Fearful Symmetries

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16 October, 2008

German Americans: Coming to America

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Max Kade Institute for German-American Studies. (And that's pronounced like MAHKS KAH-DUH, for those who do not have a Teutonic tongue.) As part of the year-long anniversary celebration, the Institute is offering a three-part lecture series, the first of which was last night at the Capitol Lakes Retirement Community.

The event was unlike any I've attended in a while in that the audience was not asked to silence cell phones before the lecture. At the tender age of 36 I was, as near as I could tell, the youngest attendee. Although the event was free and open to the public, folks were asked to register. As we filed in, we were asked for our names and it should be noted that many people gave them using the German pronunciation.

The speaker was Cora Lee Kluge, a professor of German and the director of the Max Kade Institute. She was to speak on the very large subject of immigration and gave us a broad overview of whys and wherefores of the millions of Germans who made their way across the Atlantic into the United States. Her lecture was divided into four main headings: Statistical Overview, Important German-Americans, the story of one ordinary immigrant, and "Separate & Different: A Constant Struggle". Prof. Kluge focused on the period of 1830 until World War I as this narrowed the scope of her lecture and the MKI is sponsoring another speaker next month, Professor Frank Trommler, who will elucidate upon the effects of the war on German-American identity.

Prof. Kluge began by noting that millions of Germans left their homeland between 1830-1900 to such disparate areas as Russia, Australia, and the United States. Over 5 million of them immigrated to the United States. By 1890 there were nearly 2.8 million German-Americans who made up about 4.4% of the total population; 30.1% of all foreign-born people in the country were German. Here's a map based on the 1890 census showing the distribution of German speakers who were born in Europe.

The darker browns indicate greater density. Lots of Germans settled by the Great Lakes. This stretch of tan and brown is known as "The German Belt".

In 2000, 42.8 million people identified themselves as having some German ancestry. This is 15.2% of the population, the largest single ethnic group. Locally, 42.6% of Wisconsin residents claim German ancestry at around the same time.

Prof. Kluge then turned to the topic of from where the immigrants originated.

The early immigrants (c.1845-1865) mostly came from southwestern Germany – Baden Württemberg - that brown/tan area on the map above. From around the end of the Civil War until 1885, the epicenter shifted to the northwestern part of the country, those tan and pink bits which are, I believe, now called Westphalia and Lower Saxony. (Someone more familiar with German geography correct me if I'm wrong here.) The last great wave of immigration (c.1885-World War I) saw people mostly from the northeastern part of the country making the journey here. The map above is from the mid-18th century so eastern Germany comprises some of what is now Poland. Unsurprisingly, immigration dropped during times of war.

Now, why would these people emigrate from their homeland to Wisconsin? Was it our lush, verdant landscapes? Perhaps our great weather? Prof. Kluge identified several reasons which she placed into two main categories: "push" reasons and "pull" reasons.

Push reasons were conditions in Germany such as political/religious oppression, crop failures, and overpopulation. She also mentioned inheritance laws which varied around Germany. In some places, your estate was divided amongst all of your sons while in other locales everything went to the eldest son. So, if one were in an area with laws like the latter and wanted all of your children to share, you might have emigrated.

It is often thought that one of the major attractions of Wisconsin for German immigrants was that the land resembled that of Germany. This is partly true. Land was a definite draw. In fact, the state actively tried to recruit immigrants. They did so, in part, with cards like this one:

The upper half is in English and asks that Wisconsonians who had family in Germany to send the card to them. The lower half is in German and asks that prospective immigrants consider Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Central Railroad was given a lot of land by the federal government on which to build their track but they put large tracts of it up for sale to raise funds. German immigrants were attracted to the available land and often found themselves with many more acres than they had in their homeland.

Also, there was the fact that Milwaukee was very German and it, and Wisconsin generally, had a strong German cultural life.

The PowerPoint slide then changed and the new one read "Important German-Americans". Prof. Kluge went through this section rather quickly. However, the name of this gentleman was quite familiar to me.

Carl Schurz. I lived not too far from the high school named after him in Chicago. I learned that Schurz was one of the Forty-Eighters, the name given to immigrants who fled Germany after the failed attempts at revolution in 1848. They were generally quite liberal which generally meant being anti-slavery. Many Forty-Eighters enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War with four becoming generals. Check out the Wikipedia link above for more info on this group of people.

The third section of the lecture was a look at the life of an ordinary German immigrant. In this case, it was Henry Ise, born Heinrich Eisenmenger. Prof. Kluge noted that Ise's ninth son, John, wrote a book about his family. Their story was used to illustrate how other German-Americans might seek out information about their ancestors. The first was to simply talk to family members and look for any family records; second was genealogical resources, many of which are on the Internet these days and has made digging around for such information much easier; there are also tons of government records to look through, both here and in Europe. Prof. Kluge noted the multi-volume Württemberg Emigration Index and showed an example of its pages which listed names, birthdates, and date of application for emigration, amongst other data. Lastly she mentioned newspapers which have obituaries.

Listening to this part of the lecture, I was reminded of how little I know of the German side of my family. (I'm a quarter German.) I do know that it was two brothers who first came to these shores. They both shipped out from the port city of Bremen with the first arriving in Baltimore in 1835 and the second making his way to Philadelphia about five years later. Then it gets all convoluted with a trek to Sheboygan where the family split with one half anglicizing the name and moving elsewhere. I am a branch of this line of the family. I'm told that I have distant relatives here in Wisconsin who have the original German spelling of the family name but I haven't found any of them.

The last several minutes were given over to the assimilation of Germans into the larger American society. Prof. Kluge noted that German immigrants were slow to adopt American ways and described a German-American society that grew up parallel to the Anglo-American one already in place. She offered two main reasons. Firstly was American nativism coupled with anti-immigration stances which affected not only Germans, but also groups such as Catholics and Irish immigrants. The Know-Nothings and the American Party were examples of these attitudes. Secondly was what she called the German-American's "cultural chauvinism". Prof. Kluge gave quotes from German-language newspapers which expressed the idea that German Kultur was superior to all others.

The Temperance Movement also served to distance German-Americans from mainstream American culture. In November of 1853, the unthinkable happened when a referendum passed to ban alcohol consumption in our fair state. However, nearly 78% of Milwaukee County voted against the ban and it also failed in counties with heavy German-American populations. What saved our state from becoming dry was the failure of Governor Farwell to sign the legislation. He declined fearing the loss of the German-American vote.

Prof. Kluge described the German-American community in Wisconsin as being very self-conscious and she said that members would talk about what the Anglo communities thought of their own in the pages of German-language newspapers. As examples, we saw how the two communities reacted in print to two separate lynchings in 1855.

Lynching #1 happened in an Anglo-American community. An English-language paper here in Madison used the opportunity to editorialize in favor of bringing back capital punishment. By contrast, a German-language paper in Milwaukee opined that, if it had happened in a community that was anti-temperance, it would have been used to promote the prohibition of alcohol.

Lynching #2 occurred in a German-American community. The English-language paper lectured readers on the evils of alcohol while its German-language counterpart said how regrettable the incident was.

In closing, Prof. Kluge said that Germans did not quite feel at home here. There was the feeling on behalf of many German-Americans of cultural superiority plus the dissonance between them and the Anglo community at large. Still, English speakers gave some due to the German immigrants. They copied German schools ("kindergarten" is German), many Americans studied at German universities, and English speakers celebrated German scientists & writers as their own.

Perhaps there is a lesson for us here in 2008. As more and more people emigrate from south of the border, we should ask ourselves if expectations of swift assimilation for them are realistic. It seems to me that some patience is in order.

The next lecture is on 12 November and will feature Professor Joe Salmons talking about German dialect and how it became integrated into Wisconsin Englishes.
|| Palmer, 2:19 PM


Very interesting and nicely summarized. One quibble: Natives of Wisconsin are Wisconsinites, not Wisconsonians.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:18 AM  
Thanks. I know "Wisconsinites" is correct. However, a friend from Illinois uses "Wisconsonian" mockingly and I went and adopted it. We can ask Prof. Salmons about the evolution of language. ;)
Blogger Palmer, at 10:25 AM  
Hi! Could you please tell me where the map with the "German belt" was taken from? Any source you could give me? THANX!
Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:41 PM  
Hi AP - Sorry, but I don't remember where the map was from. My guess is that either it was from a PowerPoint presentation or it was on display at the lecture.

I suggest contacting the Max Kade Institute as they will surely know:

Blogger Palmer, at 8:28 AM  
Thanks, I will! :)
Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:42 AM  

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