Born German, Made American. To prove their patriotism, immigrants abandoned their old identities. By Nicolas Kumanoff
Tens of millions of Americans claim German descent. Their immigrant ancestors built up a vibrant culture and recorded unique achievements. Today, both have been largely forgotten. A TV documentary series tells the story.
The 2000 census reports 47 million people claiming German heritage, the largest single ethnic group in the U.S. Yet less than 1.4 million claim to actually speak German.
Their story was told over two evenings in March on the German-French ARTE public TV channel, in a four-part documentary series by Fritz Baumann.
In "The Promised Land," "The Price of Freedom," "Little Germanies" and "A People Vanish," Baumann vividly depicts the German experience in America.
The Germans founded their own settlements, the first of which was Germantown, established near Philadelphia by Mennonites in 1683. There would soon be many other German religious communities, their inhabitants splintering off, rejecting the others as too worldly - and seeking land further west.
Most German immigrants were economic refugees. The cities of New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans were their ports of entry. Although huge German communities would emerge in all three, most Germans got out as soon as they could, seeking the plentiful and affordable farm and pasture land they had all heard about.
Baumann recounts in detail a unique story, even by Old West standards, of the German settlements in Texas, whose settlers would eventually create what is considered the only treaty between whites and Native Americans still in force today.
In 1842, a group of noblemen, eager to both get rid of malingerers and capitalize on America's riches, hatched a scheme. They decided to found a German colony, together with the Association for the Protection of German Immigrants to Texas. For a big fee, the association promised transatlantic passage, infrastructure such as schools and churches, and generally promised to take care of the settlers until their first harvest. The group bought tracts of land in Texas, at the time an independent republic.
An initial party of 600 families embarked from Bremen in 1844. When, after 65 days, they arrived at the swampy mouth of the Guadalupe River, cholera and yellow fever broke out. More than half the settlers died within two years. The association failed to keep its promise of protecting the settlers. In other words, they were left on their own.
To survive, the Germans had to adapt. The grain they had brought with them didn't grow in the hot Texas plains, so they learned how to plant corn and sweet potatoes from the native population and other settlers. In place of dark bread, the Germans ate tortillas.
Meanwhile, further immigrant trains continually arrived and pushed north, putting pressure on both the existing small-parcel farms and the native population, notably the proud and warlike Comanches.
As the whites began destroying the buffalo herds on which the Comanches' existence depended, tensions increased. There were killings on both sides. Finally, in May 1847, the governor of Texas (by then the 28th state in the Union) told the leader of the German settlers, John Meusebach, they would have to move elsewhere.
Meusebach decided instead to seek a treaty with the tribe. He rode off with a group of settlers to negotiate.
Nick Bradford, the spokesman of the Comanche Nation, recounts how the 42 Germans emptied their magazines by shooting into the air, then rode into the Comanche camp unarmed.
Meusebach, whose red hair and flowing beard would earn him the title Chief Red Sun, offered the Comanches $3,000 in return for the right to settle the area and live in peace. The two peoples would coexist as brothers, Meusebach assured them.
The treaty allowed Meusebach's settlers to go unharmed into Indian territory and the Indians to go to the white settlements, and promised mutual reports on wrongdoing. It opened more than 3 million acres of land to settlement. To distinguish themselves from the Yankee settlers whom the Comanches hated and feared, the Germans were told to smoke pipes while in their fields. That way they were safe from attack.
To this day, the 1847 Meusebach-Comanche Treaty is believed to be the sole pact between whites and Native Americans that has never been broken. Every May, an "intertribal pow-wow" commemorates the occasion and reunites members of both communities. "The Germans did not just want to take and own," says Bradford. "They wanted to share."
Wherever they went in America, Germans established printing presses and newspapers. The printed word played a central role in German culture in America. In 1743, the first New World edition of the Bible was printed in German by Christoph Sauer. It was still a common sight in German-American households 200 years later. Even Benjamin Franklin printed a German newspaper, the Philadelphische Zeitung. That paper folded within a year, but many others would be more successful.
At its zenith in the 1880s, the German language press in North America boasted over 800 daily and weekly periodicals.
New York had four German-language dailies - more than even Berlin at the time. The New Yorker Staats-Zeitung had over 60,000 readers, more than the 40,000 circulation of The New York Times. At its peak in 1938, the Staats sold 80,000 copies a day. Today, fewer than 20 periodicals, mostly weeklies or monthlies, are left. Why?
The last of the films, "A People Vanishes," shows how these tens of millions of German-Americans, whose culture, language and communities had been kept alive over centuries, completely abandoned their old identities during the world wars, when Germany twice became America's enemy.
Before the United States entered World War I, public opinion was far from unanimous on what, if any, side to back. German-Americans often vocally opposed Washington's increasing support for the Allies and advocated neutrality instead. Yet Germany's military conduct, especially the sinking of the liner Lusitania in 1915, discredited this position.
Beginning in 1917, a virulent anti-German sentiment spread. In several states, German language instruction was banned from schools and German books burned in the streets. German terms were excised from the language: Sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage" and frankfurters became hot dogs.
Indeed, anyone with a German name was a target for harassment. A widely publicized notice from the American Defense Society stated that a German-American, "unless known by years of association to be absolutely loyal, should be treated as a potential spy."
Ethnic Germans responded by suppressing their heritage to prove their patriotism. Names were anglicized, organizations renamed. Parents forbid their children to speak German outside the home. German-Americans held parades to demonstrate their loyalty. One memorable banner read: "Born in Germany, Made in America."
The process of cultural realignment was therefore taking place well before World War II, when America once again fought a Germany that, this time, became associated with a depravity previously unheard of. The deathblow for German culture in the United States was dealt by the "fatherland" itself.
Much was lost. Kurt Vonnegut, a child of third-generation German immigrants, writes in his autobiographical novel "Palm Sunday":
". . .the anti-Germanism in this country during the First World War so shamed and dismayed my parents that they resolved to raise me without acquainting me with the language or the literature or the music or the oral family histories which my ancestors had loved. They volunteered to make me ignorant and rootless as proof of their patriotism."
- Nicolas Kumanoff is a Berlin-based editor and translator.