People with German ancestry have long dominated the U.S. melting pot yet their stamp on American culture — once so proud and robust — seems to have all but disappeared.
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There are more than 49 million Americans — 16 percent of the population — with German ancestry, according to Ancestry and Ethnicity in America, which used data from the 2010 Census and the 2006-2010 American Community Survey.
At the turn of the century, just before the United States entered World War I, German Americans accounted for about 10 percent of the population and their presence was keenly felt.
“They were very proud and they clung to their culture very strongly. They still spoke German everywhere…They were almost arrogantly proud of what they thought was a superior German culture and a lot of them didn’t want to integrate and assimilate in the United States,” said Erik Kirschbaum, author of Burning Beethoven: The Eradication of German Culture in the United States during World War I. “They wanted to preserve their culture and keep it intact as long as they could.”
German immigrants flocked to New York and Chicago, and residents in numerous small Midwestern towns spoke German almost exclusively. German-language newspapers, theaters and churches flourished.
In some of these areas, the German influence was so pervasive that other non-German settlers ended up learning German so they could communicate with fellow residents. Germans helped establish General Electric and designed New York’s Brooklyn Bridge. They dominated the beer industry and that influence lingers in name brands like Busch, Miller and Pabst.
The situation took a dark turn for German Americans when the United States entered World War I. Suddenly, as anti-German hysteria swept the country, America’s largest, most powerful minority was considered suspect.
“A lot of people thought the country was filled with spies and saboteurs and actually 30 Germans were killed by mobs and lynch mobs,” said Kirschbaum, whose own grandfather grew up speaking German but refused to speak in the language in his later years.
Shortly after declaring war on Germany, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson required about 250,000 German-born men — aged fourteen and older — to register their address and employment at their local post office. Within a year, that order was expanded to include women. About 6,000 of these people were arrested and 2,000 of them, who were deemed “dangerous”, were sent to internment camps.
German language books were taken out of schools and libraries and burned by so-called patriotic organizations that wanted to make sure German was eradicated from the American landscape. Kirschbaum says German Americans, who saw Germany as their mother and America as their wife, felt they had to make a choice.
“They suddenly realized they can’t be both German and American,” he said. “And after the war, a lot of them felt they had to assimilate, there was no choice and a lot of them did. A lot of them became thoroughly American. They stopped speaking German. They stopped teaching their children German. They stopped reading German newspapers and they became whole-hearted Americans.”
And in doing so, much of the German culture they’d proudly held onto for so long, slowly vanished from the American landscape.
Today, Kirschbaum sees disturbing parallels between the anti-German sentiment that swept the nation a century ago and the rise of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“There’s definitely a parallel between the United States government turning sauerkraut into liberty cabbage during World War I and some people in Congress trying to change the term French fries into freedom fries after 9/11,” he said. “It’s another sad chapter in American history that perhaps could have been prevented or avoided if more Americans knew about the history and the way they persecuted German Americans 100 years ago.”
(Teaser photo by Flickr user momentcaptured1 via Creative Commons license)