Immediately before World War One, Germans made up the largest single nationality among the foreign-born in the United States, yet today comparatively few signs remain of the once formidable German American political or social power. Even today, although more Americans can claim German descent than any other nationality, one would never guess that they were ever any more than a small contingent from a third world country. There is no nationally recognized German ethnic holiday to compare with an Irish St. Patrick’s Day or an Italian Columbus Day. There are no sizable “German towns” left in our cities or our nation. We do not hear small groups in the mall speaking German. There are no German fast food joints hawking five minute Zwiebelkuchen...in fact, most German eateries today struggle to survive while small Greek or Thai restaurants draw eager crowds. Indeed, today the impact German Americans once made is scarcely discerned.
It is true that some German ethnic institutions had already begun a slow decline beginning in the 1890s for reasons other than the rabid anti-Germanism of World War One. For one thing, the violent nature of radical nativism of the 19th century had already frightened many German Americans into quickly shedding their ethnicity for their own safety and success. Then, the later, poorer German immigrants adopted a common “white” racial identity in place of their ethnic identity as they mixed and mingled with other ethnic groups in crowded tenements in the bigger cities. At the same time, the long-established German immigrants viewed the poorer German new-comers as socially inferior. These “older” Germans preferred being thought of as something akin to “Mayflower Germans” and many merged with their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, class being more of a factor than ethnicity.
The church played a role in the decline of German ethnic identity as well, especially the Catholic church in working-class neighborhoods whose parishioners eventually included Irish, Slavic and Italian Catholics. By the 1920s, these groups tended to affiliate more and more with one another as religion took precedence over ethnicity. Again, they saw themselves more as sharing a common white, Catholic, European identity rather than a German identity and intermarriage between the various ethnic groups became more common. Then there were other factors. By now, even the historic German consumption of alcohol, which had came under attack by non-German Americans for decades as a distinctly “German” habit, was shared with the Irish, Italians and others and became instead a common American custom uniting the various ethnic groups in social pastimes. After “one too many” they started to look pretty good to each other and off came the dirndls, kilts and fedoras.
In time, some Germans were also ethnically re-defined. Even in a state such as Pennsylvania with its large rural German population, Germans became the “Pennsylvania Dutch” rather than the less glamorous “Pennsylvania Germans.” After World War One, Germans from the old ethnic German areas taken away from Germany and the Habsburg Empire by the dictates of Versailles became known not as the Germans they were, but as “Czech-born,” “Polish-born” and “Bohemian-born,” blurring their ethnic identity even more. This was not only acceptable but preferable to most German Americans, who at this point in time wanted nothing to do with their German heritage.
Other white European ethnic identities also waned in the early twentieth century, but none in such a violent manner that compelled people to change their names and pretend to have sprung from some other ethnic group! It would be nice to look for less obvious reasons for the homicidal demise of German cultural identity in America rather than face the cold, hard fact that it was poisoned in a hideously calculated manner.
Sociologists now and then try to set forth new theories pointing in some other more palatable direction, but the sad truth remains that the grueling standard set by the propagandists for proving national loyalty demanded that all German Americans be “100 percent American” and this anti-German assault not only made the public expression of German ethnicity virtually impossible during the war, but continued afterward with public German-ness becoming more and more repugnant until it trickled into nothingness.
The one critical element in maintaining a mutual German cultural identity among the wide variety of Germans: Germans in the homeland, ethnic Germans and American Germans, was the German language, and once that binding tie had been lethally severed by the intentional and relentless attacks on the German language in the war years, there was no hope of a cultural resurrection. There were no longer local German newspapers filled with chatty gossip. The German reading section at the local library was gone. German language services in churches were no longer available. German language classes were no longer offered in schools. Thousands of German books had been destroyed.
Everything else German was gone as well. The good German deli on the corner was torn down. The beergardens, Turnvereins, Liederkranz clubs, Schützenvereins...all vanished in the blink of an eye. German American cultural icons which had for decades been near and dear to the hearts of a people were dead along with the family bible, the generations-old lullabies, the folktales handed down from grandparents and sometimes even the family names.
What happens to a culture once the language is no longer spoken, the oral histories and legends are forgotten, the food is no longer consumed, the native dress is changed, the traditional music is silenced, the folk dances are lost and the family lore thrown out? What happens when that heritage is so thoroughly erased that there are no reminders of a past, no knowledge of the long history, when nothing familiar in an environment is distinctly part of that heritage? Even worse, what happens when the only reference to that culture is negative, degrading, insulting or obscene?
No other large immigrant group in the twentieth century witnessed its heritage be as thoroughly vilified, and none suffered such sustained pressure to shed its entire ethnic identity for an “American” one. Nor did any other ethnic group reject, hide or disparage its ethnic identity to so great an extent as the Germans did. However, this denigration of a “hyphenated” ethnic allegiance, while initially aimed solely at Germans, resulted in the abolition of not only German-Americanism, indeed, all of our various European-American cultures, until it recently became popular to embrace “multi-culturalism” as it applies to new immigrants and minorities. By then it was far too late for any distinctly European-American culture to return, and even if rediscovering a European identity did become acceptable or chic for other ethnic groups, it would still be looked at as taboo for Germans. There will probably never again be such a thing as a socially acceptable proud German.
Even today, our media concentrates what scant attention it bestows on anything German almost completely from a negative perspective until the point where the very word “German” is synonymous with “bad.” German historical figures of greatness are rarely mentioned or their contributions are ignored, “misappropriated” or minimized. We are subjected to hundreds of dated British serials and sit-coms on public television which obsess about evil “Germans.”
The media relentlessly perpetuates negative German stereotypes which in any other case would be considered highly improper, whether it be mocking the German accent to advertisements showing silly, fat Germans yodeling for cheese. An acceptance of Germans being “fair game” permeates our schools and other institutions even now. Hundreds of the visitors speaking to school children across the world daily to relate atrocities committed over seventy years ago by National Socialists refer to the villains not as “nazis” but rather as (collectively) “Germans,” thereby poisoning another generation. This must end, and this the story of how it began