German Americans

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developed but not approved.
Main Article
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable, developed Main Article is subject to a disclaimer.

German Americans are the largest ethnic group in the United States, with over 45 million people, comprising over a fourth of the white population. They are concentrated in the Midwest, and in eastern metropolitan areas. They comprise numerous different groups, all speaking German, and were the largest language group to immigrate to the U.S. Some arrived seeking religious or political freedom, others for economic opportunities greater than those in Germany, and others simply for the chance to start afresh in the New World. Today California and Pennsylvania have the largest populations of German descent, with over six million Germans residing in the two states alone. The Midwest has the largest proportion of German Americans, with the group dominant in many rural areas. It is one of the two or three largest groups in many major metropolitan areas, including New York, Chicago, Baltimore and St. Louis.

Half of the Germans became farmers, with centers of settlement in southeastern Pennsylvania (where they are called "Pennsylvania Dutch"), upstate New York, central North Carolina and central Texas.

The other half went to cities, primarily port cities on the ocean (Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark, New York), on the Great Lakes (Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee), on the Ohio River (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville), or the Mississippi (St. Louis and all cities north to St. Paul). There were a few inland cities that attracted Germans, notably Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

Migration trends

During the 18th and throughout most of the 19th century Germans were usually the largest or second largest group of newcomers to the United States. Large numbers of Germans migrated into the U.S. from the 1680s to the 1760s. After a long pause, large numbers of Germans again came to the U.S. from 1840 to 1890. The four primary causes for Germans seeking a new life in America include push factors: worsening opportunities for farm ownership in Germany, persecution of some religious groups, and military conscription; and pull factors, with religious freedom and better economic conditions in the U.S., especially the chance for farmers to own land.

The Germans who settled America were culturally and religiously diverse. The immigrants were as diverse as Germany itself, except that very few aristocrats or upper middle class businessmen arrived. Over 250,000 German-speaking Swiss also arrived, 1820-1920; they had previously been mountain farmers, but most settled in rural America and sought out high quality flat lands; the 3,520 who were scattered through the mountains of Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia were the exception. Most were Reformed or Lutheran and merged into larger German communities. New Glarus, Wisconsin, originally an all-Swiss dairy town, has become a tourist center featuring the Swiss American heritage.[1]

Colonial: Pennsylvania and New York

Large sections of southeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York attracted Germans.

The first German settlement in Pennsylvania was founded in 1683. The tide of German immigration to Pennsylvania swelled between 1725 and 1775, when they comprised a third of the population. The Pennsylvania Germans were called "Pennsylvania Dutch" by English speakers who mistranslated "Deutsch" ("German") as "Dutch". They were comprised of Lutherans, Reformed, Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, and other religious sects, and they developed a rich religious life with a strong musical culture. There were few German Catholics or Jews in America before the 1830s.

The German farmers were renowned for the highly productive animal husbandry and agricultural practices. Politically, there were inactive until 1740, when they joined a Quaker-led coalition that took control of the legislature, which generally supported the American Revolution. Fries's "Rebellion" was a rural protest movement among Pennsylvania Germans in 1799 against the direct federal tax on land and houses imposed by the Federalist Party in 1798 to pay for a threatened war against France. The resistance was in part a revolt of the Kirchenleute (Pennsylvania Germans of Lutheran and German Reformed background) against the Sektenleute (members of the pacifist Moravian and Quaker denominations, whom the Federalists favored with positions as tax assessors and collectors). The leaders of the rebellion were restrained and kept the protest movement under control, even withdrawing the protesters before the movement got out of hand. Some were convicted but President John Adams gave them pardons.

Palatine migration to upstate New York was one of the largest single movements to colonial America. By 1711, for example, seven villages had been established in New York on the Robert Livingston manor. By 1750, the Germans occupied a 12 mile stretch along the left bank of the Mohawk River. The soil was excellent; some 500 houses had been built, mostly of stone; and the region prospered in spite of Indian raids. Herkimer was the best-known of the German settlements in a region long known as the "German Flats." The most famous figure was editor John Peter Zenger, who led the fight for freedom of the press in America. Later John Jacob Astor, a German immigrant from Baden, became the richest man in America from trading in furs and New York City real estate.


After the failure of the Revolutions of 1848 thousands of German patriots fled Germany to the United States, England and Australia. Among the Forty-Eighters who became notable in the US were Carl Schurz, Franz Sigel, Louis Blenker, Alexander Schimmelpfennig, and Friedrich Hecker. They formed communities within New York, St. Louis and Cincinnati, and became a prominent part of the populations of Wisconsin and Texas. Almost universally, they hated slavery and joined the Union Army in great numbers during the American Civil War.

South, Texas

A large German colony in Virginia called Germanna was located near Culpeper; it was founded by two waves of colonists in 1714 and 1717. Large settlements were formed in North Carolina, especially the Moravian town of Salem.

Texas had about 20,000 Germans in the 1850s:[2]

They included peasant farmers and intellectuals; Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and atheists; Prussians, Saxons, Hessians, and Alsatians; abolitionists and slaveowners; farmers and townsfolk; frugal, honest folk and ax murderers. They differed in dialect, customs, and physical features. A majority had been farmers in Germany, and most arrived seeking economic opportunities. A few dissident intellectuals fleeing the 1848 revolutions sought political freedom, but few, save perhaps the Wends, went for religious freedom. The German settlements in Texas reflected their diversity. Even in the confined area of the Hill Country, each valley offered a different kind of German. The Llano valley had stern, teetotaling German Methodists, who renounced dancing and fraternal organizations; the Pedernales valley had fun-loving, hardworking Lutherans and Catholics who enjoyed drinking and dancing; and the Guadalupe valley had atheist Germans descended from intellectual political refugees. The scattered German ethnic islands were also diverse. These small enclaves included Lindsay in Cooke County, largely Westphalian Catholic; Waka in Ochiltree County, Midwestern Mennonite; Hurnville in Clay County, Russian German Baptist; and Lockett in Wilbarger County, Wendish Lutheran.

Wisconsin and Midwest

In the 21st century half of Wisconsin's population claims some German heritage, as do large proportions in nearby areas of northern Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota, as well as the Dakotas. Historians stress the importance of "pull" and "push" factors in explaining immigration. Wisconsin offered the promise of religious freedom, jobs, a climate and landscape that reminded many Germans of the forests at home, where forests played a core role in German collective identity, national memory, and socioeconomic stability. Even better the state offered cheap, good quality land on which they could grow familiar crops such as barley and wheat; it was especially well suited for dairy farming. Farmers enjoyed new freedom in being able to make their own decisions about agricultural production as opposed to being regulated by communal authorities. Catholics and Lutherans came in about equal numbers; they settled near each other but did not interact socially or intermarry. Migration was primarily by extended family units so the first arrivals wrote enthusiastic letters to family and kin about their new life, and others joined them in a process of chain migration. Most bought their land from Yankee landowners who had purchased title from the federal government. The farms in the Midwest were much larger than those in Germany, and required larger family sizes.

The state of Wisconsin systematically encouraged immigration by establishing an Office of the Commissioner of Emigration in 1852 and placing a commissioner in New York to greet them with promotional materials written in English and German. Germans were allowed to vote before establishing U.S. citizenship. About half of the immigrants settled in Milwaukee, Chicago, Davenport, Dubuque and many smaller cities, with the others heading for farms and small towns.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin the heavy German influx started in the late 1840s, changing a small Yankee settlement to a large predominantly German city. By the 1850s more than half of the city was part of "Germania". From the beginning, Germans concentrated on the west side, and by 1900 they dominated the entire northwest side; some also moved to the newly developed south side. The occupational patterns in Germania mirrored the social diversity of the group, which soon after its arrival became well-established in city life. Religiously it was divided about equally into Protestants (mostly Old Lutherans of the Wisconsin Synod or Missouri Synod), Freethinkers (many of them refugees from the failed 1848 Revolution), and Catholics. Germans divided politically between the Democrats and the Republicans; after 1900 many joined the Socialist Party. Germans organized the labor movement in the city, with strength especially in the brewing and construction industries. Germania developed a wide range of ethnic organizations and institutions. There were German Catholic and Lutheran parishes and parochial schools, secret lodges, insurance and mutual-aid societies, labor unions, political and cultural clubs, theaters, bands, singing societies, fire brigades, and militia units. Germans also developed an ethnic press that represented different political orientations.


Germans brought many different religions with them. The largest numbers were Catholic or Lutheran, although the Lutherans were themselves split several ways. The more conservative groups comprised the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Other Lutherans formed a complex checkerboard of synods, most of which in 1988 merged, along with Scandinavian synods, into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Still other German Protestants were not Lutherans but were descendants of the united "Evangelical Church" in Germany. They created the Reformed denomination (especially strong in New York and Pennsylvania), and the Evangelical denomination (strongest in the Midwest). The Evangelical and Reformed groups are now part of the United Church of Christ. Many immigrants joined quite different churches from those in Germany, especially the Methodist church.

Swiss-born Philip Schaff (1819-93) became a leading theologian and church historian in America. He returned often to Europe after his 1844 emigration to the U.S. Schaff's life was remarkably consistent and resilient; as he emigrated, he absorbed a moderate many American traits, adapting to the new world culture with ease, but maintained close intellectual and social ties with Germany. Schaff formulated a developmental, organic, providential view of history and a unique mediating evangelical theology that accommodated such figures as Hegel and Schleiermacher, tolerated liberal positions, yet remained nevertheless orthodox and fundamentalistic.[3]

1850 census map shows rural Lutheran population. Nearly all were German since few Scandinavians had arrived yet.

Before 1800, Amish, Mennonites (frrom Witzerland), and Hutterite arrived in groups and formed closed communities in Pennsylvania; they are still in existence today and some still speak dialects of German. They set out branches into the Midwest. Dwight D. Eisenhower was born into a one such community in Abilene, Kansas.

Following the failed 1848 revolutions in German states, a wave of political refugees fled to America. They were well educated and secular; their most prominent leader was Carl Schurz. Many German Jews arrived in the late 19th century, often setting up clothing stores in small cities across the country, such as the Goldwater Department Store in Phoenix, Arizona. (see Barry Goldwater).

Socialists who arrived after 1870 were generally hostile to religion.

Cultural role

Most Germans were farmers, workers, craftsmen or operated small businesses like local breweries. The influence of their cuisine is seen in sausages, meats, pastries and pretzels. Germans almost totally dominated the beer industry since 1850.

At a more advanced level Germans have contributed to a numerous areas in American culture and technology. Baron von Steuben, a former Prussian general staff captain, led the reorganization and training of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Carl Schurz helped found the Republican party, while most Germans voted Democratic.

After the Nazis came to power in 1933 thousands of scientists, artists, intellectuals and scholars fled to the U.S. The most famous was Albert Einstein. After World War II, Wernher von Braun, and most of the leading engineers from the former German V-2 rocket project were brought to the U.S. They took the lead in designing military rockets, as well as of rockets for the NASA space program. Three highly influential intellectuals were diplomat Henry Kissinger and political philosophers Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss; Strauss was the founder of the Neoconservative movement.[4]

World War I

German Americans had strongly opposed American entry into the World War. With rare exceptions they did not favor Germany; rather they demanded neutrality. Their position was increasingly marginalized and ignored; a small minority of Congressmen (usually from heavily German districts) voted against the war in April 1917. During the war they were watched closely for signs of disloyalty, which seldom were found. One German was killed in a tavern brawl on political grounds.

During World War I, intense scrutiny of German Americans led to a debate about the definition of American culture. The central question was the status of "hyphenated Americans," a term which became nearly synonymous with German Americans and their perceived challenge to American integrity. Thus, the hyphen became a term not simply for discussing cultural minorities but also for discussing the dominant culture's relationship with Britain.[5]

In Indianapolis, Indiana, German Americans comprised over a fourth of the population and supported numerous clubs and associations to perpetuate German culture, By lobbying the school board they were able to establish an extensive program of German-language instruction in the city's primary and secondary public schools. The World War, however, generated intense patriotism and a concurrent intense hostility toward all things German. In October 1917, a new federal legislation required every German-language newspaper to file sworn translations of war-related articles with local postmasters; most smaller papers could not afford the cost and closed down. In this atmosphere, the school board responded to assertions that teaching German was promoting the enemy's culture by banning German instruction in elementary schools in January 1918. Anti-German sentiment continued even after the war, and the Indiana legislature in 1919 banned all German-language instruction in all Indiana public and private schools. The Indianapolis story was typical of cities where the Germans did not have a majority of votes. Unlike Canada and Australia, which imprisoned German citizens, the German Americans were pressured into buying war bonds but were not imprisoned.[6]


In 1910 German Americans lived in had created their own distinctive, vibrant, prosperous German-language communities, called "Germania". The transition to an English language world was abrupt, forced by the World War. After 1917 the German language was seldom heard in public; most newspapers and magazines closed; churches and parochial schools switched to English. Youth increasingly attended high schools, where they mingled, in English, and dated other ethnics. The Catholic high schools were deliberately structured to commingle ethnic groups so as to promote intermarriage.[7] German-speaking taverns, beer gardens and saloons were all shut down by prohibition; those that reopened in 1933 spoke English. By the 1940s Germania had largely vanished outside remote areas and the Germans were thoroughly assimilated.[8]

Historians have tried to explain what happened. Kazal (2004) looks at Germans in Philadelphia, focusing on four ethnic subcultures: middle-class Vereinsdeutsche, working-class socialists, Lutherans, and Catholics. Each group followed a somewhat distinctive path toward assimilation. Lutherans, and the better situated Vereinsdeutsche with whom they often overlapped, after World War I abandoned the last major German characteristics and redefined themselves as old stock or as "Nordic" Americans, stressing their colonial roots in Pennsylvania and distancing themselves from more recent immigrants. On the other hand, working-class and Catholic Germans, groups that heavily overlapped, lived and worked with Irish and other European ethnics; they also gave up German characteristics but came to identify themselves as white ethnics, distancing themselves above all from African American recent arrivals in nearby neighborhoods. Well before World War I, women in particular were becoming more and more involved in a mass consumer culture that lured them out of their German-language neighborhood shops and into English language downtown department stores. The 1920s and 1930s brought English language popular culture via movies and radio that drowned out the few surviving German language venues.[9]

Further reading

see the detailed guide at the Bibliography subpage

  • Thernstrom, Stephan ed. Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, (1980). excerpt and text search
    • articles by Frederick C. Luebke, "Austrians," pp. 164-171; Kathleen Neils Conzen, "Germans," pp. 405-425; La Vern J. Rippley, "Germans from Russia," pp. 425-430; Arthur A. Goren, "Jews," pp. 571-598, esp. 576-579; Don Yoder, "Pennsylvania Germans," pp. 770-772; Leo Schelbert, "Swiss," pp. 981-987.
  • Barrick, Mac E., ed. German-American Folklore.(1987). 264 pp.
  • Baxter, Angus. In Search of Your German Roots. The Complete Guide to * Dobbert, Guido A. "German-Americans between New and Old Fatherland, 1870–1914". American Quarterly 19 (1967): 663-80. in JSTOR
  • Bungert, Heike; Kluge, Cora Lee; and Ostergren, Robert C., eds. Wisconsin German Land and Life. (2006). 260 pp. online review
  • Conzen, Kathleen Neils. Germans in Minnesota (2003) 112pp
  • Faust, Albert Bernhardt. The German Element in the United States with Special Reference to Its Political, Moral, Social, and Educational Influence 2 vol (1909) online edition
  • Gjerde, Jon. The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830–1917 (1997) online edition
  • Jordon, Terry G. Germans," Handbook of Texas Online (2006)
  • Kamphoefner, Walter D.; Helbich, Wolfgang; and Sommer, Ulrike, eds. News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home. (1991). 645 pp.
  • Kazal, Russell A. "The Interwar Origins of the White Ethnic: Race, Residence, and German Philadelphia, 1917-1939." Journal of American Ethnic History 2004 23(4): 78-131. Issn: 0278-5927 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Luebke, Frederick C. Germans in the New World: Essays in the History of Immigration (1990).
  • O'Connor, Richard. German-Americans: an Informal History. (1968), popular
  • Shaw, Stephen J. The Catholic Parish as a Way-Station of Ethnicity and Americanization: Chicago's Germans and Italians, 1903-1939. (1991). 206 pp.
  • Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Experience (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Trommler, Frank, and Joseph McVeigh, eds. America and the Germans: An Assessment of a Three-Hundred-Year History. (2 vols. 1985). 745pp
  • Wittke, Carl. We Who Built America: The Saga of the Immigrant (1939), ch 6, 9 online edition
  • Wood, Ralph, ed. The Pennsylvania Germans. (1942)

See also


  1. Ernest Menolfi and Leo Schelbert, "The Wisconsin Swiss: a Portrait." Swiss American Historical Society Review 1989 25(1): 11-35. Issn: 0883-4814
  2. Terry G. Jordan, Germans," Handbook of Texas Online (2006)
  3. Gary Keith Pranger, "Philip Schaff (1819-1893): Portrait of an Immigrant Theologian." PhD dissertation U. of Illinois, Chicago 1987. 427 pp. DAI 1988 48(9): 2437-A. DA8726098 Fulltext: ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
  4. Peter Graf Kielmansegg, Horst Mewes, and Elisabeth Glaser-Schmidt, German Émigrés and American Political Thought after World War II (1997) excerpt and text search
  5. Lisa Schreibersdorf, "Hyphens on the Home Front: Imagining American Culture through the German-American Hyphen, 1911-1919" (PhD 2005)
  6. Paul J. Ramsey, "The War Against German-American Culture: the Removal of German-language Instruction from the Indianapolis Schools, 1917-1919." Indiana Magazine of History 2002 98(4): 285-303. Issn: 0019-6673 Fulltext: Ebsco; Chris Richardson, "With Liberty and Justice for All? The Suppression of German-American Culture During World War I." Missouri Historical Review 1995 90(1): 79-89. Issn: 0026-6582
  7. Edward R. Kantowicz, Corporation Sole: Cardinal Mundelein and Chicago Catholicism (1983)
  8. Russell A. Kazal, "Revisiting Assimilation: The Rise, Fall, and Reappraisal of a Concept." American Historical Review 100 (1995): 437-71. in JSTOR
  9. Russell A. Kazal, Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity (2004).