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Germans in the New World: Essays in the History of Immigration

Book review by Marion Mertz

Luebke, Frederick C. Germans in the New World: Essays in the History of Immigration. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois, 1990.


“To understand three centuries of Germans in America is to understand ourselves. The German ingredient flavors the whole American pie.”

From a tiny settlement of a few families of Dutch and German origins in Pennsylvania in 1683 the Germans have grown to their present status as the immigrant group in the United States with the largest number of descendants.

Luebke has gathered, in whole or part, essays he had previously published in historical journals from 1965 to 1984. By doing so he aims to “...find the place of German immigrants in the broad context of social history.” The author has chosen to approach the adjustment of the German immigrants to the United States and Brazil from the standpoint of religion, language, leadership, politics, legal restrictions, and social influences. He treats each of the issues in chronological order, sometimes repeating. One of the most influential of the factors contributing to the adjustment of Germans to America was religion. Confused by the varied religions in their new country, the immigrants raised walls of isolation, contributing to religious rigidity even greater than that of the old country .They made every effort to perpetuate conservative doctrines. Feeling that the older groups were too liberal, a commanding figure, C. F. W. Walther, founded a new Lutheran organization in 1847, based on confessional and congregational principles, the German Lutheran Synod. In keeping with this feeling of isolationism, the Missouri Saxons, for example, had by 1900 founded preparatory schools, colleges, and seminaries to maintain a closed system of education. They felt contempt for the public education offered in Midwest schools at the time. Their worship and education took place in the German language. As a consequence, German printing establishments became a necessity.

The church, always a refuge in a new country, attracted fewer of the decreasing number of immigrants, and the synod took its place in the Americanization process. Jacob A. 0. Preus, of Norwegian ancestry, was elected head of the synod in 1969. A conservative, he effected the removal of John Tietjen, head of Concordia Seminary and a moderate, in 1974. The conservatism of the Lutheran church-Missouri Synod eventually caused a brain drain because men and women of talent sought more congenial environments elsewhere.

Drawn together by their common language, heritage, and problems, German immigrants gradually became aware of their potential power in economic, political, and sociological matters. They began to build a society within a society. The German-American alliance of Nebraska was founded in 1910, representing as many as one hundred lodges, singing societies, and other organizations. It was formed to unify the German community and to speak for it politically.

The parent organization, The National German-American Alliance, often called the National bund, was originally established to further cultural objectives. Very quickly the national organization became interested in opposing the prohibition movement. Prohibition was more than an issue; it was a threat to the German lifestyle. Germans liked their beer. In addition to their political activity, they were anxious to preserve their cultural heritage: "Germania our Mother, Columbia our Bride." The Alliance pursued a variety of projects: forestation, school committees which advocated placement of German literature in libraries, improvement of German language instruction in public school, stipends for teachers attending seminars, the addition of German literature to the State Traveling Library, and foreign language instruction on an elective basis in urban schools. The alliance was strongly opposed to women's suffrage, which they considered degrading and a menace to the home, threatening to take wife and mother from her proper place and make her a contestant in the political arena.

When the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917, President Wilson emphasized that that enemy was the imperial government of Germany, not the German people, their language, or their culture.

In 1928 H. L. Mencken stated that German Americans displayed a tendency to follow inferior men. “As Catholics they are slaves of their priests,” he said, "as Protestants they are slaves of their pastors; and when they leave the church they become slaves of the rust political buffoon they encounter.” Gradually, German-Americans, wounded by the humiliation, attempted a restoration of their former status. However, the Germans were so diverse socially, economically, culturally, and politically that they had no common interest great enough to bind them together. Similar to other Americans in physical, linguistic, and cultural characteristics, they were able to assimilate with astonishing ease when they so chose. Leaders such as Carl Schurz played the middle road. There was a swift transition to use the English language in churches and schools, a mandatory step to retain the loyalty of the younger generations. On the local level ethnic clubs, societies, and associations continued to exist, and then evolve into national organizations.

Eventually German-American leaders became openly assertive of their rights and hopes. In 1924 the majority of the German ethnic leaders rallied behind Robert M. La Follette as a third party candidate, not as much for what he favored as for what he opposed. La Follette went on record as being opposed to British and French dominance in international affairs, the Versailles Agreement, prohibition, women's suffrage, and American entry into the World War. German ethnic politics rested on a foundation of negativism. The failure of La Follette to win election in 1924 underscored the inability of German-American leaders to marshal ethnic forces.

In the 1928 presidential election the Germans were hopelessly split between Herbert Hoover and AI Smith. As Hitler rose to power in 1933, organizations such as the German-American Bund repeatedly demonstrated ignorance of American society, its ideals and values. They refused to condemn Hitler. Today, although the German-American national organizations have a place in society, no one listens. German ethnicity continues to exist in local organizations in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, and in parts of Florida and California. These groups are more social than political, more emotional than intellectual, and more organized to share values and attitudes.

In 1960 Irish Catholic John Kennedy drew German Catholics to the Democratic Party. In 1968 German Catholics once again switched to Republican votes because Nixon’s Democratic opponent, Hubert Humphrey, was a Protestant. In summary, German-American political developments have been conditioned by cultural influences.

According to a table of German immigration to the United States and Brazil, from 1820 to 1929 entry to the United States reached almost six million persons. In Brazil the number came to just over 200,000.

German emigrants to both the United States and Brazil were mostly of the middle and lower classes, seeking a better life in the New World. These immigrants were attracted to the United States because it was considered to be progressive and dynamic, a world leader in industry and technology. Brazil, on the other hand, offered an unfamiliar climate, uncertainty of land titles, undeveloped transportation systems, and a virtually nonexistent school system.

In the United States, Württembergers were concentrated in Philadelphia, Mecklenburgers in Milwaukee, and Hanoverians in Cincinnati and St. Louis. In New York in 1860 Bavarians dominated the Eleventh and Seventeenth wards, Prussians the Tenth, and Hessians the Thirteenth ward. Similar concentrations developed in Brazil.

There was an unprecedented influx of immigrants in the 1880s both in America and Brazil. Germans were welcome. They were intelligent, educated, and wealthy. Their most appealing qualities were their industry, thrift, and honesty. The German male was strongly attached to his family, orderly, disciplined, and stable. The German wife was a model of cleanliness and efficiency. National identity was stressed. Conformity to the dominant culture in language, manners, and religious beliefs was mandatory .The term, Americanization, came into frequent usage. In Brazil, German immigrants were regarded as desirable, not only because they would bring valuable skills with them, but also because they would "whiten” the population, which in 1890 was only 44 percent white.

When world war engulfed Europe in 1914 both the United States and Brazil declared their neutrality. However, in 1917 both countries declared war on Germany because their ocean-going vessels had been torpedoed by German submarines. The war introduced a period of persecution in both countries. In the United States citizens of German origin were oppressed: their music was banned, German streets and towns were renamed, language instruction was restricted, books were burned, and German newspapers were regulated. Germans were even beaten, arrested, and forced to kiss the American flag in public. In Brazil the prosperous Germans evoked even more antagonism. Property was damaged by mobs and seized by the president, German church services were outlawed, and all instruction in the German language was prohibited in the schools. As a consequence many German Brazilians became receptive to the Nazi siren song in the '30s.

Many professional historians offered their theories as to how immigrants adjusted to new surroundings. Fredrick Jackson Turner postulated that the exigencies of life in primitive circumstances forced people, regardless of their origins or culture, to adopt their ways to the physical realities of the place they had chosen for their new home. Oscar Handlin focused on the process of change that grew out of conflict between the immigrants and the native stock. In his Pulitzer Prize winner, The Uprooted, published in 1951, Handlin concentrated on the psychologica1 dimension, and how the individual responded to his new environment.

In his studies in 1961, Lee Benson found that cultural factors appeared to be more significant than class in explaining political history. John Bodnar concluded from his research in 1982 that the immigrant was interested only in finding a place in an unfamiliar economic order to secure the welfare and well-being of his familial base. Other writers also attempted to answer the question of ethnic adaptation to new climates.

In the final chapter Luebke summarizes the assimilation of German immigrants into the pattern of American society. Thirteen families from Krefeld, Germany, founded Germantown in 1683 in the American colonies. By the early 1750s approximately 37,000 Germans settled in America, mostly at Philadelphia. These pioneers, farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers, slowly drifted south to Baltimore, up the Mississippi River to Missouri, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, and even farther west to Texas. By the beginning of the twentieth century the number of first and second generation Germans in the United States had expanded to about eight million persons, more than ten percent of the entire population. The most important factor in determining the location of settlement in America was the pattern of chain migration. Growing letters to relatives and friends flew across the ocean and the chain continued. These pioneers wanted to settle among their own kind. Gradually behaviors and attitudes rooted in German ethnicity submerged silently into the behaviors and attitudes of middle-class America.

Germans in the New World has a very scholarly approach to a fascinating subject. Every line is packed with information, rich in detail. Every sentence is loaded with meaning. The book may sometimes seem repetitious because the subjective approach is used. However, tile book will be picked up again and again for its richness of resource.
Each chapter has copious notes for referral and further study. It has a detailed index. Slated to be referred to frequently, the book has conveniently been printed on acid-free paper.

Frederick C. Luebke is a Charles J. Mack Distinguished University Professor in the Department of History at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

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