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The German-American Experience

Book review by Ingeborg W. Smith, Western Springs, Illinois

Heinrich, Don. The German-American Experience. Amherst, New York: Humanity Books, 2000.


One has often heard it said that one-quarter of the population of the United States is of German blood, and that this is the largest ethnic group in the country. It is only fitting that these millions of Americans have an up-to-date history of their ancestors in this country, of the great two-hundred-year migration, the largest Völkerwanderung in history.

The German-American Experience has been worth waiting for. Don Heinrich Tolzmann is well-known in academic circles. He has written and edited many publications on German-American subjects. This is a welcome addition to the history of the Germans in America. It brings previous books on this subject up to date--being grounded in A.B. Faust's The German Element in the United States (1927) and Theodore Huebener's The Germans in America (1962). Dr. Tolzmann covers more ground in less space than does Faust. In 408 soft-cover pages, plus appendices and index, he not only refreshes our memory of von Steuben and Schurz, but points out that Peter Minuit of New Netherland, famous for buying Manhattan for $24, was also a German-American. Dr. Tolzmann, who meant only to add a few chapters to Huebener's book, has produced a basically new work, which rests upon the shoulders of its predecessors, Faust as well as Huebener.

He includes maps, charts, much Census information, appendices in abundance, even lists of German words that have become standard English, sister cities, a chronology of German-American history, a list of prominent German-Americans and fields in which German-American distinguished themselves.

Dr. Tolzmann starts with the legend of the first German in America, an explorer named Tryker, who accompanied Leif Ericson to the new world around the year 1,000. He was Ericson's foster father and was the member of the expedition who discovered the grapes and vines which gave the place the name "Vinland." Later, during the Age of Exploration, Germany not being a seafaring nation, Germans were active in the expeditions of others. They especially distinguished themselves in devising navigational aids.

The first German settlers in America came to the Jamestown colony in 1608, as glassmakers and carpenters. They built the first European-style house and manufactured the first glass, thus becoming the founders of industrial production. American society was going to be multiethnic and culturally diverse.

The author gives us the reasons people had for leaving Germany, from the devastation of the Thirty Years' War, the religious intolerance, the autocratic rulers, and finally, the Naturalization Act, passed in England in 1709, providing for the naturalization of all foreign Protestants, making it much easier to leave the old country.

The first permanent German settlement was founded at Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1683 by thirteen Mennonite and Quaker families from Krefeld, Germany. They sailed on the Concord. Considered the Mayflower of German immigration, landing on October 6, 1683. In 1987, October 6 was proclaimed "German-American Day" by Congress and the President.

In 1688, five years after the founding of Germantown, under the leadership of Franz Daniel Pastorius a group of Germantowners met and issued the first historical protest of its kind against slavery--more than 150 years before the Civil War. When they sent the document to the Quakers, they tabled the motion with excuses and no more was heard of it.

Benjamin Franklin held nativist views. Before the American Revolution, Pennsylvania, being one-third German and one-third English, Franklin and others feared that the Germans would become so numerous in Pennsylvania that, rather than be Anglicized, they would Germanize the English. He hoped that they could be induced to go to other colonies. In 1798 anti-German nativism produced the Alien and Sedition Act--the Federalists were the party of the privileged and wealthy. They did not want the Anglo element in America to be polluted by unrestricted immigration. How modern that sounds! The Act lengthened the required period of residence for naturalization from five to fourteen years. This so alienated the German-Americans that they voted overwhelmingly for Thomas Jefferson in 1800.

Most of the Germans supported the American Revolution and the Union side in the Civil War, and many of them campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans. An interesting sidelight is that, although it was not known to the pubic at the time, Lincoln bought a German newspaper, the Illinois Staats-Zeitung, allowing the editor to continue to publish it as long as it remained a Republican paper.

The most prominent German-American of the 19th century was Carl Schurz, a Forty-Eighter, or refugee from the abortive German revolution of 1848. He became a U.S. Senator, a foreign minister and personal friend of and advisor to President Lincoln, and a general in the Civil War. He was Secretary of the Interior under President Hayes. He pioneered conservation of the U.S. forests, reorganized the Indian Bureau and began the development of the National Parks System. He also promoted Civil Service reform. He was of rigid honesty and upright character.

Dr. Tolzmann is particularly good at explaining the anti-German hysteria in both world wars, and discussing the internment of German-Americans: 6,300 were interned during the First World War, and 10,905 during the Second World War. The anti-German hysteria and sentiment of the two world wars is interrelated, two parts of a whole. The measures that were taken during the First World War were in many cases not rescinded after it was over. They were in Carl Wittke's words "a violent, concerted and hysterical effort to eradicate everything of German origin" in America. The mere use of German on the phone or among neighbors was considered evidence of a conspiracy.

Between the wars anti-Germanism continued as if the war were still in progress. German-Americans regarded the enactment of prohibition as anti-German; their language, their heritage, and now their beverage were being taken away from them. The family Sunday afternoons in the beer garden were gone. They felt that government's main objective should be to guarantee and protect personal liberty--any attempt to legislate or control morality or what a person should think, drink or eat was regarded as an invasion of personal liberty. They valued their cultural heritage.

The brouhaha about the German-American Bund was not justified; it never had more than 6,300 members, of whom just over half were of German heritage.

As to the internments: since 1948 there have been nine laws enacted to provide for apology and redress to Japanese-Americans who were interned but there have been no overtures to German-Americans and others who were interned as well.

Dr. Tolzmann shows his optimism for the future in a chapter he calls "The American Renaissance" in which he points out the growing friendship between the United States and Germany, especially since unification. In this he is too kind. There are still strains, for example, Daniel Goldhagen's book in which he blames the entire German nation for the persecution of the Jews and the reviving push for reparations from present-day German corporations, fifty-five years after the war, with the U.S. government as one of the prime movers--to say nothing of the Jörg Haider flap.

Germans were pioneers in the cultural pluralism that is now recognized as the American condition. America is not, nor has it ever been a melting pot, but a nation of cultural pluralism and diversity. As Dr. Tolzmann states on page 237: "It would take the tragedy of World War I for American society to realize that it was not a melting pot, but a nation consisting of many ethnic elements."

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