The Cultural Amnesia of German-Americans

My reading lately has been varied, by which I mean I’ve been jumping between many books without finishing any of them, but I’ll finish them all eventually. This jumble of reading has my mind in a jumble. I was also doing some genealogical research, actually for someone else’s family as a favor to a friend. Looking at this other person’s family reminded me of my own family with lots of German ancestry. The German aspect came up in my reading as well.

Thinking about this other guy’s family, I was reminded of how much German ancestry there is in the American population. It is the single largest ethnicity in the entire country. What is odd is how invisible is the German influence.

In a post a while back, I wrote about a few books related to American whites, two of which were about specific ethnic populations. One book focused on the Scots-Irish and the other on the Irish. These two cultures have received a lot of attention and they are in many ways very visible cultures. Even if not English, they are still British and so they more easily fit into the standard narrative of America. German immigrant culture fundamentally undermines this simplistic narrative in a way no other ethnicity is capable of doing. Yet I know of no book about German Americans that is equivalent to the many books on the Scots-Irish and Irish.

A little over a century ago, German culture was the complete opposite of invisible. The German language was widely spoken in the US, second only to English. In German majority cities, public schools were taught in German and the newspapers were printed in German. Now, the only viable surviving German culture and language is that of the Amish, and it has survived for the reason the Amish isolated themselves from the changing world around them.

Germans were among the earliest settlers, the British government offloading German refugees onto ships heading for various colonies and plantations. In the American colonies, Germans even formed their own separate communities early on. The influence of Germans only increased over time with several massive waves of German immigrants in the 19th century. The sewer socialism and progressivism emerging out of the early Midwest was mostly the result of German ideas. Germans loved promoting projects for the public good such as public education, even as they mistrusted the federal government and the often nativist populations surrounding them.

The nativism is where I’ve gained a foothold of understanding. The Republican Party arose partly out of the support of the Know-Nothings who were anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, the former being especially directed at the sizable German population. Non-English immigrants were initially wary of the Republican Party for good reason and non-English immigrants to this day are wary of the Republican Party for good reason.

Nonetheless, the Republican president Lincoln wouldn’t have been able to win the Civil War without the large ethnic immigrant influx that gave the North a population advantage, not to mention the quality of immigrant was very high with Germans on average being more well-trained and well-educated than the average non-German American, specifically more well-trained in fighting modern warfare as many were political dissidents fleeing revolutionary wars against empire. Many of Lincoln’s administration and military leadership were German immigrants and even more were soldiers in his army.

Much of the political foment following the Civil War involved the German population or was in reaction to the German population. Germans fought for workers’ rights and farmers’ rights, the two coming together within the Populist movement. Germans fought against corporatocracy in the way they fought against empire back in Europe. More importantly, they won many of the political battles they fought and we today benefit from their struggle such as with the 8 hour work day and 5 day work week (try working every waking moment continuously 7 days a week and then tell me you aren’t grateful for their struggle and sacrifice). On the other side, Prohibition and Sunday laws were partly enacted in order to control the influence of ethnic immigrants such as Germans and Irish who were fond of their drink.

The ugliness of nativism became a central issue on the national stage when World War I began. The media of the day portrayed Germans as being vile and dangerous which led to mobs forming and many Germans dying. Also, the Germanic culture was nearly eliminated. German newspapers were censored, German names of buildings and streets were changed, German traditions were attacked, and German-Americans experienced political and economic oppression. They were arrested, imprisoned, and deported. They had hard time finding work. Their formerly influential culture suddenly became a liability. Along with the impact of World War II, nearly all traces of German heritage had been eliminated. Many German-Americans experienced a cultural forgetting that scoured the German culture from the collective memory of American history.

There was only one saving grace that helped some minor German identity to survive. The German refugees escaping the Nazis included many of the greatest intellectuals of their day. These German intellectuals gained employment in the arts and education. Slowly, German-American culture has been rehabilitated in correspondence with the German nation itself being rebuilt after WWII. It is no longer shameful to be of German descent, but the living culture in America was nonetheless destroyed beyond repair. The only thing left are a few German newspapers and the popular German festivals involving beer drinking.

This saddens me as so much of my ancestry is German, on both sides of my family. My German ancestry goes back for centuries in American history. But my family has complete amnesia about its Germanic past. America as we know it wouldn’t exist without the German influence. It’s hard to imagine what America would be like if Germans hadn’t been around to help win the Civil War or to help America live up to its democratic promise.

3 thoughts on “The Cultural Amnesia of German-Americans

  1. In doing further research, I did find some more books on German-Americans. However, I don’t get the sense that there are as many popular books about the subject. Most are out of print and few are available in e-book format.

    Anyway, as a review of one book, Robert Fishman made an excellent comment:

    “One thing that strikes me as unusual about German-Americans (as opposed to many other immigrant groups) is how they are fragmented into many sub-groups (i.e., Amish, Mennonites, Forty Eighters, etc.) In my view, this made it hard for German-Americans to form a cohesive group in the way that other immigrants did (i.e., the Irish).”

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