Max Kade Institute

for German-American Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison

Immigration / Communities

According to the U.S. Census conducted in 2000, 42.8 million Americans (15.2% of the population) identified themselves as being of German ancestry. The next largest group, Irish Americans, comprised only 10.8% of the population. Between 1800 and the present an estimated seven million German-speakers emigrated to the U.S. The first significant wave arrived in the early 1850s from southwestern German states, as well as the German-speaking regions of Switzerland and the Austrian Empire; a second wave, which originated mostly in the northwestern and central German states, came after the Civil War; and the last and largest group of German-speaking immigrants arrived from the northeastern German lands in the 1880s. In the twentieth century the number of immigrants was smaller, with most coming after World Wars I and II: in the 1920s and 1950s.

Immigrants to North America came primarily for economic reasons. Socioeconomic distress periodically “pushed” migrants out of their homelands, while the “pull” of new opportunities in America was considerable. Most immigrants were attracted by the promise of financial security, which in the nineteenth century meant one thing above all: owning land. Other German-speaking immigrants moved for political or social reasons, including the so-called 48ers, who came after the failed European revolutions of 1848/49, seeking to realize their ideals of freedom and democracy in America. In the twentieth century, refugees from Nazi Germany and displaced persons after World War II made up a significant percentage of the German-speaking immigrants.