German-speaking immigrants who came to Wisconsin in the 19th and 20th centuries were just one small group in the big sea of global migration past and present. Like others who permanently relocated, they were pushed to leave their homeland for a variety of reasons, mostly economic, and simultaneously pulled by the hope of a better life in new country. For most, but not all, America had the strongest attraction. In the 19th century, Germans also immigrated to South America, Canada, Russia, and other countries, while in the closing decades of the 20th century hardly anybody in Germany felt impelled to leave. On the contrary, Germany itself is now a destination for immigrants, while newcomers to America mostly hail from Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
After German immigrants arrived in Wisconsin, they maintained communication with family and friends in their former homes. Letters were exchanged often into the second and third generations, and many German Americans returned for visits to Europe, especially after steamships made the journey more affordable. German-American newspapers reprinted articles directly from Europe, and German-American journalists published articles in European papers. Information and ideas were thus exchanged across the Atlantic, influencing how people on different continents viewed one another.
As one example, the Forty-Eighters who rose up against aristocratic rule in the German states in 1848/49 were inspired by the American Revolution. After their own attempts in Europe failed, many – such as Carl Schurz – immigrated to Wisconsin where their progressive philosophies and unique experiences helped shape the character of the state.
Commerce, too, has always been global. Wheat planted by a German-immigrant farmer in Wisconsin in the 1860s, for example, was sold on the world market and depressed the price for the crop in Germany, thus providing an indirect economic incentive for other German farmers to leave their homeland and seek their fortune in a place like Wisconsin.
A hundred years or more after their ancestors had come to this country, many German Americans became interested in genealogy and in learning where their ancestors came from. Through their research, many have found relatives in Europe, and new friendships across the globe have been formed.
While Wisconsinites of German background are now mostly monolingual English speakers, recent immigrants speak Spanish, Hmong, and a host of other languages. Some live in neighborhoods that were built decades ago by Germans and are once again bustling with different cultures and traditions, adding yet more threads to the multicultural tapestry that is the Badger State.
Additional Reading on “Local is Global”
200 Years of Immigration to the U.S., an interactive graphic presentation by Talia Bronshtein/ Insightful Interaction.
The Germans in America, a chronology created by the Library of Congress.
Shipping Made in Hamburg, The History of the Hapag Lloyd AG, Hapag Lloyd, Hamburg, Germany