Presentation by Carter Wood, Political Advisor
Office of Governor Edward T. Schafer
Carter Wood prepared a six-part series of articles, "Wanderings:
The Germans from Russia Today" from July 4 - 10, 1994, as staff
writer for the Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, North Dakota. See
the following GRHC website page: http://library.ndsu.edu/gerrus/woodintro.html.
Dakota Pioneer Chapter, Germans from Russia Society
Bismarck, North Dakota
November 23, 1999
When people discover my German-speaking abilities, which are admittedly
fading, they often ask, were your parents German?
That reflects two things: One, most people learn their foreign
languages at home, as children; and two, hardly anyone expects people
to study German anymore. In U.S. schools, the language of science
and great literature, of Goethe and Schiller, has been overtaken
by the study of Spanish, presumably the language of commerce in
the New World. And to be sure, the two world wars had a very damaging
effect on German-language instruction.
I attend the governor's Capitals for a Day program, visiting schools
districts in smaller towns around North Dakota. It is funny, I will
say, to see teens by the names of Maier and Volk and Trinkwasser
learning Español instead of Deutsch - but those are the demands
of the educational market these days, I suppose. And there are more
Taco Bells than Wienerwalds.
Learning any language is a wonderful thing, so you cannot complain
too much. Besides, perhaps their learning Spanish will introduce
them to Norteño music, you know, the Tex-Mex music played with an
accordion that owes so much to the German settlers of the Guadelupe
Valley in Texas. From there it's just a short jump back to the North
Let me mention that I am a fan of a country-folk-rock singer songwriter
named Steve Earle, who explores all aspects of the American musical
tradition. Although he made his career in Nashville, he grew up
in near San Antonio Texas in a town named Elmendorf. I saw him earlier
this year in Fargo, and he told of his childhood years down there,
and joked about getting beaten up in school by cowboys named Otto.
His band does play the accordion now and then. So cultural connections
pop up in the most unexpected places.
To get back to my point, no, my parents were not German. Wood
is a good English name, and my mother's side of the family represents
the Swedish migration that passed through North Dakota on the way
to the West Coast.
I learned German because a friend of mine in fifth grade was named
Ron Mueller, and his parents, Heinz and Elisabeth, had emigrated
from Hamburg to Oregon in the 1950s. I just thought they were interesting,
and took German in eighth grade for that reason - as well as the
fact the 1972 Olympics were being held in Munich.
To heighten the lack of German ties, I would always say, Ich hatte
kein Troeppfchen Deutsches Blutes. There's not a drop of German
blood in me.
Well, that turns out now to be inaccurate. I spoke to my father
on Saturday. After his retirement he became interested in genealogy,
as I imagine some of you are.
After discovering what all Americans discover - we're related
to British royalty - he turned his efforts to a part of the family
he traced back to Pennsylvania. I now know that my great-great-great-great
grandfather was a Conrad M. Scheretz, born in the Rhineland in 1751.
He emigrated to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he married Mary Margaret
Laird in 1772. At least he wasn't a Hessian soldier.
So, I can now join the millions of Americans who can trace their
heritage back to Germany. It's a distant connection, but a typical
American one - the emigration of Prussian Rhinelanders to become
Pennsylvania Germans. It was just about the same time that Catherine
the Great invited Germans to the Volga for free land and political
freedom -- so similar motives drove emigrants who went East to Russia
and West to the American colonies.
On a practical level, I know all of us have asked ourselves, what
does German heritage mean? The first thing that comes to mind to
most Americans of any heritage would be, let's see: oom-pah bands,
beer and bratwurst. I will tell you that I'm always looking for
those things when I travel around the country.
Two summers ago I was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin for a governors
conference, and I knew that Milwaukee had once been a great German
city in its own right. A Danish traveler wrote this about it in
the 1850s: "German houses, German inscriptions over the doors or
on signs, and German faces everywhere. . .. Many Germans who live
here learn no English and they seldom exit from their own German
section of the city."
I looked for signs of German culture in the modern city, and there
were some. The museum had a wonderful display of the role various
cultures had played in Milwaukee's growth, including the German
A used bookstore had many volumes in the German language. A wonderful
deli offered every kind of sausage, including my favorite, the weisswurst.
And I did have a fine glass of beer.
Last summer, in St. Louis, I made the same sort of search. The
annual Strassenfest was under way, and there were oom-pah bands
along with the sausage. Our conference included an evening at the
Anheuser-Busch Tiergarten, which looked much like a classic German
hof. Great brats and kraut, and I did have a fine glass of beer.
But really, is that what being a German-American is about -- food,
music and drink? Well, certainly not alone, I think.
The usual answer about what constitutes German-American culture
goes back to Fleiss and Tugend, that is, hard work and virtue. It
is something folks can point to with pride. Ethnic Germans in this
part of the world do work hard and maintain the cultural virtues
that made America great.
That's one cultural element North Dakotans often cite as we try
to attract new investors and businesses to the state. Our workforce
won't let you down - they are well-educated, hard-working people
who show up and give you a full day's labor. And that's because
of the German blood.
Gov. Schafer implied such a thing about our state's German roots
last summer when the German ambassador to the United States visited
His name is Juergen Chrobog, a very successful diplomat who participated
in the negotiations with the Soviet Union on the reunification of
The governor said essentially, we have a great educated workforce
who work hard, and that's because they come from German stock.
Ambassador Chrobog disagreed with that assessment, saying, no,
he thought it was probably because we are still so close to the
rigors of farm life, of the agrarian economy that rewards the early
riser and the hard worker.
I was not surprised to hear that response from the ambassador,
because Germans are sensitive about imputing a cultural, ethnic
or even racial basis to behavior. If Germans are ethnically hard
workers, then they might also be ethnically anti-Semitic or imperialistic
or militaristic. I am sure that is what goes through the mind of
an educated German when he hears an American praise his nation's
But of course cultural attributes really do exist. Max Weber,
the great German sociologist, argued that northern Europe and Germany
prospered because of the Protestant work ethic, that is, hard work
demonstrated that you were one of the chosen of God. He focused
on the Calvinists, if I remember correctly. It's one argument.
I simply think that German cultural attributes are hard to maintain
in the face of a rapidly changing economy and mobile American population,
especially when the stream of German emigration to the United States
has drawn to a close, ending the cultural revitalization that used
to occur on a periodic basis. And few institutions support German
ethnicity: Do you see television series based on a German detective,
or movies featuring Germans that aren't about World War II?
Just as capitalism and a competitive economy can diminish or wipe
out German culture in America, so did Communism destroy the culture
of ethnic Germans in the former Soviet bloc. The Bishop of Siberia,
Joseph Werth - I imagine some of you have meant him - talked about
the attitudes of those he ministered to in Novosobirsk and the smaller
He described the predominance of Humanicus Sovieticus -- the Soviet
Man -- who had no longer displayed personal initiative.
After decades of being told what to do, you are bound to lose
that initiative. And under communism, and especially the collective
farms, there's no benefit to working hard.
And of course, when it comes to the ethnic Germans in the former
Soviet Union, they were the victims of terrible persecutions, including
the government-induced famine in the Ukraine, the deportations,
and the closed villages under military rule. You would imagine that
nearly every trace of German culture would be wiped away under such
The same cultural dynamic exists in the former East Germany, too.
I'm sure you saw all those articles on the 10th anniversary of the
fall of the Berlin Wall, and how all the easterners missed the security
that socialism provided them. These were stupid stories, by and
large, missing the salient point that people are free!
And yet subservience to authority, obedience and a desire for
Ordnung, are also said to be Germany cultural attributes, so perhaps
the East Germans were merely prevented from changing, from evolving
into more individualistic westerners the way West Germany did after
I often heard the cliché that East Germany was more like the real
Germany, that is, the pre-war Germany in its authoritarian nature
backed by Prussian militarism. Having watched soldiers goose-step
in East Berlin back in the 1980s, I can understand this point of
Gordon Craig writes about the historical roots of this subservience
in his book, "The Germans." He sees the horror of Thirty Years War
as a defining event in the development of German culture, for the
war and famine destroyed thousands of towns and villages and saw
the weakening of the peasantry and the incipient class of burgher.
Princes and other royalties, on the other hand, saw their power
Let me read a passage from Craig's book, which I highly recommend:
"It is not too much to talk of a progressive bureaucratization
of Germany in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and a concomitant
growth among the inhabitants of the German states of habits of deference
toward authority that seemed excessive to foreign observers. The
last may have had ancient roots -- it was a medieval pope who called
Germany the terra obedientiea -- but there is little doubt that
they were encouraged by the traumatic effects of the war. The daily
presence of death, the constant Angst of which Gryphius speaks in
his poems, made the survivors willing to submit to any authority
that seemed strong enough to prevent a recurrence of those terrors."
Craig also quotes from the Wuerttemburg publisher, Karl Friedrich
Moser wrote in 1758, "Every nation has its principal motive. In
Germany, it is obedience; in England, freedom; in Holland, trade:
in France, the honor of the King."
To me, the greatness of American culture comes from combining
some of these elements, particularly, the English love of freedom
and the Dutch love of trade. But where does the German fondness
for obedience enter in this?
Nowhere, I think. German-American culture, in my experience, is
not stamped by subservience or a love of order. No, instead I reach
for concepts like families, community -- gemeinschaft -- perhaps
a little kitsch and of course, hard work.
The subservience is absent, I believe, because above all German-Americans
are immigrants, are shaped by the immigrant experience. It requires
great individual initiative to leave your homeland, to abandon your
family. It requires a willingness to take risks.
Speculate about Germans like my great-great-great-great- grandfather,
who emigrated from Prussia to Pennsylvania during the time Gordon
Craig says German cultural subservience was developing, the mid-18th
He left for the American wilderness, as I'm sure the Europeans
regarded it, and a land full of uncertainties. Now, there was a
tremendous labor shortage in the colonies at this time, but still,
one does not take risks such as emigration if one loves order before
Too, much of German-American culture draws from the arrival of
the 1848 liberal revolutionaries and reformers, who faced imprisonment
and worse from the Prussian forces of reaction. Perhaps we should
think of these liberals as political refugees or exiles first, and
immigrants second, but there is no doubt that these men took risks
in Germany when they refused to be subservient, and they took further
risks when they left for the United States.
During this same period, peasant emigration was under way from
the German principalities to Russia -- the Volga region and later
the Black Sea region from which most North Dakotans of German ancestry
trace their roots. I am constantly amazed by the pictures and descriptions
of horse-drawn carts traveling thousands of miles on the way to
the empty steppes of South Russia. Certainly great pressures drove
them -- hunger, the arbitrary power of their rulers, the countless
wars into which peasants were conscripted -- but these people were
clearly willing to take risks to advance their lives.
These same factors led the German from Russia immigrants to Great
Plains to leave the Ukraine in the latter part of last century.
And upon arriving in North Dakota or Montana or Alberta, they proved
themselves hardworking and thrifty.
Are these traits to be considered German first, or should we attribute
them to the fact the Germans from Russia are immigrants? I lean
toward the latter.
If you visit any restaurant these days run by recent immigrants
-- and yes, I'm thinking of Chinese restaurants -- you will find
parents and children working long hours and pinching every penny.
I suspect the same is true with the Vietnamese running manicure
shops, or most of the Somalians or Bosnians working at their entry-level
jobs in the Fargo area.
So, when contemplating your cultural heritage -- and it turns
out, my cultural heritage -- I would say consider yourselves first
and foremost part of the great stream of immigration that made and
still makes this country what it is today.
For the Germans today aren't all that much like German-Americans.
There's a battle going on in Germany today about the British telecommunications
firm Vodafone's bid to take over Mannesmann AG. An Associated Press
writer summarized the reaction over the weekend. He wrote:
"The rare hostile bid Friday by a foreign firm for one of Germany's
crown jewels has set off an uproar in a country where consensus
is king and Anglo-American style 'cowboy capitalism' is decried
as a job-killer."
That's a facile characterization of the cultural differences,
and I wonder how you can resolve that view with Mercedes dominating
Chrysler after their merger. At any rate, I wager that German-Americans
are far more in line with cowboy capitalism than with king consensus.
And I know German-Americans don't get five weeks of vacation every
Let me close by relating a conversation I had last year with a
reporter from Die Zeit, the national weekly newspaper based in Hamburg.
He was traveling through the area for several stories, including
one of the 100th anniversary of Otto von Bismarck's Todestag, the
day of his death.
The reporter asked Gov. Schafer a lot about his knowledge of Bismarck.
Like most everyone, the governor only knew the story about why
the city was named after the Iron Chancellor. I talked to this reporter
later about political traditions, prairie populism, and German from
Russia heritage. He was fascinated by the fact we elect everybody,
and have the most elected officials per capita of any state. We
went up to the Capitol roof and he was struck by all the fast food
joints and gas stations off the Interstate, and the great green
areas around the Capitol grounds.
The story wound up being just like this: A city named after one
of Germany's most authoritarian leaders is in fact the finest example
of Democracy in the world.
And if that is a contribution that Americans of German descent
can be credited for, then I think that speaks highly of what it
means to be a German-American.
(Carter Wood is policy advisor for Governor Edward T. Schafer.)