German americans

by La Vern J. Rippley


Situated in the heart of Europe, Germany today adjoins nine neighbors: Denmark to the north; Poland and the Czech Republic to the east; Austria and Switzerland to the south; and the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France to the west. With a population of nearly 80 million, Germany follows Russia as the most populous nation in Europe. In size, however, Germany is smaller than either France or Spain and equates roughly with the combined area of Minnesota and Wisconsin. With an average of 222 people per square kilometer, Germany has one of the highest population densities in Europe.


Recorded German history begins with the battle between the Roman legions and Arminus, a prince of the Germanic Cherusci tribe, recounted in the chronicles of Tacitus. Deutschland, the Germans' name for their country, came into use in the eighth century when Charlemagne incorporated German and French speakers into a common nation. As cohesion among the population of the eastern realm increased, the term Deutschland applied to all German speakers. Once confined west of the Elbe River, Germans gradually penetrated father east into former Slavic territory, often peacefully, but sometimes by force.

Almost from the time of Charlemagne, Germany bore versions of the name Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, beginning with the Salian dynasty and proceeding with the rule of the Hohenstaufens, the Habsburgs, and the Hohenzollerns. Germany suffered religious schism when Martin Luther proposed reforms in 1517, which led to the pillaging of the country by those who profited from the weakened central political, religious, and social ruling structures. The religiously motivated Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), which erupted a century after Luther's death, devastated Germany's territory and its moral fiber until the age of French absolutism. During this period, also known as the Enlightenment, Prussian king Frederick the Great (1740-1786) became a patron of the American Revolution. Frederick sent Baron von Steuben, Johannes DeKalb, and others to train American military novices at Valley Forge and elsewhere.

During the Napoleonic period, the Holy Roman Empire dissolved in favor of the Deutscher Bund (German Confederation), a loose confederation of individual sovereign states that functioned with a single participatory government unit, the Bundestag, a delegated parliament in Frankfurt. The Bundestag often behaved like a monarchical oligarchy, suppressing freedom, enforcing censorship, and controlling the universities and political activity.

Arguments arose among the liberals over whether to establish a "greater Germany," along the lines of Great Britain, or a "smaller Germany," which would include only the more traditionally German principalities without Austria. Because Austria wanted to bring into the union its more than a dozen ethnic groups, the National Assembly opted for a smaller Germany, for which they offered a constitution to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. The king's rejection of the constitution triggered popular uprisings in the German states, which were in turn met by military suppression. A large group of German intellectual liberals, known as the Forty-eighters, immigrated to the United States during this period to escape persecution. The contemporary flag of Germany with its black, red, and gold stripes derives from the flag of the Forty-eighter parliament.

Following three short wars in 1864, 1866, and 1870, the new Prussian chancellor Bismarck united the remaining German states into the smaller German Reich, which lasted until World War I. German industry grew during the late nineteenth century. Domestic unrest erupted when Kaiser Wilhelm I attempted to suppress the domestic socialist working class. In the early twentieth century, Germany struck up alliances with Austria and the age-old Ottoman Turkey, triggering fear abroad. Ultimately, the entente between France, England, and Russia led to Germany's defeat in World War I in November 1918.


With the framers of the Versailles Treaty, German Social Democrats and the Catholic Center Party succeeded in writing a constitution dubbed the Weimar Republic. The Republic was doomed from the outset by its struggles with burdensome war reparations, inflation, foreign military occupation west of the Rhine, a war guilt clause in the Versailles Treaty, and heavy losses of territory. In 1925 Field Marshal von Hindenburg, a hero on the Eastern Front in World War I, was elected president. Stricken by the political-economic disaster of 1929, Hindenburg in 1933 appointed to the chancellorship Adolf Hitler. Hitler promptly banned parties, expelled Communists from the government, and restructured the military. Hitler's goals were to purify Germany by removing people with all but the purest Teutonic blood and to expand German territory throughout Europe. In 1940 Germans occupied France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Austria, and Hungary, and acted on the policy of extermination of unwanted peoples that nearly resulted in destroying the Jews and Gypsies of Europe.

Hitler's troops rounded up Jews in Germany and in other countries forcing them to give up their lands and property. Systematically, Jews and political prisoners in Western Europe were shipped from Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Holland to forced-labor camps and to prisons. Concentration camps, which held Jews captive without regard for the accepted norms of arrest, appeared in France, Germany, and Austria, as well as Poland and Czechoslovakia. There were camps built to exterminate the Jews; most were gassed, but some were shot, drowned, or starved to death. Nearly six million people were killed by Nazi command although there was some national resistance. When Germany was defeated in World War II, the country was divided into several parts governed by the various countries of the opposing armies. Eventually the Western countries that had opposed the Germans combined their sections into a European-influenced West Germany. This part of Germany was established as a democratic republic in 1949. The territory of Germans in the east was formed into a Russian satellite, and East Germany became a communist people's republic. For nearly 40 years distrust among Germans was encouraged by the Soviet Union on the one hand and by the West on the other. Both feared a united Germany. Finally in 1990 a revolution in East Germany deposed the communist regime there and the leaders sought reunification with West Germany. The two German states agreed to reunite under a two-house parliament and the pattern of free elections that had been developed by West Germany. Germany has worked to balance the economies of an agriculturally entrenched east and a west with a long-standing industrial sector.


Since their arrival at Jamestown in 1607 along with the English, Germans have been one of the three largest population components of American society. When Columbus arrived in America in 1492, he did so in the name of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, that is, with the entitlement of the Habsburgs who also ruled Germany as part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was a German cosmographer, Martin Waldseemüller, who suggested that the New World be designated "America."

German immigration began in the seventeenth century and continued throughout the postcolonial period at a rate that exceeded the immigration rate of any other country; however, German immigration was the first to diminish, dropping considerably during the 1890s. Contrary to myth, the first German immigrants did not originate solely in the state of Pfalz. Although emigrants from Pfalz were numerous from 1700 to 1770, equally high percentages came from Baden, Württemberg, Hesse, Nassau, and the bishoprics of Cologne, Osnabrück, Münster, and Mainz. During the American pre-Revolutionary War period, immigrants came primarily from the Rhine valley, an artery that gives access to the sea. German emigration during this period was almost exclusively via French or Dutch ports like LeHavre or Rotterdam.


Between 1671 and 1677 William Penn made trips to Germany on behalf of the Quaker faith, resulting in a German settlement that was symbolic in two ways: it was a specifically German-speaking ward, and it comprised religious dissenters. Pennsylvania has remained the heartland for various branches of Anabaptists: Old Order Mennonites, Ephrata Cloisters, Brethren, and Amish. Pennsylvania also became home for many Lutheran refugees from Catholic provinces (e.g., Salzburg), as well as for German Catholics who also had been discriminated against in their home country.

By 1790, when the first census of Americans was taken, more than 8.6 percent of the overall population of the United States was German, although in Pennsylvania more than 33 percent was German. During the Revolutionary War, these German Americans were numerically strengthened by the arrival of about 30,000 Hessian mercenaries who fought for England during the hostilities, of whom some 5,000 chose to remain in the New World after the war ceased.

In addition to those who had arrived for political and religious reasons until about 1815, Americans and some foreign shippers brought many Germans to America under the redemptioner system. The scheme was that a German peasant traveled on a sailing vessel without charge and on arrival at an Atlantic port was sold to an American businessman to work from four to seven years to redeem his passage and win his freedom. Some of the early sectarians—Baptist Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, Moravian Brethren, and others—were only able to reach America in this way.

Populous as German immigrants to America were by the end of the eighteenth century, the major waves of immigration came after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Germany's economy suffered in several ways. Too many goods were imported, especially cloth from industrialized England. Antiquated inheritance laws in southwestern Germany caused land holdings continuously to be divided, rendering farms too minuscule for assistance. A failing cottage industry collapsed when faced by a flood of foreign products. Finally, the population had grown artificially large because of growing dependence on the potato. Like Ireland, rural Germany in the 1840s was suddenly hit by famine precipitated by the potato blight.

Because the 1848 revolutions in Europe failed to bring democracy to Germany, several thousand fugitives left for America in addition to the nearly 750,000 other Germans who immigrated to America in the following years. While a mere 6,000 Germans had entered the United States in the 1820s, nearly one million did so in the 1850s, the first great influx from Germany. Despite annual fluctuations, especially during the Civil War period when the figure dropped to 723,000, the tide again swelled to 751,000 in the 1870s and peaked at 1,445,000 in the 1880s.

During the nineteenth century religious and political refugees were numerous. During the 1820s, for example, Prussia forced a union of the Reformed and Lutheran congregations, which by the late 1830s caused many Old Lutherans to emigrate. Saxon followers of Martin Stephan came in 1839 to escape the "wickedness" of the Old World. Other refugees were the Pietists, who founded communal

In this 1949 photograph, a two-year-old girl waits for her parents to complete their customs inspection in New York City following the family's arrival from Germany.
In this 1949 photograph, a two-year-old girl waits for her parents to complete their customs inspection in New York City following the family's arrival from Germany.
societies in America (including Harmony and Economy Pennsylvania—established by the Rappists—as well as Zoar in Ohio, St. Nazianz in Wisconsin, and Amana in Iowa).

Societies sponsored by German princes sought to use emigration as a solution to social problems at home. For example, the Central Society for German Emigrants at Berlin (1844), the National Emigration Society at Darmstadt (1847), the Giessener Emigration Society (1833), and the Texas Braunfels Adelsverein (1843) operated on the principle that a one-way ticket for the downtrodden was cheaper than a long-term subsidy. Also influential in unleashing a tidal wave of German emigration were writers like Gottfried Duden whose book (1829) about Missouri became a best-seller.

During the 1850s small farmers and their families dominated the first major wave of immigrants, who often came from southwest Germany. Soon after artisans and household manufacturers were the main arrivals from the more central states of Germany, while day laborers and agricultural workers from the rural northeast estates characterized subsequent waves of German immigrants. Not until German industrialization caught up with the English in the late nineteenth century did German emigrants no longer have to leave the country to improve their lives. Beginning in the late 1880s and for several decades thereafter, migrants from depressed German agricultural regions were destined less for America than for the manufacturing districts of Berlin, the Ruhr, and the Rhine in Germany itself.

"W e were stationed in Hamburg in a tremendous big place. It was sort of an assembly building where you got processed. There was an exodus from Europe at that time, and they had all races in this place. You could see people from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, you name it. I can't describe the way I felt—it was part fear, it was exciting. It's something I'll never forget."

Ludwig Hofmeister in 1925, cited in Ellis Island: An Illustrated History of the Immigrant Experience, edited by Ivan Chermayeff et al. (New York: Macmillan, 1991).

Interspersed among these waves of economic emigrants were fugitives from oppression, including thousands of German Jews who left because of economic and social discrimination. Young men sometimes fled to avoid serving in the Prussian military. Organized industrial laborers also fled the antisocialist laws enacted when a would-be assassin threatened the life of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm I, who blamed socialist labor leaders for the attempt. Catholics, too, were oppressed by Bismarck's infamous May Laws during the 1870s, which suppressed the influence of the Catholic Center Party and its drive for greater democracy during the first decade of the new emperor's reign.

Also during the latter half the nineteenth century, a host of agents fanned out across Germany to drum up emigration. Some were outright recruiters who were technically outlawed. More often these agencies took the form of aid societies working to better the lot of the emigres in Germany, such as the Catholic Raphael Society, the Bavarian Ludwigsmissionsverein, the Leopoldinen Stiftung in Vienna, the Pietist society of Herrnhut in Saxony, and the Lutheran support groups at Neuendettelsau of Franconia in northern Bavaria. Frankenmuth, Michigan, for example, traces its roots to the latter organization. Aiding the immigrants on this side of the Atlantic were such agencies as the Catholic Leo House in New York and the Central-Verein in St. Louis. Much better funded promoters were those established by the north-central states (most prominently, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) as they joined the Union, many of which had ample support from their legislatures for their Immigration Commissioners. Even more influential were transcontinental railroads that sent agents to the ports of debarkation along the Atlantic and Germany to recruit immigrants to either take up their land grants or supply freight activity for their lines. Especially active was the Northern Pacific during the time when German immigrant Henry Villard headed the corporation and sought to populate his land grant with industrious German farmers.

In the latter phases of German immigration, newcomers joined established settlers in a phenomenon called "chain migration." Chain migration is defined as the movement of families or individuals to join friends and family members already established in a given place. Chain migration strengthened the already existing German regions of the United States. One such concentrated settlement pattern gave rise to the phrase "German triangle," that is, St. Paul, St. Louis, and Cincinnati, with lines stretching between them so that the triangle incorporates Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Davenport, and other strongly German cities. Other descriptors include the more accurate "German parallelogram," which stretches from Albany westward along the Erie Canal to Buffalo and farther westward through Detroit to St. Paul and the Dakotas, then south to Nebraska and Kansas, back to Missouri, and eastward along the Ohio River to Baltimore. Except for large settlements in Texas, San Francisco, and Florida, German American settlement is still largely contained within the German belt.

The number of German Americans has remained constant. From 1850 to 1970 German was the most widely used language in the United States after English. In the 1990 U.S. census, 58 million Americans claimed sole German or part-German descent, demonstrating the persistence of the German heritage in the United States.

Dancing is just one of the many fun activities at the New Ulm, Minnesota German Heritagefest.
Dancing is just one of the many fun activities at the New Ulm, Minnesota German Heritagefest.


Germans settled in different locations depending upon when they arrived and where the best locations for economic opportunity were situated. When France, which had attempted to colonize Louisiana in the early eighteenth century with the help of Germans, assumed an important role in the cotton trade, German immigrants arrived in New Orleans and made their way up the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri rivers. Others arrived in New York and travelled the Erie Canal and the Great Lakes to the Midwest. The primary port of arrival for early immigrants was Philadelphia and many Germans chose to settle in Pennsylvania. The German American population of 58 million breaks down demographically as follows: 39 percent live in the Midwest, 25 percent in the South, 19 percent in the West, and 17 percent in the Northeast. With regard to specific states, Americans reporting German ancestry are the most numerous in California, followed by Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Texas. In terms of absolute numbers, the Germans have always been at their largest in New York City. The German Americans are nowhere more densely settled than in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa-in the traditional German belt.

Acculturation and Assimilation

In many respects, the Germans were slower to assimilate than their fellow immigrants from other countries. This was due in part to their size and in part to their overall percentage of the population. When a cross-section of basic needs can be supplied within an ethnic community, the need to assimilate in order to survive is less urgent. Germans had their own professionals, businesses, clergy, churches, and especially schools. However, second generation German immigrants were drawn more quickly into the mainstream and the survival of German communities depended upon immigration.


The true picture of German culture differs substantially from that presented in the popular media

This German American Tricentennial Multicycle from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is traveling along Fifth Avenue in New York City during the 1988 Steuben Day Parade.
This German American Tricentennial Multicycle from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is traveling along Fifth Avenue in New York City during the 1988 Steuben Day Parade.
where Germans are presented as either brutal or as jolly, overweight, and beer-guzzling. Equally enigmatic is post-World War II German Americans' perception of their heritage as inseparable from certain icons and costumes, notably, beer mugs, fast high-quality cars, sausage and sauerkraut— enlivened by the spirit of Bavarian folk music. In the United States Bavarian culture is regarded as synonymous with all German culture, even though Bavarian customs and language are confined to the regional state of Bavaria and its capital, Munich. German Day festivals almost always feature Bavarian dance and clothing such as the lederhosen (men's shorts with suspenders) and the dirndl (women's full skirt). Replicas of German cities—such as Leavenworth, Washington, or Frankenmuth, Michigan— invariably assume an air of Alpine Bavaria.


In addition to traditional American holidays, Catholic communities celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi in which there are outdoor processions to altars decorated with flowers. At the Epiphany, neighbors visited from house-to-house and young men adorned with paper crowns would sing in exchange for treats. The German Christmas served as the basis for the American celebrations; it emphasizes the family and the exchange of gifts; often, the Christmas tree is not illuminated until Christmas eve. December 6 was the traditional time of St. Nicholas' visit. Another tradition that has survived from German American communities is the greeting of the New Year by gunfire—young men would ride horses through the neighborhood and fire their shotguns when midnight arrived.


The German language is related to Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, and Icelandic, as well as to English. High German, the dialect spoken in the east-west central geographic elevation, differs linguistically from the language spoken in the lowerlying geographic regions of northern Germany, where once Low German was in everyday usage. It is also radically different from Bavarian and Swiss German which typically is voiced in the southern, more Alpine regions. Spoken natively by 100 million people, German is the mother tongue of thousands of people who live beyond all of Germany's current borders. Ten percent of all books published in the world are in German.

Family and Community Dynamics

There was a low rate of tenancy among early German immigrants, who purchased homes as early as possible. German Americans have traditionally placed a high value upon home ownership and prefer those made of brick. The traditional German American family was essentially patriarchal with women assuming subservient roles. Because many German immigrants were from agricultural areas, they brought with them a traditional concept of the family. Farm families were, of necessity, large and family members worked together for the good of all. Wives and daughters worked together with husbands and sons to manage the harvests. In families whose work was not farm-centered, though, wives worked with their husbands in small family operated businesses. Children frequently left school early with the boys entering family businesses and the girls entering domestic service. According to 1880 census figures, though, a smaller proportion of German American women were part of the work force than other immigrant groups. Those who were employed outside the home did not work in factories or in jobs in which a knowledge of English was necessary; instead, they labored in janitorial work or the service industry.


To emphasize the importance of their language in the transmission of cultural values, German Americans strove to maintain their own German-language schools, first by establishing private institutions and later, after 1849, by pressuring school districts to offer German or bilingual education where parents requested it. In addition to the German-language instruction offered in the public schools, there was the instruction in the parochial schools operated especially by Catholics and Lutherans, which enrolled thousands of the children of German immigrants.

Parochial schools started in colonial times and continued through the nineteenth century, sometimes sponsored by nonreligious organizations such as a local German school society which functioned as legal owner of the school. Some of these schools operated according to new pedagogical principles and had a lasting impact on the American school system. For example, they introduced kindergarten. At all school levels sports programs, which had their origin in the German socialist Turner societies, became an integral aspect of American training for physical fitness. A few German American leaders dreamed of having their own university with German as the language instruction, but in spite of Kultur enthusiasm, it never came to fruition.

At the lower levels Germans achieved success in the political arena. When the question of teaching subjects in German drew the attention of truancy alarmists in Wisconsin and Illinois around 1890, the Wisconsin legislature passed the infamous Bennett Law, which required that children attend school more faithfully and which added the stipulation that at least some of the subjects be taught in English. In Illinois a similar measure was called the Edwards Law. As a result, the Lutheran and Catholic constituents of these states campaigned to defeat Wisconsin's governor William Dempster Hoard and to free the German language schools of state intervention. Over time, however, German faded in favor of English.

To supply teachers for these many schools, German Americans maintained a teachers' college while the Turner gymnastic societies developed their own teacher preparation institute for the production of scholars who would educate pupils. After the turn of the twentieth century, a special three-million-strong organization, the German American Alliance, actively promoted the cause of Germans. It did so in part to preserve their culture and in part to maintain a clientele for German products like newspapers, books, and beer. In 1903 the Alliance urged in its German-American Annals, "Only through the preservation of the German language can our race in this land be preserved from entire disappearance. The principal aim should be the founding of independent parochial schools in which the language of instruction would be German, with English as a foreign language."

Elementary German language school enrollments reached their zenith between 1880 and 1900. In 1881 more than 160,000 pupils were attending German Catholic schools and about 50,000 were in Missouri Synod Lutheran schools. Of the roughly one-half million people attending school with a curriculum partly or all in German, as counted by the German American Teachers Association around 1900, 42 percent were attending public schools, more than a third were in Catholic schools, and 16 percent were in Lutheran private schools.

However, when World War I broke out, the German element was so discredited in the United States that when Congress declared war in April 1917, within six months legal action was brought not only to dampen considerably German cultural activities but also to eliminate the German language from American schools. The flagship case was the Mockett Law in Nebraska, which anti-German enthusiasts repealed. Eventually, 26 other states followed suit, banning instruction in German and of German. When the Missouri Synod Lutherans of Nebraska brought the test case, Meyer v. Nebraska, the ban on German was reconfirmed by all the courts until it reached the U.S. Supreme Court. On June 4, 1923, the Supreme Court held that a mere knowledge of German could not be regarded as harmful to the state, and the majority opinion added that the right of parents to have their children taught in a language other than English was within the liberties guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Nevertheless, as a language of instruction in schools, during church service, and at home, German gradually drifted into oblivion as assimilation accelerated.


Religious differences have characterized the German people. Most of the population is Protestant and practice a form of Lutheranism—the Protestant Reformation church created by the German religious leader Martin Luther. Religion was important to German immigrants and the lack of ministers attracted Moravian missionaries in the early eighteenth century. The success of these churches strengthened the established Reformed churches, which rejected the ecumenical stance of the Moravians. In the eighteenth century the language, doctrine, and rituals of some of the established synods of the Reformed church had become Americanized and they were unable to attract new immigrants. The conservative synods, such as the Missouri Synod, were more successful, however.

Many German immigrants were Catholic; but because the Catholic church was controlled essentially by the Irish there was much friction between the two groups. Many parishes were established by lay people, which resulted in frequent friction between the pastors and trustees in pioneer churches. The German American churches, which used the German language exclusively, featured a liturgy rich with ritual and music and offered its parishioners a variety of associations and societies. They also addressed numerous social needs by supporting and operating orphanages and hospitals. By the twentieth century, however, many of the German American Catholic parishes underwent severe attrition when many of its members moved to suburban mixed parishes.

Politics and Government

On the whole, Germans in America have been reluctant to participate in politics. They arrived without the necessary language skills, even if they had not lacked a tradition that conditioned them for political participation. Thus, at the national level, the first and most prominent German figure in American politics was Carl Schurz, who was influential in the election of Abraham Lincoln, served as ambassador to Spain, became a general in the Civil War, later was elected U.S. senator from Missouri, and finally was appointed Secretary of the Interior under Rutherford Hayes. At the state level, too, the Germans seem to have avoided public office. Except for John P. Altgeld, the German-born governor of Illinois from 1893 to 1897, no German was ever elected to head an American state. Even in the U.S. Senate, few German-born and a surprisingly small number of German Americans have ever entered that upper house.

Not until Dwight D. Eisenhower was there an American president with a German surname. Eisenhower's ancestors were colonial Pennsylvania Germans who had moved to Texas and then Kansas, but certainly this president was no friend of Germans. Political scientists have shown how strongly the Germans came to resent Franklin Roosevelt and General Eisenhower for their defeat of Germany during World War II. This resulted in a fading from Democratic Party support until the candidacy of President Harry Truman in 1948. During that campaign the German American electorate returned in droves to their traditional Democratic Party, handing Truman a surprise victory over Republican Thomas E. Dewey. Apparently, Truman's strong stand against Stalin at Potsdam, his subsequent anti-communist actions in Greece, and his May 1948 decision to save Berlin by airlift aided his November reelection chances with German Americans. There was no similar outpouring for Eisenhower in 1952, who won in spite of only mild German support.


Occupationally, the Germans were skilled in such trades as baking, carpentry, and brewing. They were also laborers, farmers, musicians, and merchants. According to the 1870 census figures, 27 percent of German Americans were employed in agriculture, 23 percent in the professions, and 13 percent in trades and transportation. By 1890, however, some 45 percent reportedly were laborers or servants, perhaps as a result of industrial workers' migration rather than a farmers' migration. This may explain why the labor movement in the United States gained considerable impetus from its German component.

The mid-nineteenth century witnessed the introduction of the communist ideologies of Wilhelm Weitling (1808-1871) and Joseph Weydemeyer (1818-1866), which gave impetus to early struggles for social and economic reform. The International Workingmen's Association in America was founded in 1869 as the first of the communist and socialist groups in America; and its membership was predominantly German American. And in 1886, German American anarchists were also instrumental in the forming of the labor movement implicated in the infamous Chicago Haymarket bombing during the labor strikes of that period. Had it not been for the greater need for workers to unite against their employers and join the American Federation of Labor (AFL), German trade unions might have been consolidated in the late 1880s. In future years many leaders of American labor were German American, including Walter Reuther, who fought on the picket lines during the 1930s before becoming president of the AFL-CIO following World War II. For German immigrants, labor union membership enabled them to not only improve working conditions, it helped them to form a solidarity with workers from other ethnic backgrounds.


During the period from 1945 to 1990, the United States, with allies Great Britain and France, officially occupied West Germany, each in a special zone. The Americans occupied Bavaria, the Rhine-Main Frankfurt, and Palatinate areas. Each country was also allocated a sector in the capital of Berlin. During the Cold War, dramatic confrontations focused on Berlin because it lay 110 miles behind the Iron Curtain. For 11 months in 1948 and 1949, the Soviets noosed a land blockade around the city, only to have the Allies supply the needs of two million inhabitants by air. For example, when the city's electrical power supply was severed, West Berliners lived in darkness until an entire generating plant could be flown in and assembled on site.

After Khrushchev met John F. Kennedy at a June summit in Vienna, East German border police erected the Berlin Wall on August 13, 1961. Throughout the Cold War, the wall was an important political symbol. It figured in the political phraseology of each U.S. president, most prominently in Kennedy's "Ich bein ein Berliner" speech at the city hall, which endeared him to Berliners for all time. After the collapse of Communism the wall was dismantled in 1990. Today a small portion of the wall stands as a museum. Before unification of the two Germanies on October 3, 1990, the four World War II Allied victors' flags were lowered from the Komandatura palace in Berlin. Thus ended four decades of control, returning Germany to full international autonomy, which further restored the confidence of Americans in their German descent. With its strong economy and continuous universal military conscription, Germany remains the linchpin of NATO and the core member in the European Community.

Individual and Group Contributions

German immigrants to the United States have distinguished themselves in virtually every field of endeavor. John Roebling (1806-1869) is still known from his prowess with bridges, although the once famous empire builder, John Jacob Astor (1763-1848), is little remembered for his American Fur Company. Baron Friedrich von Steuben (1730-1794) commands respect as a military hero, but cartoonist Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is all but forgotten, although his elephant and donkey mascots for the Republicans and Democrats and his Santa Claus are not. With the arrival of the computer screen, Ottmar Mergenthaler's (1854-1899) famous Linotype printing system has met oblivion. Even Wernher von Braun's (1912-1977) pioneer rocketry, which still carries Americans and their satellites into outer space, is fading from consciousness.


In business John August Sutter (1803-1880) is remembered less for his Pacific trading prowess than for the fact that gold was found on his California land holdings in 1848. Claus Spreckels developed sugar refining in California and Hawaii, while Frederick Weyerhaeuser masterminded the Northwest timber industry. Henry Villard, born Heinrich Hilgard, completed the Northern Pacific Railroad. Prominent brewers include Philip Best, Valentin Blatz, Frederick Miller, Joseph Schlitz, and the Coors and the Anhaeuser-Busch families.


In music there were the father and son Walter Damrosch (1862-1950) and Leopold Damrosch, and Bruno Walter Schlesinger, all conductors in New York; opera singers Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1861-1936) and Lotte Lehmann (1888-1976); the composers Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) and Kurt Weill (1900-1950); film musicians such as Franz Waxman (1906-1967), Frederick Hollander (1896-1976), and Andre Previn (1929– ), also renowned for his classical music.


In atomic energy Albert Einstein (1879-1955) is the most prominent scientist. In the laboratories it was his German-born colleagues, Nobel laureates James Franck (1882-1964), Otto Loewi (1873-1961), Victor Hess (1883-1964), Felix Bloch (1905-1983), Otto Stern (1888-1969), and Hans Bethe (1906– ) who mattered. On the Manhattan Project they worked with two German-educated Hungarians, Edward Teller (1908– ) and Leo Szilard (1898-1964), all under the command of Julius Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967), the American-born son of Forty-eighter immigrants, who had taken his Ph.D. at the University of Goettingen before engineering the bomb. Szilard and the German-born scientists Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) and Max Delbrück (1906-1981) later worked closely with colleagues to develop the Crick-Watson model of DNA. George Westinghouse (1846-1914) invented, among many other things, the air brakes to stop trains. For his electric motors, Charles Steinmetz (1865-1923) became known as the wizard of Schenectady.


George Herman Erhardt Ruth (1895-1948), better known as Babe, and Lou Gehrig, both the sons of German immigrants, continue to enjoy sports fame.


Carl Laemmle (1867-1939) founded Universal Studios. Famous actors of German descent include: one of the best known actresses of her time, Marlene Dietrich (1902-1992); Conrad Veidt (1893-1943), who appeared in The Thief of Baghdad and Casablanca; Lilli Palmer (1914-1986); Werner Klemperer (1920-1996), known most for his role of Colonel Klink in the 1960s television series Hogan's Heroes; and leading lady in many films during the 1960s and 1970s, Elke Sommer (1940– ). Renowned directors include: Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947), known for the "Lubitsch Touch" in his comedies and an inspiration to fellow directors Orson Welles and Billy Wilder; William Dieterle (1893-1972), director of Elephant Walk (1954); Anthony Mann (1906-1967) of El Cid; and Roland Emmerich (1955– ), famed for modern-day block-busters Independence Day and Godzilla.


In architecture the famous Bauhaus School was headed by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) at Harvard and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) in Chicago. Marcel Breuer and Josef Albers (1888-1976) created the designation "modern design," overshadowed now by the so-called postmodern style.



Amerika Woche.

Newspaper with text in English and German.

Contact: Werner Baroni, Editor.

Address: 4732 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60625.

Telephone: (312) 275-5054.

Der Deutsch-Amerikaner/German American Journal.

Newspaper published by the German American National Congress; promotes the organization's efforts to maintain German culture, art, and customs.

Contact: Ernst Ott, Editor.

Address: 4740 North Western Avenue, Second Floor, Chicago, Illinois 60625.

Telephone: (312) 275-1100.

Fax: (312) 274-4010.

German Life.

Bi-monthly magazine on German culture, history, and travel, which also focuses on the German-American experience.

Contact: Heidi L. Whitesell, Editor-in-Chief.

Address: Zeitgeist Publishing, 226 N. Adams St., Rockville, Maryland 20850-1829.

Telephone: (301) 294-9081.

Fax: (301) 294-7821.


Online: .

IGAR News.

Monthly publication of the Institute for German American Relations; promotes friendly German American relations through education.

Contact: Dr. Bruce D. Martin, Editor.

Address: 9380 McKnight Road, Suite 102, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 15237-5951.

Telephone: (412) 364-6554.

Nordamerikanische Wochen-Post.

Published in Troy, Michigan, this weekly carries a front page directly from Germany, reports on many German American organizations, and includes coverage of business activity in Germany. It is currently the best-edited and most widely distributed such publication in America.

Contact: Regina Bell, Editor.

Address: Detroit Abend-Post Publishing Co., 1120 East Long Lake Road, Troy, Michigan 48098.

Telephone: (313) 528-2810.

Fax: (313) 528-2741.

Society for German-American Studies— Newsletter.

Quarterly publication of the Society; focuses on German immigration and settlements in the United States and on German American history and culture.

Contact: LaVern J. Rippley, Editor.

Address: St. Olaf College, Northfie, Minnesota 55057.

Telephone: (507) 663-3233.

New Yorker Staats-Herold is the oldest and among the best North American German-language publications. America Woche, Wächter und Anzeiger, California Staats-Zeitung, and similar publications typify efforts of regional German-language newspapers to continue their noble traditions. The Deutsch-Amerikanische Nationalkongress, headquartered in Chicago, publishes its own monthly, as do a number of its chapters.


German-language programs on radio stations abound. There are at minimum one-hour radio programs on perhaps a dozen radio stations in Chicago, and several radio programs in Milwaukee; Pittsburgh; Detroit; Saginaw; St. Paul; Cleveland; Toledo; Cincinnati; Denver; Seminola, Florida; New Braunfels, Texas; and on the West Coast.

Organizations and Associations

Throughout the German belt there continue to exist hundreds of German societies. In Michigan alone where the Wochen-Post carries a listing, there are 28 ranging from the Arion singers and the Berlin Verein to Schwäbischer Männerchor and the Verein der Plattdeutschen (Low German speakers). In other states there are dozens more, some representing Germans from beyond the borders of the nation, such as the German-Bohemian Society of New Ulm, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck, and the Transylvanian Saxons in Cleveland. New York City alone has perhaps 100 German clubs, listed periodically in the local German newspaper. So, too, hundreds of once German-language churches offer services routinely but not regularly, sometimes weekly, more often monthly for a persistent but waning German-language clientele.

German American Information and Education Association (GIEA).

Patriotic conservative organization seeking to improve the public image of "Germanity" and to publicize contributions to American culture made by German Americans.

Contact: Stanley Rittenhouse, President.

Address: P.O. Box 10888, Burke, Virginia 22015.

Telephone: (703) 425-0707.

German American National Political Action Committee (GANPAC).

Seeks to represent what the committee considers to be the interests of German Americans.

Contact: Hans Schmidt, Chair.

Address: P.O. Box 1137, Santa Monica, California 90406.

Museums and Research Centers

The Society for German American Studies, headquartered at the University of Cincinnati, functions as a scholarly umbrella for many others that have a more social or genealogical orientation. The Pennsylvania German Society in Philadelphia has a major library, while research centers with the name Max Kade Institutes recently have sprung up on university campuses, notably, at Madison, Wisconsin; Lawrence, Kansas; Indianapolis; and Penn State. There is no semblance of a German American museum, although local historical societies in the "German" states have much material.

Sources for Additional Study

America and the Germans: An Assessment of a Three-Hundred-Year History, two volumes, edited by Frank Trommler and Joseph McVeigh. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985.

Cook, Bernard A., and Rosemary Petralle Cook. German Americans. Vero Beach, Florida: Rourke Corp., 1991.

Emigration and Settlement Patterns of German Communities in North America, edited by Eberhard Reichmann, La Vern J. Rippley, and Jörg Nagler. Indianapolis: Max Kade German-American Center, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis; Nashville, Indiana: Produced and distributed by NCSA LITERATUR, 1995.

Kloss, Heinz. Atlas of German-American Settlements. Marburg: Elwert, 1974.

News from the Land of Freedom: German Immigrants Write Home, edited by Walter D. Kamphoefner, Wolfgang Helbich, and Ulrike Sommer, translated by Susan Carter Vogel. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Piltz, Thomas. The Americans and the Germans. Munich: Heinz Moos, 1977.

Pond, Elizabeth. Beyond the Wall: Germany's Road to Unification. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993.

Rippley, La Vern J., and Eberhard Reichmann. The German-Americans: An Ethnic Experience, translated by Willi Paul Adams. Indianapolis: Max Kade German-American Center, 1993.

Totten, Christine M. Roots in the Rhineland: America's German Heritage in Three Hundred Years of Immigration, 1683-1983. New York: German Information Center, 1988.

Wust, Klaus. Three Hundred Years of German Immigrants in North America, 1683-1983: A Pictorial History. Baltimore and Munich: Heinz Moos, 1983.

User Contributions:

Ron Bremer
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Aug 1, 2007 @ 11:11 am
This website has one of the very best brief histories of Germany and its people. However, there is a problem relative to the Jewish exterminations. That part of this website is well-written by not factual. Meaning, the number of jews exterminated is greatly exerated. One dead jew is horrible but to say that six million were killed is a moral wrong. This situation is clearly explained by one of the german government organizations listed above. Please tell the truth in this regard. Most Sincerely, Ron Bremer
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Jan 6, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

THANK YOU!!!!:]]
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Nov 17, 2008 @ 5:17 pm
This article helped me a lot with my Germany project too, thanks!
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Aug 19, 2010 @ 11:23 pm
I am doing a paper and need to focus it on traditions that impact the German's health and be able to provide a cultural framework. Is there any resouces out there that would give me more information? Thank you
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Oct 27, 2010 @ 11:23 pm
Ron, it is estimated that 6 million Jews were killed. I thought this was a well known fact? I don't know but maybe you're confusing the actual numbers of people exterminated in the holocaust to how many Jews died in the holocaust. 12 million were murder, but that doesn't mean every one of those people were Jews.
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Jan 9, 2011 @ 6:06 am
Does anyone now the exact publish day of this article? I need to reference something from here
thank you
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Mar 16, 2011 @ 10:10 am
THANK YOU THIS HELPED ME A LOT especially on my germany project
calvin williams
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Mar 18, 2011 @ 11:11 am
i think that this website gives me alot of vital information about alot of interseting facts and i appreciate the people or person who put this website together
Angie Poe
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May 28, 2011 @ 6:18 pm
This article helped me a lot for my college work. Also, I am German and it is wonderful to find out more about my heritage here in the US.
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Dec 12, 2011 @ 6:18 pm
This article helped me with most of my project. I just need information on their food and the journey too America. If you could please add those in, that would be helpful. Thank you.
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Dec 13, 2011 @ 11:23 pm
I enjoyed reading this article, partly because I have German ancestry and because I think that it contains some great information about the history of German Americans. I would like to see something about the German internment camps or the German POW camps in America during WWI and WWII. Many were falsely accused and some natural born citizens were deported. However in some camps many were treated better than in the Japanese camps-There were usually dozens of camps per state adn weren't forced to move hundreds of miles like many Japanese Americans. Many German Americans were forced to leave thier livlihood and homes to live in tent cities, or temporary housing and sometimes were seperated from family and were put to work in a nearby factory or to do specific labor work in the community. Some naturaly born citizens were known to have been deported. I have lived in two towns where camps were located for German Americans during WWII. My Dad has stories passed down from his dad about his dad who knew people who had been falsely put into the camps. For me this has always been apart of my own history and a part of America's history. All I have are stories passed down to me as well as stories that friends of mine heard growing up as well across the midwest. I would love to see an article containing any real data. I've been trying to track down a few records for detainees in some camps, but it has been almost impossible.
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Jan 15, 2012 @ 3:15 pm
I too have a German ancestors and this has been very helpful in understanding more of anothers views and facts then what I was told by family. My grandmother was one of thirteen or more children and it has always been said that she was so very close to her families culture that if she could have had it she would have went back to her parents homeland. My great grandfather's name was like the cartoonist, Charles Schultz and I would truly love to learn more about all of my ancestors. It is that I have never thought to investigate until now. Any advise on where to begin? I am not interested in paying for family websites that offer to look up your family tree or background, just some information as to where I might look for myself. Thank You
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Jan 16, 2012 @ 3:15 pm
I'm really happy about all this good informations about my beautiful state. But there were some facts that aren't really right. But however, good article.
And to the readers: You can ask me some unanswered questions about Germany and the history if you want to.
Bye from Germany
Itaia Favae
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Dec 22, 2013 @ 1:01 am
Who was the owner of the scooner has one of the warship during the european contacts in the pacific?
Kenneth lange
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Dec 29, 2015 @ 8:20 pm
I was just curious about my German heritage my grandparents owned the triangle bar in Brooklyn NY ,but they never talked about Germany ever,only spoke English at home once in while they speak German when they didn't want me over hearing,You always hear people talking about there Irish or Italian back grounds,but Germans in America are usually quiet about it,at least the ones I know,was looking for some bragging rights, lol,
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Jan 18, 2017 @ 10:10 am
Good post! I read your blog often and you always post excellent content. I posted this article on Facebook and my followers like it. Thanks for writing this!

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