How German Is American? Introduction

 How German Is American?



German-American identity is, in the words of the historian Russell Kazal, a “paradox.” German-speakers have been coming to America for over three centuries, and more Americans claim German ancestry than any other. Yet there would seem to be little evidence of a distinct German-American subculture today. As another historian, Kathleen Neils Conzen, puts it, German- American identity has become “submerged” over the past century. Many German Americans themselves point to the recession of the German language from public and private life as a central example of this submergence and cite World War I as the beginning of the end for German America.

There is no denying that ethnicity no longer plays an important role in the everyday lives of most Americans of German descent. But recent scholarship has shown that the weakening of German- American identity was due less to external pressures (such as anti- German sentiments during WWI) than to the fact that German Americans, consciously or not, have come to identify themselves according to new categories, like race and class, that cut across ethnic lines. Regardless of its causes, the high degree of German-American assimilation has led some to believe that all that is left of German America is fossils: place names, the occasional half-timbered farmhouse, and gravestones.

In “How German Is American?” we explore the many ways in which influences deriving from German-speaking Europe, rather than being submerged, may still be seen flowing in the mainstream and tributaries of culture across the American landscape. Twenty images have been selected that reflect some of the ways German-speaking immigrants and their descendants have affected and been affected by other American groups. While several of the images are historical, others are modern, emphasizing the fact that German-American interaction continues. But even the older images address themes that are relevant today and apply to American cultural groups generally, not just German Americans. In the discussion that follows, we consider how many of these themes help us understand the transatlantic ties that have bound the U.S. and Germany together throughout the years.

The layout of the poster is inspired by Bauhaus concepts of design. We were drawn to the timeless modernism of Bauhaus and found that the utilitarian simplicity derived from its organizing principles complements the complexity of the twenty diverse images on the poster. The strong connections between Bauhaus and American design and architecture, which are especially visible in the city of Chicago, fit well with the overall transatlantic theme of “How German Is American?” The primary colors yellow, red, and blue, which serve as borders for the images, are elemental in the Bauhaus language of visual design. The typeface of the title is Futura, which was created in 1924 by a prominent Bauhaus disciple, Paul Renner (1878–1956). The following 1951 quote from Renner on design serves as an apt motto for the project: “Das Ziel alles Gestaltens ist es, aus dem Vielerlei ein Ganzes, aus dem Mannigfaltigen die Einheit zu machen und nicht ein Ganzes in zusammenhanglose Teile zu zerlegen.” (The goal of every attempt to give shape is to make out of different things a whole, out of diversity a unity, and not to reduce a whole to disconnected parts.)

We do not expect a definitive response to the question “How German Is American?” that is posed by the images and text to follow. We hope that viewers and readers will be informed, yet also inspired to think about “Germanness” and “Americanness” in new ways, as these concepts relate to themes of migration, cultural contact, and identity transcending the particulars of the German-American experience. While our poster and booklet represent finished products, the “How German Is American?” pages on pages on our Web site will continue to evolve. Your feedback will be an important part of this evolution.

Next: Settling in America

[This booklet is available in PDF format]

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