German Migration to the USA

Debates on migration often center on whether it is a good or a bad thing. I rather view migration as something completely normal. Migration has been a permanent component of human history.

Over centuries, Germany, or rather the territories that would later become Germany, was much less of a magnet for migration than a source of it. (Most people would probably also underestimate the current emigration from Germany And the official statistic is most certainly too low because many people don’t sign out when leaving.)

Last year, I attended a seminar about “German migration to the USA between 1815 and 1914” at the University of Hagen. The most interesting aspects for me were not the figures (there were millions) or the reasons for migrating (mostly the hope for economic improvement, but also the idea of a free country), but questions of integration or assimilation of Germans in America.

The Germans did not exactly excel at integration. Already in 1753, Benjamin Franklin complained about German immigrants “who will never adopt our language and customs and who will germanize us instead”. This did not get better in the 19th century, when about 5 million Germans migrated to the USA. They mostly settled in a few states and some cities, staying among themselves, opening German schools, holding church services in German and reading German newspapers. A parallel society, one could call it.

Deutsche Zeitungen in Nordamerika

In Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois, even in 1900, more than a fifth of residents were German or of German ancestry. Today, some would call this a “population exchange“. Even in multicultural Berlin-Kreuzberg, the proportion of foreigners today is lower than in an average American city around 1870.

The long-established Americans, who were not really that long established either, regarded the Germans with suspicion, especially because half of them were Catholics. The idea that someone of a different religion who is celebrating services in a different language could be loyal towards the same nation as oneself went beyond many people’s imagination. And it still does today. As Professor Hochgeschwender says:

The German Catholics were maligned as religious fanatics. In anti-Catholic texts of the 19th century, you only need to replace the word ‘Catholic’ with the word ‘Muslim’, and you have today’s anti-Muslim propaganda: that immigrants are disloyal and bound by a foreign power. They were alleged to undermine the constitutional order and to be shagging like rabbits to inundate the receiving society with numerous children.

The Germans’ way of life was seen as disconcerting. They opened beer gardens, drank large quantities of alcohol – particularly on holy Sunday! – and loudly sang “Die Wacht am Rhein“. After the German Empire had been founded in 1871, they put up black, white and red flags in front of their houses. Refusal of integration, one would call that today.

An interesting type of source that we looked at in the seminar were letters of German emigrés. In the book Briefe aus Amerika, the editors have published 20 series of letters written by German farmers, workers and maids. These are not only of interest for migration studies, but they also provide a rare glimpse into the life of the German lower classes in the 19th century. If people hadn’t emigrated, they would hardly have written about their lives in such detail, and we would only have written sources from the middle and upper classes.

The letters dealt a lot with wages, prices for farmland and the wheat harvest. The people who had remained behind kept asking if they should also make the move. The letters probably had more influence on such decisions as the advertisements of shipping companies and emigration agencies.


The emigrants also report on cultural differences. In January 1868, for example, the farmer Christian Lenz wrote to his brother:

Those who like to beat their wife in Germany better stay at home. Here you can’t do that, or soon you won’t have a wife much longer.

and about alcohol

Almost all the booze houses are owned by Germans, and I tell you, these are the houses of the devil.

It’s a cliché, but it seems that beer was really important to the Germans. And just as important to anti-German propaganda. The fear was stoked that immigrants’ votes would be bought with free beer (in the case of Germans) or whiskey (in the case of the Irish).

beer whiskey ballot box.JPG

When, in 1855, the mayor of Chicago banned the sale of beer on Sundays, it caused riots there and in other cities. In the same year, a Protestant-nativist mob stormed the German quarter, German restaurants and a German church in Louisville. 20 people were killed. More than 10,000 citizens left the town.

A decisive change was brought about by World War I and in particular by America’s entry into the war in 1917. Suddenly, all German-Americans were enemies, spies and saboteurs. Those who were not willing to give up their German culture completely were regarded with utmost suspicion, even contempt. If one had left one’s country, why would one still speak German or listen to Beethoven? German-Americans were no true Americans. The quality of these arguments has not improved until today, yet they have not disappeared.

Dackel WW1.jpgAmerican schools removed German from school curricula, despite it having been the most popular foreign language until that point. There was a downright anti-German hysteria. Sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage, hamburgers became liberty steaks, streets and businesses were renamed, the music of German composers was no longer played. There were public burnings of German books. In South Dakota, it was illegal to have telephone conversations in German. Germans were tarred, feathered and chased out of town. Robert Prager, a 30-year old miner from Dresden, was lynched by a mob in 1917. Until the end of the war, more than 2,000 German civilians were interned in two camps.

German internment WW1

A private organization of about 200,000 amateur detectives, the American Protective League, spied on German neighbors and colleagues, trying to uncover foreign agents. German-Americans were asked to prove their loyalty to the USA by signing war bonds and singing the national anthem. It seems the national anthem still plays that role, if I remember recent debates, both in Germany and in the USA.

Germans discriminated WW1.jpg

There was no differentiation. Whoever was not for the USA and for entering the war, was a traitor. Thus, the hatred even hit the Mennonites, a group of German-speaking pacifists who had come from Russia and who couldn’t have been any more distant from Prussian militarism.

In the time of World War I, an enormous pressure to assimilate was built up. Within a few years after the end of the war, most German newspapers and other institutions had been closed. The German-Americans were assumed into the US-American mix of peoples, for the most part. In 1931, the laborer Ludwig Dilger wrote to his brother in Germany:

As I have learned from the papers, the European powers do not want to pay their debts. They owe us 11 trillion dollars, but always have enough money to prepare for war. Germany owes the United States 2 1/2 trillion dollars, which it borrowed for reparations. Why should we pay twice the taxes to help Europeans to wage a new war?

You can clearly see the identification with the receiving country (and quite some foresight). On the other hand, there were quite a number of fervent Nazis in America, too.

The German beer gardens, once a shocking idea, are now appreciated around the world. (I am surprised they haven’t been put on the UNESCO list of cultural heritage yet.) If there are members of the US Congress with names like Fleischmann or Sensenbrenner, nobody questions their loyalty. And Americans with German ancestors like to make use of that fact in order to obtain a coveted EU citizenship. Thus, there is a cross-generational return to the homeland, admittedly at much lower levels. Of the European emigrants in the 19th century, around a third returned, especially once steam ships made the journey faster, more affordable and less frightening.


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Germany, History, USA, World War I and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to German Migration to the USA

  1. Pingback: Deutsche Auswanderung in die USA | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Thanks for this insight – very informative.

  3. I always found it annoying that you leave your country but create a similar environment in the country you go to. Initially I thought Why not assimilate. Accept your new home and its culture and become part of that country. But I have not been in that situation and I realized that the same happens everywhere. Currently we have South African communities in quite a few countries (eg Australia, England) and there are German, Greek, Italian, Portuguese, Indian, etc communities in South Africa as well. I suppose you want to retain some of your old identity?

    • I think the best way would be some level of assimilation, especially learning the language or one of the languages of the new place, with some level of retention, again the language(s) in particular. Because the more languages people speak, the better, ideally creating something new in the mix.

      I also think that the talk about culture in questions of migration may be over-emphasized. Too often, people think that the culture for example in Europe has changed due to immigration. But the culture would have changed anyway, just through the passage of time and new generations having new ideas. I noticed that in the case of German communities in other countries, which often have a very outdated version of Germanness which not many people in Germany would subscribe to today.

      I guess in history the big factor has always been if individuals moved or if whole groups moved. The European migration to North America had both elements. Sometimes, whole villages migrated together, sometimes several times as in the case of the Mennonites.

      And nowadays, migrating means almost no cut with one’s original culture, due to the internet. Wherever I live in this world, I can still listen to German news. But I do make an effort to also understand the politics and society of the country I am in.

  4. Your article and comments were quite interesting and informative – thanks! I’ve passed on the link to a few friends that I think will be interested. From my experience, I would say that language is the first hurdle for immigrants to any country, and learning the customs is not far behind. It can all be very bewildering, and It’s only natural for people to hang around with others that they can communicate with and whose behaviors they understand. A very small instance is when I visited my son in Australia and we were walking on city streets, he said that people going one direction stay on the left and the other direction stay on the right. And they get annoyed if you don’t do that. Well, being used to Mexico, where as you can imagine, that type of organization does not exist, this was a foreign thought to me. I often think of that when I am walking the streets of Oaxaca, and it makes me laugh and feel so glad I am here!

    • Hello Marilyn,
      thank you very much for sharing the article! Knowing that it will find a few more readers makes the time spent on research and writing worthwhile.

      As to language, it seems that it is usually no longer a problem in the second generation. If they are lucky, they grow up bilingual or trilingual.

      When we speak about immigrants who stay among themselves, speaking their native language, we shouldn’t forget the migrants who call themselves “expats” and who often don’t speak a single word of Spanish or Arabic or Chinese, living in their quasi-colonial bubble.

      As to customs, yours is a good example because it’s really something minor, but something that most people will have internalized (and probably internalize quickly after moving to Australia).
      When I returned to Europe after having lived in South America for 1.5 years, I didn’t stop at red lights anymore (as a pedestrian). I had been exposed to a new custom, I liked it and I adopted it.

      To other things I cannot and don’t want to adapt. I don’t know if it’s more cultural (I am German) or more personal/individual (I am a quiet person and like to read/write/think), but I just have no tolerance for the amount of noise one is exposed to in South America. I am always skeptical towards theories that seek to explain everything with culture/origin because there are also noisy Germans (all these World Wars must have been quite loud, too) and I also met many Bolivians, Peruvians and Colombians who just want to go to a quiet island with a book.

  5. gabe says:

    Great post. Big topic. My mom grew up as a “German Russian.” After my parents immigrated to Canada in the 50s, however, they were determined not to be Germans in Canada, but rather…Canadians. I remember their heated conversations about this as I was growing up.

    • Thanks a lot!
      I also thought the history could put some contemporary debates into perspective.

      At the bottom of the article, there is a link about German migration to Canada. I was surprised to see that a large number of people considered (and apparently considering themselves) as German immigrants did not come from Germany.
      It sounds like this was the case in your family, too. Did they move directly from Russia? Did they also know Russian, even if they preferred German, and then apparently English?

      In Calgary, one of my neighbors also came from Germany in the 1950s. I greeted him in German, but he said “let’s speak English, we are in Canada now”.
      I can imagine that immediately after World War II and the Holocaust, people might have been quite eager to shake off anything tying them to Germany or German culture.

  6. fairfaxco says:

    Straight on and interesting. Thank you Andreas, for putting these often unspoken/unwritten historical facts in such a clear and concise article.

  7. Anonymous says:

    H.L. Mencken was blackballed for his public criticism of U.S. involvement in wars against Germans.

  8. Pingback: Random Thoughts (24) | The Happy Hermit

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