How German Is American? Building Communities

How German Is American?



Soon after their arrival, German-speaking immigrants began organizing institutions around which community life revolved. Although many of these local groups, such as clubs and religious congregations, were ethnically fairly homogeneous, the new arrivals, having made the difficult decision to migrate, saw themselves as very much a part of their adopted community. Despite place names like New Berlin, New Glarus, and New Holstein, they did not, for the most part, strive to create “little Germanies” on the American landscape. A look at both secular and religious community institutions illustrates nicely the synthesis of Old and New World influences in the (post-)immigration context.

In American communities as far-flung as New York, Cincinnati, La Bahia (Texas), Plymouth (Wisconsin), Lawrence (Kansas), and San Diego, one can find meeting halls and theaters bearing the name “Turner” or “Turn Verein.” The Turner movement, founded in Berlin in 1811 by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, had an enormous impact on the development of American gymnastics, both as a sport and as a formalized program of instruction within the public schools. The first Turner societies in the United States were organized in 1848 by German immigrants and exiles fleeing their country after the failed democratic revolutions of 1848/49. These “Forty-Eighters” created athletic, cultural, and social organizations throughout the country in the tradition of the German Turnvereine, which in today’s Germany are only one of many types of “Sportvereine.” The Turner motto, “Sound Mind in a Sound Body,” expresses their vision for realizing human potential through the integration of intellectual and physical development.

Some of the more radical Forty-Eighters and Turners were also Freethinkers. Freethinkers promoted an attitude of liberalism and rationality unencumbered by religious dogma, and many supported progressive ideas such as public education reform, improved working conditions, voting rights for women, and the abolition of slavery. These issues were often raised among the Turners as well, and may explain in part the fact that large numbers of Turners enthusiastically responded to Lincoln’s call for volunteers in the Union army.

Milwaukee Turner boy bouncing on trampolilne
Photo courtesy of the Milwaukee Turners.

Many Turners, Forty-Eighters, and Freethinkers were motivated by decidedly secular ideals, and admittedly religion was not the primary factor in most immigrants’ decisions to leave their German homelands. Nevertheless, religion was profoundly important to the majority of the German-speaking immigrants, as it is today among their descendants, and the churches they built in America became important reflections of their origins and traditions. Traveling through rural Dodge County in southeastern Wisconsin, for example, one might come upon a little church with an unusual name: “Zum Kripplein Christi,” translated by the congregation as “To the little manger of Christ.” Established in 1849, this Evangelical Lutheran church is an example of the many houses of worship built by German immigrants. Today, Zum Kripplein Christi shares a pastor with nearby St. John’s Church and maintains an elementary school of the same name serving ten students.

Sign for Zum Kripplein Christi Evang. Lutheran ChurchUnlike other immigrant groups, German-speakers did not comprise a single, homogeneous religious group, and in America they were represented in numerous denominations. Thus, as early as the 1860s German-speakers in southeastern Wisconsin identified themselves as Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Quakers, Jews, or organized Freethinkers. Embracing the American model of individual religious freedom, German immigrants became more flexible in their choice of church, and individual congregations had a greater degree of autonomy than they would have had in Europe. Nevertheless, their desire to belong to a German community church frequently trumped their religious heritage. When German Americans belonged to historically Anglo-American denominations, they were often at odds with certain Yankee social mores. Especially with regard to alcohol and festival culture, German-American Protestants had more in common with their Catholic countrymen than with other American Protestants.

In the nineteenth century, churches were the centers of German-American religious, social, and cultural activity, especially in rural areas; German-language services, parochial school events, and celebrations of religious holidays were important events in community life. Until the beginning of the twentieth century, German was the language used in services and Sunday school in most of these churches. In the more autonomous Protestant churches, German often lasted several decades longer. Zum Kripplein Christi, for example, offered a Sunday service in German as recently as the 1990s. Despite the shift to English, particularly the Lutheran congregations have not forgotten their German roots. Heritage tours, student exchange programs, and mutual visits by choirs are examples of the enduring ties between Germans and Americans on the local level.

The diversity of religious expression among German-speaking immigrants was paralleled by a high degree of heterogeneity stemming from differences in regional and linguistic origins. This situation differed from that of other nineteenth-century immigrant groups, notably the Irish, but also Italians and people of other European backgrounds. The resulting lack of a unified and clearly definable German-American community explains in part why only few Americans, including those of German descent, have any idea when Steuben Day or German-American Day falls, whereas the Irish St. Patrick’s Day is one of America’s most popular celebrations, and Columbus Day, named after the Italian explorer, is a federal holiday.

This historic heterogeneity was and to some extent still is reflected in the plethora of clubs and societies linked to German ethnicity. These “Vereine” (clubs, societies, associations) allowed members of the growing middle class to associate publicly with one another and became an important social expression of the changes brought on by industrialization in Germany during the nineteenth century. German-speaking immigrants brought the “Vereinswesen” (club culture) with them to America, where it represented not only an example of direct cultural transfer, but also a means through which the transition from the Old Country to the New could be eased.

Many of these clubs did not last beyond the first generation, especially with the rise of mass and consumer culture during the twentieth century, which weakened older social divisions along ethnic lines. But some

Photo courtesy of Prof. Mark L. Louden, University of Wisconsin-Madison

do still exist today, including the Plattdeutscher Verein (Low German Club) of Watertown, Wisconsin. The Verein was founded in 1882 with a twofold mission: “fraternalism and the perpetuation of the German language, especially the Plattdeutscher tongue.” Low German (Plattdeutsch) dialects derive from the “lower” (flatter) regions of the north, from which many immigrants to Wisconsin hailed. The dialects of this area are so different from those of the “higher” south, notably Switzerland, as to be mutually unintelligible. Though many immigrants had knowledge of the written standard dialect known as High German (so-called for its origins in the south), their identities were rooted in linguistically and culturally distinct particular regions, rather than a single “Germany,” and have endured to the present in American communities such as Watertown.

Most German-American community groups, religious and secular, were founded at least in part to preserve the German language, as is exemplified by the mission statement of Watertown’s Plattdeutscher Verein. Language maintenance was also a matter of concern among a group of Americans of German descent who have historically had little contact with other German-speaking communities in the U.S., namely the Americans known as the Pennsylvania Dutch.

Pennsylvania Dutch is an American language that developed in rural areas of southeastern and central Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century. Because most German-speaking emigrants to colonial Pennsylvania were from the cultural region of Central Europe known as the Palatinate (Pfalz), Pennsylvania Dutch resembles most strongly the German dialects of this area. Nevertheless, approximately 10% to 15% of Pennsylvania Dutch vocabulary is derived from English. Although scholars and some language advocates prefer the term“Pennsylvania German,” the use of “Dutch” here does not reflect a (mis)translation of “Deutsch” or “Deitsch.” The English word “Dutch” was used in earlier times to describe people of both German and Netherlandic origins, often with a “folksy” connotation.

Poster for Grundsow Lodge Nummer Ains in Allentown, Pennsylvania
Image courtesy of Prof. William W. Donner, Kurtztown University

Observers, including many Europeans, frequently assume, incorrectly, that the term “Pennsylvania Dutch” is synonymous with “Amish.” In fact, of the approximately 81,000 German-speaking immigrants who came to Pennsylvania during the eighteenth century, only a few hundred were members of the small, but very visible, Anabaptist sect known today as the Old Order Amish. Until the early part of the twentieth century, most speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch were of either Lutheran or German Reformed (“nonsectarian”) background who, unlike the Amish and other “sectarians,” did not separate themselves for spiritual reasons from the social mainstream. Although the sectarian and nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch lived in close proximity to one another in the colonial period, during the nineteenth century the two groups moved into different regions, including outside of Pennsylvania. Today, despite their common language, sectarians and nonsectarians represent two very distinct Pennsylvania Dutch-speaking groups.

With the dramatic demographic changes of the twentieth century, which led especially to greater mobility and the loss of rural isolation across America, maintenance of Pennsylvania Dutch among nonsectarians declined sharply; only members of the conservative Anabaptist sects have resisted these changes and continue actively to speak the language and transmit it to their children. Some nonsectarian Pennsylvania Dutch have attempted to counteract the shift to English monolingualism by creating institutions to promote their language. The most prominent of these are the Grundsow (Groundhog) Lodges, the first of which was founded in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1933. Annual lodge meetings coincide with Groundhog Day (February 2), a New World expression of the traditional European mid-winter holiday of Candlemas. The program cover pictured here reads: “The Third Annual Meeting of the Groundhog Lodge Number One on the Lehigh (River). Monday evening after Groundhog Day, at 6:30 p.m., the 3rd of February, 1936.” Most speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch are literate in English only; the result is that English spelling conventions are usually observed when the language is written down.

Despite the virtual disappearance of Pennsylvania Dutch in the everyday lives of nonsectarians, the Grundsow Lodges remain active, and Groundhog Day has become an increasingly popular local holiday. In a uniquely American move, lodge members have recently begun a campaign to have the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation approve their design for a “special organization” license plate.

In addition to specific clubs and religious groups, certain aspects of German culture have become a part of largely deethnicized regional American identities. Examples of this can be found in the “Dutch Country” of southeastern Pennsylvania, which most visitors do not associate with Europe but with early America. Far from becoming submerged, many cultural expressions with clear antecedents in German-speaking Europe, from the forebay bank barn to hard pretzels, not only have survived in Pennsylvania but have spread across America.

"Touring Wisconsin" postcard, showing a Dutchman driving a "beer vehicle," with a tap barrel engine, beer stein lights, and boxes for limberger and frankfurters
Courtesy of Prof. James P. Leary, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In the Milwaukee postcard from around 1900 shown here, the central figure bears an unmistakable resemblance to stereotypical representations of ethnic Germans that were common at the time. The stout, good-natured, and quite evidently beer-loving Dutchman rides in a fanciful beer-barrel automobile through the city. Outfitted with overflowing steins for reflective headlights, the vehicle has compartments for limburger cheese and frankfurters, while a dachshund chases along after a sausage link. In the background one sees a cheese factory, pretzel factory, malt house, and brewery—all the comforts of a Dutchman’s adopted “Heimat.” While the references to Milwaukee’s brewing industry are historically correct, those to cheese and pretzels are not. Wisconsinites are known today as“cheeseheads,” to be sure, but the state’s cheese industry owes more to Yankee immigrants than to Germans.

The emphasis in the image on alcohol reflects an early division between people of German heritage and Yankees over the cultural and political issue of temperance, often arising from the fondness of German Americans for drinking on Sundays, especially in connection with their family-oriented tavern culture. Similar images of and perceptions about Germans, centering on the food and drink of cheerfully hefty “Dutch” men and women, also flourished in such American communities as Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis, where beer, sausages, and pretzels have become standard features not only of local cuisine but also in such mainstream American settings as the ballpark, where fans chomp and swallow while cheering on the Cubs, Reds, and Cardinals.

Not only at sports events are considerable amounts of beer and hot dogs consumed; an increasing number of American communities, many with no German heritage to speak of, now sponsor Oktoberfests. One such community is Oak Park, Illinois, located ten miles west of Chicago. This area’s rapid growth in the nineteenth century coincided with the acceleration of German emigration to the United States, and by the end of the century Germans, with 25% of the population, constituted the largest ethnic group. As in Milwaukee, German Americans were active in business, churches, clubs, theaters, and political and cultural arenas. Despite divisions within their ranks resulting from their different regional and social origins, they presented a more or less unified ethnic group in beer gardens, at fairs, and in parades through neighborhood streets. In the twentieth century, however, Germans moved away from public displays of ethnic pride, as ethnicity gave way to more complex identities formed around class, race, and American popular culture. Midwestern cities, as elsewhere in the U.S., were changed after World War II by newcomers, including large numbers of African Americans, some of whom settled in neighborhoods where German-speaking immigrants had lived.

Poster for Oktoberfest in Oak Park, Illinois
Image courtesy of Prof. Philip V. Bohlman, University of Chicago

It thus is a curious phenomenon that the Oktoberfest has become a signature fall event in about 200 communities across the U.S. and Canada. Awash in beer, pretzels, the chicken dance, and the Schnitzelbank song, the typical American Oktoberfest today is less a celebration of German heritage—real or imagined— than it is the expression of a dynamic and culturally diverse local identity. In Oak Park’s festival, this cultural diversity is represented by musical groups as different as Jimmy’s Bavarians, Bumble Bee Bob and the Stingers, and Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine. Even the more specifically German-themed Oktoberfests nationwide reflect an American phenomenon that is striking to European Germans, namely the predominance of symbols specific to traditional Bavaria, which strive, misleadingly, to evoke a single “German” culture.

The commodification of ethnic culture, as reflected in the explosion of Oktoberfests over the last few decades, is part of a larger trend of American communities to promote economic growth through tourism. In 2003 two New Glarus, Wisconsin, policemen, in uniform and with guns at their side, posed for a Swiss photographer in front of the town’s most prominent sign: a depiction of Switzerland’s coat of arms and its national hero, William Tell. To a foreign visitor this is a quintessentially American picture, confirming every stereotype fostered abroad by cop shows on American television. To an American observer, however, who is drawn more to the “Old World” sign depicting a historic heroic act performed with an ancient weapon, the image speaks to the town’s unique identity rooted in its ethnic heritage.

Photo by Luca Zanetti, © by Glarner Kantonal-bank, Switzerland

New Glarus was settled in 1845 by a group of Swiss German immigrants from Canton Glarus. For decades, this rural community looked much like any other Midwest pioneer settlement. Only toward the end of the nineteenth century, as European Americans nationwide began to celebrate their ethnic and national backgrounds publicly, did New Glarus “rediscover” its Swiss heritage. By staging festivals and pageants celebrating Swiss Independence Day, the arrival of the original immigrants, and—beginning in the 1930s—the William Tell story, New Glarus brought together not only members of its local community, but also Swiss Americans from across the country. Seeing the economic potential of tourism, the town eventually decided to remake itself into “America’s Little Switzerland.” Based less on traditions handed down directly from the original settlers to their descendants, and more on a contemporary American image of things stereotypically “Swiss,” buildings were constructed in the chalet style, restaurants adopted Swiss menus, and folk musicians from Switzerland were invited to perform and to teach members of the community.

Today many residents of New Glarus are not of Swiss descent, but the townspeople still perform William Tell every year in both English and German, thereby creating a sense of local identity and culture. At the same time, this unique American community attracts visitors from around the world, including Switzerland. Keen on promoting Switzerland’s image abroad, the Swiss government now has plans to build a cultural center in New Glarus.


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