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 Dakota polka.
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 culture.
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 Bismarck.
His name is Juergen Chrobog, a very successful diplomat who participated in the negotiations with the Soviet Union on the reunification of Germany.
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 work ethic.
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 communities.
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 circumstances.
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 the war.
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 view.
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 enhanced.
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.
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 century.
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 everything else.
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 year!
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.)