The following article is from our January 2007 issue.

From Steuben to Schwarzkopf Sixty million Americans are of German-speaking ancestry - By W. Pfaeffle and R. Metz

The German-American Heritage Foundation is committed to keeping the memory of German roots in the U.S. alive. In May, renovation work on their new home in Washington D.C. should be complete.

The tale is persistent and agonizingly elusive. One hears it mostly in Germany that America - or at least Pennsylvania - was one vote away from being a German-speaking nation. And the deciding vote in favor of English was cast by a person of German origin. The tale is not true but it is not as fanciful as it might seem.

None other than Benjamin Franklin feared the growing number of Germans in his home state. "Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglicizing them," Franklin asked, according to historian Edmund S. Morgan.

Blame the English, Ben. It was William Penn, an English member of the Quakers, who in the mid-17th century had invited the first large group of Germans to populate a huge tract of land later known as Pennsylvania.

While Germans became the largest ethnic group there, German was never considered for the national language, even though vast numbers of Pennsylvanians spoke it, including the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone, an Englishman.

But every legend contains a kernel of truth. German linguist Bastian Sick discovered it: In 1794, German immigrants from Virginia petitioned the U.S. House of Representatives to translate all laws into German. The committee in charge voted no, 42-41. The German House Speaker Frederick Mühlenberg abstained. He said the sooner Germans became Americans, the better.

So they have. German-Americans have played a role in every major American event, deeply influencing "our national life," wrote Theodore Huebener in "The Germans in America."

The Pennsylvania "Dutch" weren't the first German-Americans. Germans were among French Protestants who settled in Port Royal, South Carolina, in 1562. And there is conclusive evidence that the glassblowers who settled in the colony of Jamestown in 1607 were Germans.

Liberals by tradition, they widely supported the revolution. Three centuries later, when reactionary rulers in Germany fought attempts by liberals to reform the constitution in the 1848 revolution, thousands fled, including aristocrats who founded New Braunsfeld, Texas.

Today more Americans can claim German ancestry than any other ethnic group. Don Tolzmann, director of German-American Studies at the University of Cincinnati, disputes the 2000 Census Bureau's estimate of 40 million. Ten years earlier, the census had put the number at 60 million. "Just ask yourself if 20 million, or one-third, died in 10 years," he told The Atlantic Times.

Tolzmann estimates that the number of Americans claiming German heritage is about 60 million, including German speakers from Austria, Alsace, Luxembourg and Switzerland. Germans have integrated so fully that it is hard to trace them.

Early settler Jacob Leisler, the second governor of New York in pre-revolutionary America, is an exception. He was wrongfully hanged for treason by the British who later exonerated him. One of Leisler's descendants is Walther Leisler Kiep, honorary chairman of Berlin-based Atlantik-Brücke. The exceptional Carl Schurz was President Rutherford Hayes's Secretary of the Interior.

To this day, hundreds of German-American social clubs, "Turnvereine" (gymnastic clubs), singing societies ("Liederkranz") and soccer clubs in the U.S. honor their German roots. Their numbers are dwindling. But there is an organization which is taking steps to rectify the situation.

In 1977, delegates from a number of German-American groups founded and later chartered the United German-American Committee of the USA ( With 18,000 individual and club members nationwide, they hope to raise the profile of Americans of German, Austrian and Swiss origin. From their present headquarters near the White House, the committee, which recently changed its name to German-American Heritage Foundation of the USA to better describe its mission, is the only Washington-based group dedicated to working on behalf of all people of German-speaking ancestry.

Few high school students are aware of the impact Germans had on American history. Prussian general Frederick Baron von Steuben played a pivotal role in the American Revolution. General Norman Schwarzkopf, who commanded the Desert Storm troops in 1991, told The Atlantic Times that Steuben was a "superb military disciplinarian." He transformed a "ragtag militia" at Valley Forge into a well-trained fighting force that marched their way to victory over the British.

The foundation presents a Distinguished German-American of the Year Award which in 2006 went to General Schwarzkopf and his wife, Brenda. It needs to raise an additional $2.5 million to complete the purchase and renovations of a National Heritage site in Washington D.C., which all Americans of German ancestry can call "home." A building has been purchased and renovations are expected to be completed by May 2007.

The man behind the fundraising is Bern E. Deichmann. "We are the only major ethnic group that doesn't have a heritage center in Washington, and if we don't do anything, our heritage will soon be forgotten," Deichmann told The Atlantic Times in a recent interview.

Deichmann was born of German-American parents in Willoughby, Ohio in 1935. While a youth, his father took the family to Germany for an extended visit and was unable to return until after the end of the war. Deichmann graduated from Princeton, began a distinguished career in business and eventually became CEO of Schulmerich Bells. He also spent nine years with a Dutch-American joint venture in Holland where he was managing director for five years.

Deichmann is proud of endorsements by former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, former German Ambassador to the U.S. Jürgen Ruhfus, and the 1999 Nobel Price winner in Medicine, Günter Blobel.

While there are many organizations in the United States working to preserve its German heritage, he believes that being situated in the nation's capital is essential. Being there, "we can be an active player on public policy issues that affect German-Americans," he said.

The German embassy has informed Deichmann that it stands behind the foundation's fundraising efforts for the Heritage Center.

- Walter Pfaeffle is a German-born journalist who lives in New York. Robert Metz is a former New York Times writer.