People of German descent have long dominated the American melting pot, but their imprint on American culture – once so proud and robust – seems to have all but disappeared.
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There are more than 49 million Americans – 16% of the population – of German descent, according to Ancestry and ethnicity in America, who used the data from 2010 census and the 2006-2010 American community survey.
At the turn of the century, just before the United States entered World War I, German Americans made up about 10% of the population and their presence was keenly felt.
âThey were very proud and they held onto their culture very strongly. They still spoke German everywhereâ¦ They were almost arrogantly proud of what they thought was superior German culture and many of them did not want to integrate and assimilate into the United States, âsaid Erik Kirschbaum, author of Burning Beethoven: the eradication of German culture in the United States during World War I. âThey wanted to preserve their culture and keep it intact for as long as they could. “
German immigrants flocked to New York and Chicago, and residents of many small towns in the Midwest spoke almost exclusively German. German-speaking newspapers, theaters and churches flourished.
In some of these areas, German influence was so pervasive that other non-German settlers ended up learning German in order to be able to communicate with their fellow citizens. The Germans helped establish General Electric and design the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City. They dominated the beer industry and this influence persists in renowned brands like Busch, Miller and Pabst.
Things took a grim turn for German Americans when the United States entered World War I. Suddenly, as anti-German hysteria swept the country, America’s largest and most powerful minority was seen as suspicious.
“A lot of people thought the country was filled with spies and saboteurs and in fact 30 Germans were killed by mobs and lynchers,” said Kirschbaum, whose own grandfather grew up speaking German but refused. to speak in the language in his later years.
Shortly after declaring war on Germany, US President Woodrow Wilson asked approximately 250,000 German-born men, aged fourteen and over, to register their addresses and jobs at their local post office. . Within a year, this order was broadened to include women. About 6,000 of these people were arrested and 2,000 of them, deemed âdangerousâ, were sent to internment camps.
German-language books were taken from schools and libraries and burned by so-called patriotic organizations that wanted to ensure that German was eradicated from the American landscape. Kirschbaum says that German Americans, who saw Germany as their mother and America as their wife, felt they had to make a choice.
âThey suddenly realized that they couldn’t be both German and American,â he said. âAnd after the war, many of them felt that they had to assimilate, there was no choice and many did. Many of them have become completely American. They stopped speaking German. They stopped teaching German to their children. They stopped reading German newspapers and became wholeheartedly Americans. “
And in the process, much of the German culture that they had proudly clung to for so long, slowly faded from the American landscape.
Today, Kirschbaum sees troubling parallels between the anti-German sentiment that swept the nation a century ago and the rise of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
“There is certainly a parallel between the US government turning sauerkraut into freedom cabbage during World War I and some people in Congress trying to change the term fries into freedom fries after 9/11,” he said. he declares. “This is another sad chapter in American history that perhaps could have been avoided or avoided if more Americans knew about the history and how they persecuted German-Americans 100 years ago.”
(Teaser photo by Flickr user moment captured1 via Creative Commons license)