How German Is American? Shaping Culture

How German Is American?



In many respects, a distinct German-American national identity has receded over the past century, and the historic connections to the Old Country are no longer obvious, even though the German heritage has left an indelible imprint on American mass and local culture. However, one exceptionally visible community of Americans has successfully preserved aspects of its European spiritual heritage—namely the religious group known as the Old Order Amish. Somewhat ironically for believers who would prefer not to be famous, the popular media have “discovered” the Amish and projected their images around the world, including and especially back to Germany, where fascination with a “deep-frozen” German-speaking society in the midst of the U.S., of all places, runs high.

Amish girls roller blading
Photo © by W. Keith Baum, <>

The Amish trace their origins to the Anabaptist movement in Central and Western Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Core tenets of the Anabaptist Christian faith include the practice of adult (believer’s) baptism and the maintenance of a symbolic distance from the rest of society. Amish Christians evoke this symbolic distance more visibly than many other Anabaptist groups, notably their close spiritual cousins, the Mennonites, by dressing distinctively and accepting only selectively some of the material aspects of modern life. Underlying their apparently paradoxical lifestyle is one core virtue toward which the Amish strive, namely humility (Demut). The image shown here is paradoxical for observers, who are inclined to view Amish society in negative terms (NO electricity, NO cars, NO fun …). Though most Amish are of Swiss German descent, nearly all are bilingual in Pennsylvania Dutch and English. A small minority of Amish whose ancestors emigrated directly from Switzerland in the nineteenth century still speak a form of Bernese Swiss German.

In addition to speaking both Pennsylvania Dutch and English natively, the Amish also have a basic reading knowledge of the standard German of the Bible and other religious texts. Although the core tenets of their faith have remained unchanged since the sixteenth century, all other aspects of Amish culture, including dress, foodways, occupations, leisure activities, etc., show unmistakable—but limited—influences from mainstream America. The current Amish population is ca. 200,000 in the United States and Canada; there are no Amish left in Europe. Because of low attrition and large average family sizes, the Amish population is doubling every twenty years, thereby securing the future of the Pennsylvania Dutch language and this modern American counterculture.

Like the history of the Amish in America, the Jewish experience in this country is a rich one, extending back to the colonial era, when Sephardic Jews from Holland settled in New Amsterdam, the forerunner of modern New York. During the early nineteenth century, most Jewish immigrants were German-speaking Ashkenazim from Central Europe, who were strongly influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment and its Jewish expression, the Haskalah. As ancient restrictions on Jews were lifted across Western Europe, partly in connection with the democratic aspirations of the revolutionaries of 1848, a number of German Jews sought to reshape traditional practices, and the movement known as Reform Judaism was born. Today, even though most American Jews trace their ancestry to Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe who came in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Reform Judaism, with its roots in Germany, is the largest branch of the faith in the U.S. It is also important to note that the International Order of B’nai B’rith, the world’s oldest continually operating Jewish service organization, was founded in 1843 by a group of German-American Jews in New York who defined as their mission the fostering of a civic identity based on both traditionally Jewish and American values.

Masthead for the Aufbau newspaper
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

After Hitler came to power in 1933, approximately 100,000 German Jews came to the U.S., many of whom settled in New York. In 1934, the German Jewish Club of New York (later renamed the New World Club) began publishing a newsletter, Aufbau, which quickly grew to become one of the most important German-language periodicals in this country among both Jews and non-Jews. Aufbau thrived by changing with the times, incorporating an increasing number of articles in English for its U.S.-born readers, and becoming the world’s premier source of information on Jewish issues in German; Aufbau was one of the few newspapers to report in detail on the events of the Holocaust as they unfolded. Leading German-speaking exiles wrote for Aufbau, including Hannah Arendt, Albert Einstein, and Thomas Mann. The first-page article of the Aufbau issue shown above was written by Emanuel Lasker, a mathematician, philosopher, and world champion chess player; born in Germany in 1868, he fled to New York in 1933, where he remained until his death in 1941.

As successive generations of German-speaking American Jews declined in numbers, so did Aufbau’s subscriber base. The journal ceased publication in 2004, but in 2005 it was reborn as a monthly magazine published in Europe, now serving a different readership. Over the last decade, large numbers of Jews, mainly from Russia, have emigrated to Germany, and as Jewish life there enters a new era, Aufbau has found a new outlet for its high-quality journalism.

Many German-speaking Jewish and non-Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution came to southern California, as well as to New York. Some of the more famous among them included Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, and Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel. Although a number returned to Europe after the war, many stayed and made important contributions to the arts and the intellectual life of the region. Hollywood, in particular, benefited from the talents of these new immigrants, and their influence on American popular culture is unmistakable.

Bambi leaping
Image from the Max Kade Institute Library

The deep interrelationship between American popular culture and its German backgrounds is hinted at through the image shown at right, one of German-born immigrant artist Kurt Wiese’s illustrations for the story Bambi. Wiese (1887–1974) is known in the U.S. mainly as the illustrator of over 300 children’s books, including works of authors such as Zane Grey and Rudyard Kipling. Two of his books were named Caldecott Medal honor books.

Bambi, published in German in 1923, was written by the Hungarian/Austrian Jewish writer Felix Salten (pseudonym for Siegmund Salzmann, 1869–1945) and first appeared in the U.S. in English translation in a 1928 edition that included Wiese’s drawings. Read by Americans, both in the original as a popular story for students of German and in English, Bambi later became one of Walt Disney’s most beloved family movies (1942). While Bambi is associated today with children, Salten originally wrote the novel as an adult allegory alluding to the growing threats confronting European Jews in the period between the World Wars. Disney adapted the story to express his concern about human encroachment on wildlife and the forests. Initial public reaction to both Salten’s novel and Disney’s film was intense. In Austria, the book was banned, while in the U.S. the American Rifleman’s Association vehemently protested the film’s anti-hunter bias.

There are numerous other examples of German contributions to Hollywood and also to Broadway. One is Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical Brigadoon, based on Friedrich Gerstäcker’s Germelshausen, which ran for 581 performances when it opened at the Ziegfeld Theatre in March of 1947 and later became a Hollywood movie starring Gene Kelly (1954). Beyond these, of course, one should not forget the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, which have repeatedly been translated, read, and adapted for every medium, most famously, once again, by Walt Disney for his animated films.

The export of Broadway and Hollywood products, especially to Europe, is well known. One of the most interesting examples of this is the Sound of Music phenomenon. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical (1959) and the film version directed by Robert Wise (1965) created an image of Austria that bears little resemblance to either historical or modern reality. (Sorry, “Edelweiss” is not the Austrian national anthem.) Indeed, The Sound of Music is more an expression of American postwar popular culture than anything European. The Sound of Music was not performed on stage in Austria until 2005; defying critics’ skepticism, the Viennese production has been a popular success.

Underlying the commercial success of mass cultural products like Disney films and The Sound of Music are simple storyline formulas and marketing strategies that have given American entertainment a reputation for homogeneity. On stage and screen, viewers want good to triumph over evil, with no question about who is on which side. The sameness that appeals to so many consumers of mass culture worldwide is reflected in many American enterprises that have been exported with great success, notably McDonald’s. Hungry patrons expect that McDonald’s fries will always taste the same, whether the restaurant serving them is in Heidelberg, Kentucky; Heidelberg, Minnesota; Heidelberg, Mississippi; Heidelberg, Pennsylvania; Heidelberg, Texas; or at any of the five McDonald’s in old Heidelberg itself.

Oscar Mayer Wienermobile
Photo courtesy of Kraft Foods, Inc.

For decades, the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile™ has been a uniquely American fixture, but behind the successful marketing campaign of this American company lies a long tradition of German-American foodways and entrepreneurship. Like other immigrants, Germans brought with them their own unique culinary traditions, especially in the areas of meat curing and sausage making. Cookbooks published in America for German immigrants list dozens of different sausage recipes, ranging from raw beef sausage and bratwurst to liver balls and bologna. In the multicultural American context, people of various ethnic backgrounds became acquainted with German dishes, while German Americans incorporated the food traditions of their neighbors. Over time a number of historically German food items and dishes were forgotten, while others, such as the “frank(furter),” evolved beyond their European origins to become staples of a new American cuisine. On a more local level, Midwesterners of all ethnicities, especially Wisconsinites, know immediately that a “brat” is a kind of sausage, and not an ill-behaved child. While modern Germans would have no difficulty finding bratwurst at their local butcher shop, it is safe to assume that cheddar cheese brats or “Hawaiian-style” pineapple brats would be as rare as the 27-foot-long fiberglass hot dog and bun mounted on a Chevrolet van chassis equipped with mustard- and ketchup-colored seats and a license plate spelling “WEENR” tooling down the autobahn.

Many years have passed since 1883, when the enterprising immigrant Oscar F. Mayer opened his first meat shop in Chicago, but his synthesis of Old World techniques of sausage making with developments in manufacturing, refrigeration, and transportation has yielded products and a brand name known across America and, increasingly, around the world. In 1973, the first Wienermobile arrived in Spain; another went to Japan in 1988. And in 2000, the Wienermobile made its first visit to … Germany.

The Wienermobile clearly speaks more to the stereotypical image of modern America as a monolithic culture than to the nineteenth-century roots of the Oscar Mayer Company; and the commercial success of American exports like hot dogs continues to feed that image. Below the surface, however, one finds much real and widespread diversity, often linked originally to particular regions, in areas such as foodways, but also artistic expression. Cajun cuisine and music that came from the bayous of southern Louisiana, for example, are now appreciated by millions and recognized as part of American culture. Less well known is the historical synthesis of German and non-German idioms in American regional (“roots”) music.

During the nineteenth century, thousands of German-speakers migrated to Texas, along with members of other European ethnic groups and Yankees. They came to an area—the northern expanse of Mexico—already characterized by years of rich cultural transfer, especially between Spanish colonists and indigenous peoples. One of the most enduring artistic expressions of multicultural contact in this region is what is known popularly as “Tex-Mex” or “Tejano” music. The leading sub-genre of Tejano music today is “norteño” (‘northern’) or “conjunto” (‘conjoined’) music, which developed in the early part of the twentieth century. Building on a traditional northern Mexican ballad form called “corrido,” norteño/conjunto music incorporates musical influences from German and Czech immigrants, notably the polka, and especially the use of the button accordion.

Album cover for Fred Zimmerle's Conjunto Trio San Antonio
Photo © by Chris Strachwitz

One of the pioneers of the “norteño sound” was Fred Zimmerle (1931–1998), who formed the Trio San Antonio in his hometown of the same name. Earliest norteño music was instrumental, based mainly on the button accordion, bass, and the bajo sexto, a Mexican 12-string guitar. To this instrumental structure, Zimmerle, the grandson of a German immigrant, added a traditional vocal duet, forming a synthesis that is now characteristic of modern norteño/conjunto music. Zimmerle’s reputation extended back to Germany in one of the more intriguing examples of German-American musical contact. The German independent rock band F.S.K. (<“Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle” [‘voluntary self-control’]) visited Fred Zimmerle in Texas and referred to him in the song “Die Kaiser Wilhelm” on its 1996 album International. The final line of the song reads: “Fred Zimmerle, Sankt Anton, drückte das Akkordeon selbst in der Pfingstprozession, brachte kein Wort Deutsch hervor, dafür das Spanische schon, ganz wie du ein Texas-Sohn, doch auf dem Grammophon, da dreht sich der Beethoven Männerchor” (Fred Zimmerle, San Antonio, squeezed the accordion even in the Pentecost procession, could speak no word of German, but Spanish instead, just as much a son of Texas as you, but on the grammophone, the Beethoven Männerchor is turning).

As with music, cultural contact is often reflected in the transfer of words across languages. Language contact is naturally promoted by large-scale immigration, but it can also occur through other means, including global media, education, and transnational commerce. The mutual influence of German and English on one another is a good example of the way languages can be enriched through contact. Many German-derived words have entered the English lexicon through the immigrants’ everyday language, including “coffee klatch,” “dachshund,” “delicatessen,” “dummkopf,” “frank,” “gesundheit,” “kindergarten,” “kitsch,” “pretzel,” “sauerkraut,” and “waltz.” Other English words, such as “angst,” “bildungsroman,” “doppelganger,” “festschrift,” “gestalt,” “leitmotif,” “wunderkind,” and “zeitgeist,” came by way of literature, the arts, and education; until about the middle of the twentieth century, German was the most widely taught modern foreign language in U.S. schools and colleges. Even as immigration from German-speaking countries has declined and fewer Americans learn German, words like “foosball” and “poltergeist” still find their way into English. Not just words, but also parts of words from German are productive in English, including “-fest” (“gabfest”), “-meister” (“spinmeister”), and the prefix “über/uber” shown here, which means “over-” or “super-” In colloquial and regional speech, the expressions “How goes it?”, “Bring it with,” and “The dog wants out” are familiar Germanisms.

Zits cartoon which includes the phrase, "Über Bermuda, Dad."
© by Zits Partnership, used with permission of King Features Syndicate (June 16, 2004)

The influence of German and other languages on English is not a source of concern among most “language mavens.” In Germany, on the other hand, there are many who lament the increasing use of English-derived words in technology, business, advertising, and everyday speech, leading to a mixture often derisively called “Denglisch” (from “Deutsch” + “Englisch”). Words like “Bestseller,” “downloaden,” “Event,” “fit,” “Kids,” “live” (as in a “live broadcast”),“Lifestyle,” “Management,” “open air,” “relaxen,” “Service,” “shoppen,” and “Wellness,” are ubiquitous, but they comprise only a small percentage of the total German vocabulary and do not generally replace words already in the language. Those who fear the “Überfremdung” (excessive foreignization) of modern German generally overlook this fact about the contact between English and German.

Berliner Stadtreinigung public-service message, "We Kehr For You."
Berliner Stadtreinigung, 1999

It is fitting to end these thoughts on the question “How German Is American?” with a single image from today’s Germany. This is a public-service message from the Berlin municipal sanitation department (Berliner Stadtreinigung) informing the city’s residents, “We Kehr For You,” a play on the German verb “kehren” (to sweep). Not only do such examples of verbal creativity demonstrate that borrowing from a foreign language is a communicatively enriching process; they also show how the centuries-long interaction between German and American cultures continues today, affecting both sides of the Atlantic.

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