American Immigration: German Emmigrants

Figure 1.--The Germans constitute the largest immigrant group in America. Germans as a group started settling in this country in 1683 when the first families arrived on the "Concord" to begin a new life in Philadelphia. After this date waves and waves of Germans emigrated to the United States. Germans were the dominant non-British immigrant group in the early 19th century. There cintinued to be German immigration in the late 19th and early 20th cebturies, but they were only one part of the large diverse wave of immigrants who entered America. These Germans at Ellis Island entered America at the turn of the 20th century.

The Germans constitute the largest immigrant group in America. Germans settled many areas of the United States. The Germans not only brought their customs with them (Christmas tree, Sunday afternoons with beer, music and dance, etc.), but also their skills and talents. The German influence on music in America is very important. Germans played major roles in many other areas, including the arts, industry, and science. Now the Germans themselves are totally Americanized and hardly speak German anymore. Germans have played a prominent role in American history. The two leading American World war II commanders (Nimitz and Eisenhower) were both of German ancestry. One of the best known German immigrant groups are the Mennoites who settled in southeastern Pennstlvania who incorrently became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.


The Germans constitute the largest immigrant group in America. Eventually it was estimated by the U.S.Census in 1990 that 58 million Americans were of German descent, making them the major ethnic group in America. This is not immediately apparent, however, as most German immigrants have been throughly assiimalated. Few German-Americans speak German or have any connection with relatives in Germany.


I am not yet sure just where in Germany the immigrants came from. As the German community is primarily Protestant (especially Lutheran), we believe that immigration was primarily from northern Germany.


Germans as a group started settling in this country in 1683 when the first families arrived on the "Concord" to begin a new life in Philadelphia, to be exact: Germantown (a section of present- day Philadelphia). After this date waves and waves of Germans emigrated to the United States. One interesting group were the Hessians during the Revolutionary war (1776-83). Many were captured by the Continental Army and after the War decided to remain in America. German immigration to America increased significantly in the mid-19th Century as a result of Revolutions of 1848. Revolutions occuured throughout Europe in 1848. These were middle class revolutions with Germans and other Europeans demanding liberal reforms. In many cases they were brutally supressed by conservative royalist forces. Many Germans despairing of reform in their homeland, descied on immigration, linking their future with America. As a result, many of the Gernmans would immigrated were men and women of liberal, secular outlook. They were in many cases educated, modern people. This was in sharp class to the wave of Irish immigrants streaming into America at the same time who were largely uneducated peasants with a depply religious outlook. More Germans came in the wave of immigration that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century before World War I (1914-18). After the War, the United States sharply restricted immigration thus ending large-scale immigrtion, including German immigration.


The Germans are one of the principal national groups which immigrated to the United States. Beginning with the Hessians during the Revolutionary War. Many stayed in American rather than returning to Germany. Small numbers immigrated throughout the early 19th century. A major wave arrived before the Civil War, especially after the failed Revolutions of 1848. Many ofthese Germans were highly secularized--liberals who were had to leave becuse they were wanted by the authorities or dispaired of of democracyb in Germany. Germany was one of the few European countries with a mixed Catholic-Protestant population. I am not sure, however, of the religious composition of the immigrants, but they must have included both Catholics and Protestants. One source suggests about two-thirds were Protestants and one-third Catholic. Most Protestants were Lutheran which has left a lasting imprint on American trligious life. About one-third were Catholic, but here the imprint is less noticeable as they have been overwealmed by Catholic immigrants from other countries. Many German Jews emigrated, but they tended to identify more with the Jewish community in AmeriMore than the German community. Germans arrived after the Civil War when large scale European immigration began. We begin seeing more portraits of Catholic boys by the late 19th century. A good example is Albert Staebler in the l880s.


Germans settled many areas of the United States. Most of the Texas Germans were indeed Lutherans. [Olesch] Many German Catholics settled in St. Paul, Minnesota. and in Omaha, Nebr. as well all over the Midwestern states. In many rural areas like Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota and cities as Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinatti, and San Antonio, German influence still is visible.


A Slavic minority from Germany were the Sorbs in Texas. They were ethnic Slavs. They were Lutherans and settled in Serbin and in Giddings, surrounded by other German farmers. They tried to escape total assimilation in Germany, but what did not happen in the old country happened in Texas. They were absorbed by the German communities within two generations. Another immigrant important in the mid-19th century before the Civil War (1861-65) were German Jews.


Now the Germans themselves are totally Americanized and hardly speak German anymore, except for some older people in Fredericksburg and New Braunfels. Admiral Nimitz was a native of Fredericksburg and spoke only German as a boy. The othger leading American World War II commander was Eisenhower--another very German name. Most of the German immigrants Americanized completely, often anglicizing their family name so that they eventually became indistinguishable from their Irish and English neighbors, actually they are a real silent majority. A reader writes, "You are absolutely right to state that the Germans in this country are totally Americanized and that they don't speak German anymore (except for some areas in the Midwest and Texas)."

World War I (1914-18)

Europe was convulsed with World War I in 1914. The War had a major impact on Germans in America. The German move to assimilate with mainstream America was entirely natural, but the assimilation of local Germans was hastened, to put it mildly, by World War I. As long as the United States maintained a policy of official neutrality, many actively supported Kaiser Wilhelm, although most Americans were apailded by Germany's aggresive behavior which changed the widely held positive image of Germany. This intensified when America joined the Allies in 1917. A wave of anti-German culture spread over America. Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were banned from the local concert stage. Sauerkraut became 'liberty cabbage', and hamburger was rechristened 'Salisbury steak'. The Brumders, owners of the largest German-language publishing firm in the country, were forced to pull down a statue of Germania from atop their downtown headquarters. The well-heeled Deutscher Club became the Wisconsin Club. In 1919, the Milwaukee Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts to root out local supporters of the Kaiser. At some point during the war, patriotism crossed over the line to outright persecution. Older Germans found themselves ducking into doorways to exchange a few words in their native tongue. Milwaukee's long reign as the nation's Deutsch-Athen came to an abrupt and inglorious end. Germany had a major impact on american education. This ended with War. Many high schools stopped offering German language courses. World War I effectively killed self-conscious Germanism in Milwaukee, and the Depression and World War II did nothing to revive it. What survives today is largely (but not exclusively) the work of post-War immigrants, who form the backbone of more than 40 German organizations based in Milwaukee. For the vast majority of those born in this country, Germanness has become a matter of surnames, favorite foods, Oktoberfest, and childhood memories. Even the neighborhoods have changed. Teutonia Avenue now runs through the heart of Milwaukee's African- American community, and North Third Street, once a thoroughly German commercial district, is now Martin Luther King Drive. Because German-Americans had so thoroughly assimilated by 1941, the impact of World War II on the German community was much less significant that World War I.


One of the best known German immigrant groups are the Mennoites who settled in southeastern Pennstlvania who incorrently became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. The Mennonites were an early Protestant sect which developed among Swiss Anabaptists. The Mennonites were moderate Anabaptists. They were initially referred to as the Swiss Bretheren, but were renamed the Mennanites after an earlier leader--Menno Simons (1496?-1561). A Zurrich group seceded from the state church (1523-25). One of the principal issues was infant baptism. The Mennites were nonresistants (pacifists) and refused to take oaths because of a Biblical interpretation. The Mennites took the Bible as the soul authority in matters of faith and accepted only two sacraments (batism and the Lord's Supper). Mennites spread to Germany and were an important part of the Volksdeutsche that migrated to Russia. The offer by Tsarina Chatherine the Great was especially attractive to the Mennonites because they were allowed to live as communities under their own laws and were exempted from military service. Other Mennites established communities in France and the Netherlands. Dutch Menninites issued the Dordrecht Confession (1632). The Mennonites settled areas of eastern Pennsylvania. The first Pennsylvania colony was at Germantown (1683). The Amish are one of the Mennite groups in Pennsylvania. Other colonies were established in Ohio and other mid-Western states. Mennonite familes also established colonies in western Canada. As Russian policies changed toward the Folksdeutsche in the 19th century, many moved to Canada. Large numbers were killed with Stalin during World War II exiled the Folksdeutsche from their Volga farms to Siberia (1941). A small group of Canadian Mennonites established two Mexican colonies during the 1920s.


The Germans not only brought their customs with them (Christmas tree, Sunday afternoons with beer, music and dance, etc.), but also their skills and talents. The German influence on music in America is very important. Germans played major roles in many other areas, including the arts, industry, and science.


The Germans were the first people in the United States to promote classical music. They started, organized and attended concerts in every major American city. They not only pioneered symphony orchestras, but founded singing societies as well. Whereever there is (was) a German community there is (was) a "Chor". Many famous musicians, composers and singers were Germans, but the American musical scene was especially dominated by Germans conductors. The very first symphony orchestra in the USA, the "Philharmonic Society" was started in Boston in 1798 by Gottlieb Graupner. The first one to introduce Beethoven's Ninth to an American audience was Henry Schmidt with the Academic Orchestra in 1839 at Boston. The first conductor of the newly founded Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1881 was Georg Henschel. He was succeeded by Wilhelm Gericke in 1884. Until 1918 all conductors of this orchestra were Germans: Arthur Nikisch, Max Fiedler and Karl Muck. The New York Philharmonic also started under the baton of German conductors: Theodor Eisfeld from 1849, Carl Bergmann 1864, Leopold Damrosch 1876, Theodor Thomas 1879, Anton Seidl 1891 and Emil Paur 1902. The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra was started in 1890 under Fritz Scheel. It is at present under the direction of Wolfgang Sawallisch, another German. Other American cities followed: Cincinatti in 1896 under Michael Brand, Minneapolis in 1903 under Emil Oberhoffer, San Francisco in 1911 with Alfred Hertz at the helm and Kansas City under Karl Krueger. Orchestras in many smaller cities were founded by Germans and had German conductors. The present conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra is Christoph von Dohnanyi, a German from Hamburg who is the grandson of the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi. Several Jewish conductors who came to this country after 1933 were born in Germany, like Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, William Steinberg and André Previn. The Hunarians Fritz Reiner, George Szell and Georg Solti were trained in Germany and conducted major German orchestras until they eere forced to leave. Germany's loss was America's gain. That also goes for many of the scientists and artists we are going to discuss a little later on.


It was, however, not only music in which the Germans excelled. Many American companies were founded by Germans. The general population is not aware of the fact that Chrysler (Kreisler), Studebaker (Staudenbacher), Steinway (Steinweg) or Wanamaker (Wannemacher) were of German origin. More obvious are Weyerhaeuser, Schwinn, Heinz and the famous brewers Anheuser-Busch, Miller, Coors, Schlitz, Pabst, Blatz, etc. John Roebling built the famous Brooklyn Bridge, Rockefeller and John Jacob Astor were also of German stock.


In the field of the printed word John Peter Zenger (1697-1746) fought for a free press, and had to spend some time in jail. Thomas Nast (1840-1902) was a famous newspaper cartoonist. Well-known German-American writers were H.L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck.

Banking and business

In banking and business the German-Jewish families of Strauss, Warburg, Lehman, Schiff, Loeb, Morgenthau, Sulzberger, Sachs, Bernheim, Gottschalk, etc. etc. were prominent.

Ethnic Clothing

Our section on German ethnic clothing has some infrmation on ethnic festivals and celebrations by German communities in America and other countries.

German Pacifism

Europeans may be surprised to know that there was a string pascifist thread among German-American families. Germans in the 19th and early 20th century developed a militaistic image. This was due to th Prussian military tradition and the fact that Germany was unified by the Prussian monarchy. Kaiser Wilhem II's bombastic behavior and of course Hitler's military adventurism helped confirm this image. There are a range of reasons why German immigrants did not have this martial tradition. Many Germans who immigrated to America objected to conspription. It was in some cases one of the reasons for immigrating. Many Germans immigrated before Prussia united Germany. I'm not sure of the regional makeup of German immigration, but suspect that Prussia did not fit highly in the regional makeup. Another factor was the military suppression of the 1848 liberal revolutions. Many German immigrants in the aftermath dispaired of liberal reforms in Germany and turned to America. Thus the German-American boy in a cadet uniform is very unusual (figure 1). There were also pacifist religious sects like the mennotites who immigrated. Over time German-Americans gradually acquired more generalized American political and social attitudes. Of course German immigration was so extensive that it also affected American attitudes and values. A good example is the Eisenhower family. Dwight's parents were pascifist yet he became the most popular American military commnder of the 20th century and eventually president.


German names are very common in America. Notably American films normally avoid using German names for characters playing American roles. A HBC reader writes, "Hollywood has for years depicted Germans in a negative way. American society in this respect is changing its attitude towards Germans, especially in Hollywood. For as long as I can remember people with German names always were NAZIs or crazy scientists. [HBC note: Scientists may even have more room for complaint than Germans concerning Hollywood depictions.] I am thinking of a movie like "The Snakepit", where the sadistic head mistress' name was Boehler, and many others like that. I thought it was quite revolutionary that Jack Nicholson played an average man with the name Schmidt recently (the title was "About Schmidt"), without a hint of a NAZI, or a ridiculous caricature. Just a plain American. German names are everywhere. It finally is accepted as something American. People don't question anymore if Rumsfeld, Bob Schieffer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig or Jason Schmidt are of German descent. It is just not important."

Operation Paperclip

It is interesting to notice that after the immigration of countless German writers, filmmakers, artists and scientists from 1933 till 1940, another group of German immigrants arrived in the United States. after World War II. The year was 1945. The procedure was called Operation Paperclip. The Secretary of War stated in a press release of October 1, 1945, that "a group of outstanding German scientists and technicians had been brought to the U.S." and that "they were vital to our national interest". The NAZIs had a huge weapns development program and were in fact years ohead of the Allies in many areas such as aviation (especially jets), guided and balistic missles, rocketry, sunmarines, tanks, and other areas. (The strategic mombing campaign came under attack after the War, but in fact the bombing delayed the development and production of important German weapons systems.) The purpose of Operation Paper Clip was take advantage of the German research and technical skills of key scientists. The Soviets had a similar program of their own. The most famous German scientist involved was Wernher von Braun, but 126 other scientists came to America without much denazification. A reader writes, "I cannot think of anything more hypocritical than this action." Several of these men (Ernst Stuhlinger, Hermann Oberth, Heinz Haber and Kurt Debus and many others) had been members of the NAZI Party. We should stress that membershipmin the NAZI Party did not mean that they had committed war crimes. Some were directly involved in war crimes. One Dr. Arthur Rudolph was stripped of his American citizenship and sent back to Germany after they found out things about his NAZI-past (which was known before, of course). A pioneer in space medicine, Dr. Hubertus Strughold, had the Aero-medical Library at Randolph Air Force Base named after him, but it was renamed in 1977 after documents were found linking Strughold to medican experiments in Dachau concentration camp. Strughold was involved in experiments designed to improve procedures to aid downed airmen. Prisoners were subject to horendous conditions such as exposure to cold and then various methods were tried to revive them. After they had played an important role in putting an American on the moon before the Russians could do it, they no longer were as useful as before.A reader writes, "Wernher von Braun died in 1977. It was hardly mentioned in the media. I remember Walter Conkrite announcing it in one sentence at the end of the broadcast. I believe this Operation Paperclip was a shameful episode in American history. While thousands of deserving displaced persons were waiting to be admitted to the America, hundreds of Nazis were welcomed and given American citizenship within only a few years. Embarrassing."


Several boys from German-American families have been archived on HBC. A good example is John Hauerwaas, Jr.. We will add more links here as time permits.


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Created: 9:43 PM 1/30/2005
Last updated: 5:28 PM 10/20/2015