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The German-American Cultural Center and Museum in Gretna, near New Orleans. facade facing street
The German-American Cultural Center and Museum in Gretna, near New Orleans. Carol M. Highsmith, photograph.

Still Waters: The Impact of German Immigration to the United States

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On October 6, 1683, the first significant group of German immigrants arrived in the New World. Their first settlement, Germantown in Pennsylvania, began a long history of profound but often overlooked German influence in America.

Germantown was the brainchild of Englishman William Penn, a passionate Quaker who had endured imprisonment for his religious views. In frequent travels to Germany he sought to build support for a colony for religious refugees in America, especially the Quakers, who faced the same repression as their brethren in England. Penn’s dream came within his grasp in 1681, when King Charles II granted him a charter to establish a colony in the New World, with Penn as governor. In this way Charles paid a debt he owed Penn’s father, who had served as an admiral to the Crown. At the king’s insistence, Penn’s new colony was named Pennsylvania—in honor of the loyal father, not the Quaker son. Penn soon established Philadelphia, whose name, “city of brotherly love,” reflected its status as a refuge for religious tolerance based on the Quaker principles of friendship and community.

In Germany, growing religious intolerance in the late seventeenth century made Penn’s new colony an attractive prospect for minority religious communities. One such community was in the city of Krefeld, where Mennonites and Quakers had fled to escape religious persecution only to be branded again as rebels and outcasts. Thirteen families, since known as the “Original 13,” made their way to England in July 1683. From there they set sail on board the Concordia and arrived in Philadelphia on October 6. Germantown was founded a few weeks later on nine square miles of land deeded to the families as part of their agreement to help settle the new colony.

Print engraving of William Penn as a young man, wearing suit of armor.
William Penn in his youth. John Sartain, print engraving, n.d.

The success of the Original 13 persuaded more Germans to risk starting a new life in America. Large-scale immigrations soon followed and would continue for over two centuries. In addition to Quakers and Mennonites, Amish arrived in the early eighteenth century and have been part of Pennsylvania culture ever since. By the nineteenth century, unemployment and population growth in Germany propelled further waves of emigration to America and its newly opened western territories. The advent of transatlantic steam travel strengthened this trend while broadening the social composition of German-speaking immigrants to include urban dwellers and those from Germany’s eastern farming regions. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, descendants of German immigrants accounted for 17 percent of the U.S. population; in 24 states they were the majority.

Germans integrated relatively quickly into their new home. Especially among the large waves of European immigration in the nineteenth century, Germans stood out for their higher rates of literacy and trade skills thanks to the extensive public education and vocational training systems in their native country. These advantages allowed them to learn English and find higher-paying jobs more easily. Printing, that most German of industries, flourished. The first European-language Bible printed in America was published in Germantown in 1743. German American newspapers sprang up quickly. Soon German Americans played important roles in America’s historical development. Generally anti-slavery, they were a crucial part of Abraham Lincoln’s constituency and the largest immigrant group among the Union forces in the Civil War. Carl Schurz, who had fled the anti-revolutionary crackdown in his native Rhineland in 1848-9, served as a Union general in the war, became America’s first German-born senator thereafter, and was appointed secretary of the interior under President Rutherford B. Hayes. Schurz’s wife Margarethe opened the first kindergarten in the U.S., introducing that German word and concept into American society.

Half length photographic portrait of Carl Shurz, facing half right.
Carl Schurz around the time of his appointment as secretary of the interior in 1877. M.B. Brady, photographic print, 1877.

As their numbers increased and reached into all aspects of American life, the signs of a unique German American identity began to fade. Although “Kleindeutschland” in New York was the largest German-speaking community outside of Berlin or Vienna for much of the nineteenth century, by 1890 it had begun to give way to the Chinatown and Little Italy that occupy roughly the same area today. Any remaining effort to promote German identity in America suffered a severe blow when German submarines sank the British liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing 1,201 passengers, of whom 128 were American. This and other provocations eventually drew a reluctant America into World War I two years later. In the meantime German Americans faced immense pressure to “drop the hyphen” and demonstrate their unequivocal commitment to “America first.” German street names were changed, frankfurters and wieners became “hot dogs,” sauerkraut was now “liberty cabbage.” German Americans began to anglicize their names (as did the originally German British royal house of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, which changed its name to Windsor). Less than thirty years later, Germany’s aggression in World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust inhibited even the benign displays of ethnic identity enjoyed by other immigrant groups. But by then most German Americans thought such displays had grown outdated after two centuries of assimilation into all walks of American life. After all, German Americans Dwight D. Eisenhower and Chester Nimitz were war heroes, while the flight of German artists, scientists, and scholars from the Third Reich contributed immeasurably to American intellectual and cultural achievement. After the war the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, and the status of the Federal Republic of Germany as a frontline ally in the Cold War launched a new era of close partnership between the U.S. and its former enemy which endures to this day.

Newspaper cartoon showing German militarism (Kaiser Wilhelm II as a sea monster with Prussian helmet) bearing down on the victims aboard the Lusitania.
German militarism (Kaiser Wilhelm II as a sea monster with Prussian helmet) bears down on the victims aboard the Lusitania. Reproduction of cartoon drawing by F.T. Richards, 1915.
Print shows a man labeled "Hyphen" standing at cross-road signs "America First" / "Deutschland Uber Alles"
Like other “hyphenated” Americans during wartime then and since, German Americans’ loyalties were questioned during World War I, as in this newspaper cartoon. Sydney Joseph Greene, print, 1915-16.

This historical and social framework of the German experience in America has made this country’s largest immigrant group also its most invisible. Oktoberfest survives (or is a fad) in various parts of the country. Annual Steuben Day parades, most notably in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, commemorate Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s important role in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. But there are no German equivalents of the enduring popularity of Italian American culture in food, film, and music, the omnipresent Irish pub, the Chinatowns in major cities on both coasts, to say nothing of the many other ethnic communities in America with a palpably unique identity. And yet the influence of Germans in America can be found beneath the surface, undetectable at first because it runs so deeply through the flow of American history. Names like Astor, Rockefeller, Boeing, and Steinway are hallmarks of America’s commercial history. Americans’ daily lives are filled with products from companies founded by German immigrants or their immediate descendants: Heinz Ketchup, Quaker Oats, Oscar Mayer Wieners, Levi’s Jeans. The history of brewing in America is unthinkable without German immigrants, who founded all of America’s major brewing companies. American Christmas traditions also have German origins, including the Christmas tree and the popular notion of a fat, fur-trimmed, jolly old Santa Claus, an image created by the German-American caricaturist Thomas Nast. Nast came to the U.S. from Germany in 1846 and is known as the “father of the American cartoon.” His drawings were the first to widely popularize fundamental American icons—including the Democratic donkey, Republican elephant, and Uncle Sam—in the form we know them today.

John Jacob Astor III, full-length portrait, seated, facing slightly right.
Fur trader and New York real estate investor John Jacob Astor (1763-1848) came to America from Walldorf, Germany, at age 19 and became a millionaire before that French word had entered the American vocabulary. He still ranks as one of the richest men in world history. Alonzo Chappel, print engraving, c. 1864.
Wood engraving of "Merry Old Santa Claus" by Thomas Nast, half-length, with armful of toys and long-stem pipe.
Americans’ image of Santa Claus comes mainly from the many Christmas illustrations by German immigrant Thomas Nast. Wood engraving, 1889.

As the principal curator of German-language collections at the Library of Congress, I often see looks of amazement when I tell visitors that the Library has more items in German than any other language except English, over eight million. The pervasive but often invisible impact of German immigration explains both the statistic and the reaction, as does the sheer scientific and cultural output of German-language publishing since Gutenberg developed his printing press over 500 years ago.

German items are among the Library’s greatest treasures. One of many examples is the Giant Bible of Mainz, a magnificent fifteenth-century illuminated manuscript which is part of the collection donated to the Library by Lessing J. Rosenwald, himself a grandson of German Jewish immigrants.

black-and-white image of the first leaf of the Biblia Latina, or "Giant Bible of Mainz, with illuminated margins and letters."
The Biblia Latina, commonly known as the Giant Bible of Mainz, will be shown at a special event to commemorate German American Friendship Day on October 6. First Leaf of the Biblia Latina, manuscript, 1452-3.

(For a chronology of German immigration to America, including from other German-speaking regions in Europe, click here.)

Comments (2)

  1. As a German immigrant myself, this is so informative !
    Coupled with the portraits and depictions of cartoons, it provides a lively retake of German influence on American culture.
    As to German food not widely influencing American cuisine. Well, if you have Italian, French etc. with which to compare, Wurst and Kraut, well , just does not measure up.

  2. A pithy survey of the many contributions of German culture that go largely unnoticed. Also an invitation to reflect at large on the cultures of our respective ancestors- and how they might shape our identities today. Nicely done!

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