Prevalence, Impact and Assimilation of German Americans

German Americans have been something of a silent majority, despite their significant contributions to the culture.

Map of German Americans' share of the population by county
Map of German Americans’ share of the population by county

German Americans are the largest ancestry group in the United States. Some 46 million Americans, comprising 14 percent of the population, claim German roots.

Germans have been part of American history almost from the start. The first German immigrants settled in rural Pennsylvania and upstate New York. Many were Protestants who had made the journey to the New World from predominantly Catholic parts of Central Europe.

A second, larger immigration wave would come in the nineteenth century, when around seven million Germans arrived, doubling the population of the United States at the time. Many of them established farms in the Midwest, leading to a heavy concentration of German Americans in states like Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas.

Impact

German Protestants and Jews tended to vote Republican; most Catholics were Democrats. What united them was opposition to slavery and Prohibition and in general a mistrust of Southern populists and New England puritans alike.

Germans played an important role in the early American labor and socialist movements, which were strongest in those Midwestern states that had large German minorities. Milwaukee, for example, was the only major city in America with socialist mayors for a long time.

German contributions to American culture include beer, hot dogs, Christmas trees and kindergarten (literally, “garden for children”). Companies such as Boeing, Goldman Sachs, Heinz, Kraft Foods, Lehman Brothers and Levi’s were all started by Germans.

Prejudice

There had been little prejudice against German until the United States entered World War I on the Allied side in 1917. Former president Theodore Roosevelt denounced “hyphenated Americanism”. Anti-German bigotry became widespread. A German minister was tarred and feathered in Minnesota after he was overheard praying in his native language with a dying woman. A man suspected of spying for the Germans was lynched in Collinsville, Illinois.

The Justice Department was no help. It drew up a list of all German aliens in the country, counting some 480,000. More than 4,000 of them were incarcerated until the hostilities in Europe ended a year later.

Ordinary Germans responded by speaking English in public and anglicizing their names: Koenig became King, Müller became Miller, Schmidt became Smith.

The German American experience during the Second World War was mixed. Nearly 11,000 German citizens were interned and some 300,000 German-born residents were restricted in their travel and property rights.

But President Franklin D. Roosevelt — Theodore’s distant cousin — also sought out German Americans for top war posts, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spearheaded the Allied war effort in Europe, and Admiral Chester Nimitz, who was the American naval commander in the Pacific. German speakers were recruited as translators and spies. Very few sympathized with the Nazis.

Assimilation

Despite their numerical preponderance, German Americans have been something of a silent majority throughout American history.

Partly that’s because they themselves deemphasized their Germanness in the first half of the twentieth century. Barely any German speakers remain.

Many first-generation German immigrants were also poor, uneducated farmers, who spread out across the Midwest, unlike, say, more middle-class Irishmen and Italians, many of whom settled in the big cities of the Northeast where they could more easily become a political force.

Whether it is in spite or because of this process of assimilation, German Americans now do better than most ethnicities on many metrics. They are more likely to have college degrees and less likely to be unemployed. Their median household income is 18 percent above the national norm.

Well-known German Americans include former House speaker John Boehner, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and the actress Meryl Streep — as well as the current Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakingly identified Franklin Roosevelt as Theodore Roosevelt’s nephew. The later President Roosevelt was in fact a distant cousin of the first.

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