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The German-American Experience

Book review by Gert Niers

Heinrich, Don. The German-American Experience. Amherst, New York: Humanity Books, 2000.


Don Heinrich Tolzmann, president of the Society for German-American Studies and senior librarian at the University of Cincinnati, has also made a name for himself as an editor, most recently of long-lost German-American books, which he had reprinted in reasonably priced trade paperbacks. He is a writer in his own right, as can be seen from his documentation, The Cincinnati Germans After the Great War (1987). The subject of that volume recurs in his latest book, The German-American Experience, which surpasses the regional concept and unfolds the entire historical spectrum of almost 400 years of German existence in America.

Tolzmann follows in chronological order the traces of the German-speaking people in North America, beginning with Norse legends and ending with news material from the time of the Clinton presidency. The volume reflects in an unpretentious, sober language the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of individual German-Americans. It covers all fields of professional activities, artistic achievements, and social encounters.

Most fascinating are the chapters about the 19th and 20th centuries which saw the highest number of immigrants to the United States and also the harshest challenges to German-Americans. Tolzmann provides an accurate account of the fate of Americans of German speaking background. The book contains valuable material which even in this age of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity has often been delegated to oblivion. I am referring here to the little-known roles that German-Americans played in the abolitionist movement, their participation in the Civil War, and their suffering during World War I.

Although within the last twenty-some years much progress has been made by German teachers and scholars to reclaim in the public consciousness a niche for the German-American memory, Tolzmann's book is a long overdue eye-opener. This well-balanced account belongs into every public library (not just German-American households), and with its helpful appendices and source lists, it qualifies as a paramount textbook for German-American courses.

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