Book review by Ingeborg W. Smith, Western Springs, Illinois
Heinrich, Don. The German-American Experience. Amherst, New York: Humanity Books, 2000.
One has often heard it said that one-quarter of the population
of the United States is of German blood, and that this is the largest
ethnic group in the country. It is only fitting that these millions
of Americans have an up-to-date history of their ancestors in this
country, of the great two-hundred-year migration, the largest Völkerwanderung
The German-American Experience has been worth waiting for.
Don Heinrich Tolzmann is well-known in academic circles. He has
written and edited many publications on German-American subjects.
This is a welcome addition to the history of the Germans in America.
It brings previous books on this subject up to date--being grounded
in A.B. Faust's The German Element in the United States (1927)
and Theodore Huebener's The Germans in America (1962). Dr.
Tolzmann covers more ground in less space than does Faust. In 408
soft-cover pages, plus appendices and index, he not only refreshes
our memory of von Steuben and Schurz, but points out that Peter
Minuit of New Netherland, famous for buying Manhattan for $24, was
also a German-American. Dr. Tolzmann, who meant only to add a few
chapters to Huebener's book, has produced a basically new work,
which rests upon the shoulders of its predecessors, Faust as well
He includes maps, charts, much Census information, appendices
in abundance, even lists of German words that have become standard
English, sister cities, a chronology of German-American history,
a list of prominent German-Americans and fields in which German-American
Dr. Tolzmann starts with the legend of the first German in America,
an explorer named Tryker, who accompanied Leif Ericson to the new
world around the year 1,000. He was Ericson's foster father and
was the member of the expedition who discovered the grapes and vines
which gave the place the name "Vinland." Later, during the Age of
Exploration, Germany not being a seafaring nation, Germans were
active in the expeditions of others. They especially distinguished
themselves in devising navigational aids.
The first German settlers in America came to the Jamestown colony
in 1608, as glassmakers and carpenters. They built the first European-style
house and manufactured the first glass, thus becoming the founders
of industrial production. American society was going to be multiethnic
and culturally diverse.
The author gives us the reasons people had for leaving Germany,
from the devastation of the Thirty Years' War, the religious intolerance,
the autocratic rulers, and finally, the Naturalization Act, passed
in England in 1709, providing for the naturalization of all foreign
Protestants, making it much easier to leave the old country.
The first permanent German settlement was founded at Germantown,
Pennsylvania, in 1683 by thirteen Mennonite and Quaker families
from Krefeld, Germany. They sailed on the Concord. Considered
the Mayflower of German immigration, landing on October 6,
1683. In 1987, October 6 was proclaimed "German-American Day" by
Congress and the President.
In 1688, five years after the founding of Germantown, under the
leadership of Franz Daniel Pastorius a group of Germantowners met
and issued the first historical protest of its kind against slavery--more
than 150 years before the Civil War. When they sent the document
to the Quakers, they tabled the motion with excuses and no more
was heard of it.
Benjamin Franklin held nativist views. Before the American Revolution,
Pennsylvania, being one-third German and one-third English, Franklin
and others feared that the Germans would become so numerous in Pennsylvania
that, rather than be Anglicized, they would Germanize the English.
He hoped that they could be induced to go to other colonies. In
1798 anti-German nativism produced the Alien and Sedition Act--the
Federalists were the party of the privileged and wealthy. They did
not want the Anglo element in America to be polluted by unrestricted
immigration. How modern that sounds! The Act lengthened the required
period of residence for naturalization from five to fourteen years.
This so alienated the German-Americans that they voted overwhelmingly
for Thomas Jefferson in 1800.
Most of the Germans supported the American Revolution and the
Union side in the Civil War, and many of them campaigned for Abraham
Lincoln and the Republicans. An interesting sidelight is that, although
it was not known to the pubic at the time, Lincoln bought a German
newspaper, the Illinois Staats-Zeitung, allowing the editor to continue
to publish it as long as it remained a Republican paper.
The most prominent German-American of the 19th century was Carl
Schurz, a Forty-Eighter, or refugee from the abortive German revolution
of 1848. He became a U.S. Senator, a foreign minister and personal
friend of and advisor to President Lincoln, and a general in the
Civil War. He was Secretary of the Interior under President Hayes.
He pioneered conservation of the U.S. forests, reorganized the Indian
Bureau and began the development of the National Parks System. He
also promoted Civil Service reform. He was of rigid honesty and
Dr. Tolzmann is particularly good at explaining the anti-German
hysteria in both world wars, and discussing the internment of German-Americans:
6,300 were interned during the First World War, and 10,905 during
the Second World War. The anti-German hysteria and sentiment of
the two world wars is interrelated, two parts of a whole. The measures
that were taken during the First World War were in many cases not
rescinded after it was over. They were in Carl Wittke's words "a
violent, concerted and hysterical effort to eradicate everything
of German origin" in America. The mere use of German on the phone
or among neighbors was considered evidence of a conspiracy.
Between the wars anti-Germanism continued as if the war were still
in progress. German-Americans regarded the enactment of prohibition
as anti-German; their language, their heritage, and now their beverage
were being taken away from them. The family Sunday afternoons in
the beer garden were gone. They felt that government's main objective
should be to guarantee and protect personal liberty--any attempt
to legislate or control morality or what a person should think,
drink or eat was regarded as an invasion of personal liberty. They
valued their cultural heritage.
The brouhaha about the German-American Bund was not justified;
it never had more than 6,300 members, of whom just over half were
of German heritage.
As to the internments: since 1948 there have been nine laws enacted
to provide for apology and redress to Japanese-Americans who were
interned but there have been no overtures to German-Americans and
others who were interned as well.
Dr. Tolzmann shows his optimism for the future in a chapter he
calls "The American Renaissance" in which he points out the growing
friendship between the United States and Germany, especially since
unification. In this he is too kind. There are still strains, for
example, Daniel Goldhagen's book in which he blames the entire German
nation for the persecution of the Jews and the reviving push for
reparations from present-day German corporations, fifty-five years
after the war, with the U.S. government as one of the prime movers--to
say nothing of the Jörg Haider flap.
Germans were pioneers in the cultural pluralism that is now recognized
as the American condition. America is not, nor has it ever been
a melting pot, but a nation of cultural pluralism and diversity.
As Dr. Tolzmann states on page 237: "It would take the tragedy of
World War I for American society to realize that it was not a melting
pot, but a nation consisting of many ethnic elements."