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 once 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 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