Shadows of War
For German Americans, the 20th century was a time of growth and consolidation; their numbers increased, their finances became more stable, and Americans of German heritage rose to positions of great power and distinction. For German American culture, however, the new century was a time of severe setbacks–and a devastating blow from which it has never fully recovered.
The coming of World War I brought with it a backlash against German culture in the United States. When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, anti-German sentiment rose across the nation, and German American institutions came under attack. Some discrimination was hateful but cosmetic: The names of schools, foods, streets, and towns, were often changed, and music written by Wagner and Mendelssohn was removed from concert programs and even weddings. Physical attacks, though rare, were more violent: German American businesses and homes were vandalized, and German Americans accused of being “pro-German” were tarred and feathered, and, in at least one instance, lynched.
The most pervasive damage was done, however, to German language and education. German-language newspapers were either run out of business or chose to quietly close their doors. German-language books were burned, and Americans who spoke German were threatened with violence or boycotts. German-language classes, until then a common part of the public-school curriculum, were discontinued and, in many areas, outlawed entirely. None of these institutions ever fully recovered, and the centuries-old tradition of German language and literature in the United States was pushed to the margins of national life, and in many places effectively ended.
President Woodrow Wilson spoke disapprovingly of “hyphenated Americans” whose loyalty he claimed was divided. One government official warned that “Every citizen must declare himself American–or a traitor.” Many German Americans struggled with their feelings, realizing that sympathy for their homeland appeared to conflict with loyalty to the U.S.
Some German Americans reacted by overtly defending their loyalty to the United States. Others changed the names of their businesses, and sometimes even their own names, in an attempt to conceal German ties and to disappear into mainstream America. Ironically, and contrary to Wilson’s opinion about divided loyalties, thousands of German Americans fought to defend America in World War I, led by German American John J. Pershing, whose family had long before changed their name from Pfoerschin.
Fifteen years later, the shadows of a new war brought another surge in immigration. When Germany’s Nazi party came to power in 1933, it triggered a significant exodus of artists, scholars, and scientists, as Germans and other Europeans fled the coming storm. Most eminent among this group was a pacifist Jewish scientist named Albert Einstein.
Anti-German feelings arose again during World War II, but they were not as powerful as they had been during the first World War. The loyalty of German Americans was not questioned as virulently. Dwight Eisenhower, a descendant of the Pennsylvania Dutch and future president of the United States, commanded U.S. troops in Europe. Two other German Americans, Admiral Chester Nimitz of the United States Navy and General Carl Spaatz of the Army Air Corps, were by Eisenhower’s side and played key roles in the struggle against Nazi Germany.
World War II, industrial expansion, and Americanization efforts reinforced the cultural assimilation of many German Americans. After the war, one more surge of German immigrants arrived in the United States, as survivors of the conflict sought to escape its grim aftermath. These new arrivals were extremely diverse in their political viewpoints, their financial status, and their religious beliefs, and settled throughout the U.S.
German immigration to the United States continues to this day, though at a slower pace than in the past, carrying on a tradition of cultural enrichment over 400 years old—a tradition that has helped shape much of what we today consider to be quintessentially American.