import and an export before 1870, but just internal trade after that).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 7:54
  • 2
    @ SJuan76: That's fair, I should have been more specific. Let's say that the German half of my question is primarily about the period after unification. If anyone also wants to offer information about the pre-unification German states, then the area of focus becomes Prussia.
    – Random
    Commented Jul 19, 2017 at 15:34

2 Answers 2


There were two key themes of French-German trade in the 19th century. One was the iron and steel trade that tended eastward, toward Germany, and the other was the textile/apparel trade that trended west toward France. The Alsace-Lorraine was important to both sets of trade.

Regarding the iron and steel trade, France was long on iron and short of coal. Germany had little iron and a lot of coal. Germany started in a better position because it takes several tons of coal (fuel) to "smelt" one ton of iron. So it made more sense for Germany to import iron from France (rather than France to import coal from Germany). Germany was in an even better position when she captured France's Lorraine in 1871, a major source of iron, at which time this source became "domestic" rather than "imported." The resulting strength of the steel industry in Germany supported growth in related industries such as banking, chemicals, electrical goods, and railroads.

The industrial development of France moved in the other direction; toward luxury consumer goods such as wines, cheeses, and apparel. Key to the latter was the textile industry of Alsace, which was French until 1871, and German thereafter (until 1918), from where France imported many of her textiles.

One can get an idea of the different emphases of the French and Germany economies by looking at the export companies that were founded around the mid-19th century. French companies founded at this time include luxury goods manufacturers, Hermes and Louis Vuitton. German companies founded around that time included Siemens, the "GE" of Germany, and BASF and Bayer, the chemical companies.

The German industrialization model was far closer to Britain's, with Germany (and America) overtaking, then surpassing Britain in steel, chemicals, and electrical goods by 1915. Germany was comparable to Britain in railroads, and somewhat weaker in finance. But it competed with Britain and America in providing capital goods to modernizing European countries in the eastern and southern parts of the continent.

France had a narrow set of goods, but its predominance in luxury goods was more global (even perhaps, to this day). That's because it had fewer directly competitors. In Renaissance times, "Italy" (or Italian states) competed with France in the luxury goods area (and Italy does so today), but around 1900, France had left Italy far behind, at least until Italy caught up industrially in the late 20th century.

Unlike the UK, Germany's colonial empire hardly impacted its trade position, and France's barely more. Germany's main colonies such as German East Africa (modern Tanzania), German West Africa (Cameroons), and German Southwest Africa (Namibia), were established in the late 19th century (1880s), and were not particularly rich. France's colonial claim to fame was Algeria, colonized around 1830 (other possessions in Africa and Indochina came much later). Neither of them had any colonies like Britain's India, which exported opium to China and cotton to Britain, South Africa, with its wealth of gold and diamonds, or Australia, one of the world's richest countries per capita, despite an agriculture based economy. All of these British colonies had been established earlier than the late 19th century.


The US National Bureau of Economic Research has some published several datasets with details of foreign trade for France and Germany (also for the UK and US) that cover part of the period you're interested in.

For France, digitised versions of the Annuaire statistique are available online, as are a series of datasets from La Statistique Générale de la France. Both of these contain information on French foreign trade.

For Germany, there is Historische Datenbank (Lehrstuhl für Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, Universität Münster) which provides access to a wide selection of historical statistics on the economic history of Germany (including foreign trade) since 1850. To access these datasets, you need to download the excel file on the download link (which contains the index) and then click on the link for a particular dataset in the Excel worksheet to get the statistics.

There is also a new dataset that has been collated by the European Historical Economics Society. The information in the Appendix might give the "big picture" overview of the imports and exports that you are looking for.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.