“It has been noted with astonishment that a state with so overwhelming a German population as Wisconsin has never yet sent a German to the US Senate and only once had a German governor.” So wrote Wilhelm Hense-Jensen in his 1900 Wisconsin’s Deutsch-Amerikaner. There may not have been many German Americans in high political office at the time, but there was no lack of civic engagement. Culturally, linguistically, and religiously diverse, they often held different political views but came together on certain issues, as in their opposition to temperance.
In the earliest days of statehood, Germans leaned toward the Democratic Party, which was more welcoming to immigrants than the Whigs. By the 1850s, many Germans, especially those who came after the failed European revolutions of 1848/49, supported the young Republican Party and its anti-slavery agenda. Most prominent among them was Carl Schurz. An early supporter of Lincoln, Schurz led the Wisconsin delegation to the Republican National Convention in 1860. In 1868, after moving to Missouri, he became the first German American elected to the US Senate.
Another Forty-Eighter, Mathilde Franziska Anneke, immigrated to Milwaukee in 1850 and immediately began advocating for women’s rights. In 1852, she launched the first feminist newspaper in the country, the Deutsche Frauen-Zeitung (German Women’s Newspaper). In 1865, she opened an academy for girls in the city, and in 1869 she was a key organizer of Wisconsin’s first women’s suffrage convention.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Germans in Wisconsin were inclined toward socialism. Victor Berger (1860–1829), an immigrant from Austria-Hungary who settled in Milwaukee in 1881, was a founder of the Social Democratic Party of America. In Milwaukee, Germans helped elect socialist mayors, aldermen, and state and federal legislators. The city’s last socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler (1912–2006), served from 1948 until 1960. Less ideological than pragmatic, the Social-Democratic Party of Wisconsin advocated for clean government and improving people’s lives. In Milwaukee that meant building parks, constructing water, sanitation, and power systems, and improving public education.
Additional Reading on “Civic and Political Engagement”
“Aspects of German Influences in Wisconsin Politics,” by Frank Zeidler. Lecture given at the Max Kade Institute, 1998.