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German Americans

The German immigrant story is a long one—a story of early beginnings, continual growth, and steadily spreading influence. Germans were among the first Europeans to make their homes in the New World, and are among the United States' most recent arrivals. They were aboard the first boats that came ashore at Jamestown, and they built the rockets that took men to the moon. In the years in between, they moved into nearly every corner of the U.S., tried their hand at nearly every trade and pursuit, and helped shape the fundamental institutions of American life.

Though they endured their share of hardship, they escaped much of the tragedy and harsh treatment that plagued many immigrant groups. Today, more than 40 million Americans claim German ancestry—more than any other group except the British.

German immigration boomed in the 19th century. Wars in Europe and America had slowed the arrival of immigrants for several decades starting in the 1770s, but by 1830 German immigration had increased more than tenfold. From that year until World War I, almost 90 percent of all German emigrants chose the United States as their destination. Once established in their new home, these settlers wrote to family and friends in Europe describing the opportunities available in the U.S. These letters were circulated in German newspapers and books, prompting "chain migrations." By 1832, more than 10,000 immigrants arrived in the U.S. from Germany. By 1854, that number had jumped to nearly 200,000 immigrants.

For typical working people in Germany, who were forced to endure land seizures, unemployment, increased competition from British goods, and the repercussions of the failed German Revolution of 1848, prospects in the United States seemed bright. It soon became easier to leave Germany, as restrictions on emigration were eased. As steamships replaced sailing ships, the transatlantic journey became more accessible and more tolerable. As a result, more than 5 million people left Germany for the U.S. during the 19th century.

At the same time, the United States once again became a refuge for Germans fleeing persecution. Antisemitic violence in Germany and Austria-Hungary drove thousands of German Jews to emigrate. German Jews during this period were, by and large, proud of their German culture; they generally chose to speak German instead of Hebrew or Yiddish and lived together with Catholics and Lutherans in German American communities. While there were approximately 1500 European Jews living in the U.S. in 1800, there were almost 15,000 by the middle of the century.

For German Americans, the 20th century was a time of growth and consolidation; their numbers increased, their finances became more stable, and Americans of German heritage rose to positions of great power and distinction. For German American culture, however, the new century was a time of severe setbacks--and a devastating blow from which it has never fully recovered.

The coming of the Great War brought with it a backlash against German culture in the United States. When the US declared war on Germany in 1917, anti-German sentiment rose across the nation, and German American institutions came under attack. Some discrimination was hateful, but cosmetic: The names of schools, foods, streets, and towns, were often changed, and music written by Wagner and Mendelssohn was removed from concert programs and even weddings. Physical attacks, though rare, were more violent: German American businesses and homes were vandalized, and German Americans accused of being "pro-German" were tarred and feathered, and, in at least once instance, lynched.

The most pervasive damage was done, however, to German language and education. German-language newspapers were either run out of business or chose to quietly close their doors. German-language books were burned, and Americans who spoke German were threatened with violence or boycotts. German-language classes, until then a common part of the public-school curriculum, were discontinued and, in many areas, outlawed entirely. None of these institutions ever fully recovered, and the centuries-old tradition of German language and literature in the United States was pushed to the margins of national life, and in many places effectively ended.

President Woodrow Wilson spoke disapprovingly of "hyphenated Americans" whose loyalty he claimed was divided. One government official warned that "Every citizen must declare himself American--or traitor." Many German Americans struggled with their feelings, realizing that sympathy for their homeland appeared to conflict with loyalty to the US.

Some German Americans reacted by overtly defending their loyalty to the United States. Others changed the names of their businesses, and sometimes even their own names, in an attempt to conceal German ties and to disappear into mainstream America. Ironically, and contrary to Wilson's opinion about divided loyalties, thousands of German Americans fought to defend America in World War I, led by German American John J. Pershing, whose family had long before changed their name from Pfoerschin.

Fifteen years later, the shadows of a new war brought another surge in immigration. When Germany's Nazi party came to power in 1933, it triggered a significant exodus of artists, scholars and scientists, as Germans and other Europeans fled the coming storm. Most eminent among this group was a pacifist Jewish scientist named Albert Einstein.

Anti-German feelings arose again during World War II, but they were not as powerful as they had been during the first World War. The loyalty of German Americans was not questioned as virulently. Dwight Eisenhower, a descendant of the Pennsylvania Dutch and future president of the United States, commanded U.S. troops in Europe. Two other German Americans, Admiral Chester Nimitz of the United States Navy and General Carl Spaatz of the Army Air Corps, were by Eisenhower's side and played key roles in the struggle against Nazi Germany.

World War II, industrial expansion, and Americanization efforts reinforced the cultural assimilation of many German Americans. After the war, one more surge of German immigrants arrived in the United States, as survivors of the conflict sought to escape its grim aftermath. These new arrivals were extremely diverse in their political viewpoints, their financial status, and their religious beliefs, and settled throughout the U.S.

German immigration to the United States continues to this day, though at a slower pace than in the past, carrying on a tradition of cultural enrichment over 400 years old—a tradition that has helped shape much of what today is considered to be quintessentially American.





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Page last modified: 11-09-2017 16:25:19 ZULU