Part 3: The German Ethnic Group
During the Revolution
ven before the young colonies' War of Independence, Germans were involved in Anglo-French naval and colonial wars. Almost the entire Royal American regiment, which was used primarily to combat Indians, was composed of Germans from Pennsylvania and Maryland. In the War of Independence, 1775-1783, Germans again played an important part in the battles between the English colonial masters and the American revolutionaries. Nikolaus Herchheimer, whose parents were from Heidelberg, became the "Hero of Mohawk Valley", where he ended a costly losing streak by winning a decisive victory for General Washington. Herchheimer, promoted to Brigadier General, was mortally wounded in the Battle of Oriskany Creek, the turning point of this war.
In December 1777 a man arrived on the French sailing ship "La Flamande" who was to become of fundamental importance to America's fate: the Prussian officer Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben! "He applied his experience in the Prussian General Staff to the American revolutionary army for tactical and operative warfare against the British troops," an encyclopedia states. "The American victory was largely to his credit."
The President of the young American Congress, Laurent Morris, greeted Steuben on his arrival: "In your person, dear Baron, we welcome an outstanding officer who has not only long served the victorious Prussian King but was also his confidante. If you serve the States, the Union - whose lawgiver and government you see in us - as loyally as you served your monarch, you will find that a Republic is no less grateful than a monarch!"
Steuben declared himself willing "to serve a nation that fights such a noble battle for its rights and its freedom." In the camp at Valley Forge he began to teach the undisciplined, motley band of Washington's rebels the fundamentals of modern tactics. Several movies have recreated his irate lectures. The interpreter assigned to him had to translate his curses into English. Steuben soon realized that he would have to proceed differently with these "backwoodsmen" than with European soldiers, who at that time were still accustomed to carrying out orders without question. Here, in the New World, he had to explain to his men why his drills and field training must be done the way he said. In the course of his time of service Steuben wrote the so-called Blue Book, a manual of drill and service regulations that was to remain in effect for the later American army for decades to come.
Thanks to the Prussian discipline which he instilled in his troops, combined with the techniques tried and tested in forest battles against Indians, Steuben succeeded in forcing the British to surrender in the Battle of Yorktown. General Washington once said of him: "The Baron shall be our first Master of the Order [an Order newly established together with Lafayette]. One day our children and grandchildren will remember how we swore each other undying loyalty in the most hopeless time of war in these forsaken lands!"
Numerous town and city names still recall the assistance rendered by the Prussians in the War of Independence. The name Berlin alone was to be found 82 times prior to the changes that were made during World War One. But the real gratitude expressed by America, that is so deeply in Steuben's debt, was to look a little different than all the nice phrases. While several American cities are named for him, the lands granted to him in Pennsylvania and Virginia were useless as the funds with which Steuben could have developed the land were withheld from him.
On Steuben's discharge from civil service there was a motion to pay him a $40,000 settlement. Congress accepted Steuben's resignation, but agreed to a settlement of only $10,000 and an honorary sword. But even this amount was paid out to him only in many small instalments in the form of Treasury Bonds, whose dwindling worth again reduced the value by two-thirds! Steuben had no other choice than to give his lands to war veterans. "In that way, hundreds of your war comrades and their families are saved from poverty, and a distant wilderness is opened up to culture," Washington advised him.
The saddest chapter of Steuben's life began. Aside from his material impoverishment he even had to defend himself against slander: "I gave up everything to serve the cause of the state, and in return, the state leaves me in poverty!" Steuben had helped George Washington turn the colonies exploited by England into a free country, and it was not until Washington was elected the first President of the Union that Congress finally yielded to his pressure to grant Steuben a steady, if modest, annual stipend.
Another competent General of German extraction was the peasant son Johann Kalb, who commanded the American troops in Delaware and Maryland and also played an important role in gaining the support of the French Court for the young Union. Kalb died a hero's death in South Carolina.
A German woman named Maria Heis, née Ludwig, christened Molly Pitcher by the Americans, was also to become famous, indeed to become a national symbol. After her husband was wounded she intervened "quick as lightning" in the battle, of which it was afterwards said that "a woman won the Battle of Monmouth".
In the style of classic German fate, this war between England and its rebellious colonies became a fraternal war between the Germans fighting on the side of Washington and those whom greedy German princes sold to England as cannon fodder for thirty pieces of silver, as it were. In this way, some 30,000 German mercenaries were sold by their primarily Hessian princes into English service, in a dirty deal for 200 pounds each. The Prince of Hessen-Kassel once wrote to his commanding officer: "The English Court does not pay me as much for my mercenaries when they are only wounded as it pays me when they die. So I don't wish to hear again that only such small numbers of my good Hessians are falling in battle!"
Under such circumstances, it is quite understandable that where Germans meet as "enemies" they often end up as allies, consistently to the benefit of the colonies. In an unjust misinterpretation of these facts, this results in both the English and the Americans beginning to use the term "Hessian" as a synonym for cowardice and desertion. But it was Germans such as Steuben, Kalb and Mühlenberg whose service as leading military heads helped the American cause gain victory in this long and bloody battle for freedom! The best regiments of American freedom fighters were recruited from among the German peasants. And it was a German pastor from Pennsylvania who had been the first to preach independence from England.
George Washington's initial official residence was Germantown, which 439 signers of a 1783 petition requested as the capital city of the United States. The aforementioned Friedrich August Mühlenberg was a member of four US Congresses and was twice the Speaker of the House of Representatives. One Michael Hillegas from Heidelberg became the first Minister of Finance, and founded the "Bank of North America". German was the language spoken in the courts of the states New York and New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, German schools taught in German and enjoyed equality with English schools until 1837. The currency of the new Union was the dollar - named for the German thaler, pronounced "daler" by the Pennsylvania Germans.
After the end of the war, Johann Jakob Astor immigrated from Walldorf near Heidelberg. By 1810 he made his first million from the fur trade and real estate investments, making him the wealthiest American of his time. He supported German immigrants, and according to the Brockhaus Encyclopedia he was the "founder of the city Astoria, of the Astor Library in York, and of Astor House (a home for children) in Walldorf".
Until the German Empire was founded in 1871, the German immigrants had no national backing at all. In view of the deep lack of German unity, the immigrants could hardly be expected to have national German sentiments. All they had retained from their homeland was a sentimental sort of attachment, mixed with church ties. The despotism of the local princes, at times reaching the point of open oppression, had contributed much to the immigrants' lack of self-confidence. According to Heinrich Heine, the dissatisfied German chose to give up his homeland and move to America, whereas the dissatisfied Frenchman preferred to start a revolution!
The German immigrant was politically naive. He did not feel himself to be a German, but rather a Prussian, a Palatine, a Saxon, a Mennonite, Amish, Herrnhuter etc. What a glaring contrast to the closed settlements of German ethnic groups such as once existed on the Balkans under Prince Eugen, or among the Volga Germans that were brought to Russia by Katharina II.!
At this time, Pennsylvania was the only state in which more or less closed German settlement areas remained. Farther westward, the Germans scattered more widely than other ethnic groups throughout the vastness of the newly opened lands. As Gottfried Duden said: "If ever a town were founded with the intent to serve the German-Americans as their focus of culture, we would soon see the emergence of a rejuvenated Germania, and the Germans would have a second Fatherland in America just as the British do." But it was the British who had the money and the experience in global politics. Their "gentlemen adventurers", often members of wealthy families, had the advantage over the generally poor immigrants from German lands not only in terms of self-assurance but also where the ruthless drive towards profit was concerned. "Egotism is the basic drive of a healthy people," Walter von Molo quotes a British publisher in his novel about Friedrich List. "Ethical theories are for the powerless nations!"
In his 1847 history of the Germans in America, Franz Löher laments: "Germany has done nothing for her immigrants. Future history will note this failure as a moral crime, and this crime will weigh all the more heavily if the course of world history fails to make up for the political error this represents. If the German emigrants vanish into the masses of foreign peoples, Germany will have sustained an incredible loss." And in view of the participation of millions of Germans on the enemy side in two world wars, he was clearly right in this assessment!
In the summer of 1843 some 1,000 German immigrants arrived in America every week. Minnesota, admitted to the Union in 1858, initially had a majority of German immigrants. But Wisconsin, admitted in 1848, was considered the "most German state in the Union." Thanks to the establishment of Milwaukee as a diocesan town, Wisconsin also becomes particularly attractive to Catholics. With its breweries, beer gardens, theater groups, athletics and choral societies it was considered the most typically German city in America.
The new firearms (called "widow makers") that were a deciding factor in the winning of the West were a product of the German workshops of Lancaster County. The gunsmiths of the "frontier" were Germans. The "Conestoga wagon", or "prairie schooner", with its red wheels and white canvas hood, had evolved from the German peasant wagon.
Unlike specifically the Anglo-Saxons, whose westward urge was marked by the chase after ever-new adventures and riches, the German tended to settle on the land he had made arable by the sweat of his brow. Of all the immigrants, the Germans were least involved in the American government-sponsored ousting of the Indians, which culminated in their extermination.
Around 1820 the first Germans arrived in Texas. In this state, the largest in the Union, some one million Americans of German extraction were counted in 1990. Since 1839 the "Germania Society", founded in New York, tried to create a focal point for the Germans in Texas, with a unified Church, a German Society and a German university. In Gillespie County a nobleman who became famous as John O. Meusebach founded the city of Fredericksburg, which became the "peach capital of Texas". In 1840 San Antonio was still 100% Mexican, but already 50% German only ten years later. Even today one can still find some 150 German street names there.
After the founding of the German League in 1815, emigration was liberalized even further. Germany gradually became covered by a tight net of profitable emigration agencies. One of the best-known of these was the Hamburg-based agency of the Ballin family, one of whose scions is Albert Ballin, founder of the North German Lloyd and advisor to Emperor Wilhelm II. In the wake of the reactionary epoch beginning in 1815, 20,000 immigrants arrived on the American shore in 1816-1817. After the 1832 Hambach Festival and the Frankfurt putsch of 1833, fully seven million Germans left their homeland in several waves. In1882, the peak year, there were 250,000 of them! Even now, a large part of the emigrants were religious separatists, such as the Harmonites, whose colonies in Pennsylvania became model settlements admired far and wide. - Strengthened in their lack of ethnic identity by their Christian church and sect leaders, the Germans increasingly came to believe that "in a hospitable country" it is unthinkable to be anything other than American! Other ethnic groups, whether they were Italian, Polish or Ukrainian, were somewhat less sensitive in this regard - they all retained their national identity without a second thought.
Meanwhile, Metternich's suppression of liberalist efforts resulted in political emigrants joining the stream of mostly economically motivated refugees.
According to the novelist Karl Postl, who became famous as Charles Sielsfield, "the Germans are the bulwark of freedom... wherever they settle, life begins to smile." But Heinrich Heine, who seems to have been thinking of a different kind of emigrant, warned against the "goddamned land in which the most odious of tyrants, the rabble, exercises its coarse rule." And the poet Nikolaus Lenau lamented: "These Americans are petty-minded, dead as doornails to all intellectual life," and, cured of many illusions, proceeded to turn his back on the New World. Friedrich Kapp, editor-in-chief of the newspaper New Yorker Abendzeitung, commented in a similar vein: "The United States are the country for the small, ignorant farmer who has no other ideal than to eat bacon every day, and for the businessman who wants to grow rich at any cost."
One prominent emigrant, the German Follen, saw it his duty "as a good American, a good German and a good Christian" to fight against slavery. Since the Germans rejected slavery on moral grounds, the cultivation of the swampy land in Missouri claimed the lives of many of them. In this state the German Senator Münch and his 8,000-man militia of St. Louis played an important role for the North in the Civil War.
One of the foremost German immigrants was the professor of economics Friedrich List from Reutlingen. He had been imprisoned in Hohenasperg fortress on a flimsy pretext, as "rebel", and was released only on his promise to emigrate. Like so many others, List first became a farmer on his arrival in America, but then he took the position of editor at the nonpartisan Reading Adler. In Pennsylvania he discovered coal, which could be open-cast mined there. To facilitate its mining he established a railroad and canal company, and this, along with his public support of his friend and presidential candidate Jackson, made him a successful and respected man. But List found that he could not permanently forsake his own homeland, despite all the bitterness, humiliation and persecution he had experienced there. With new realizations and all the practical experience he gained in the New World, he returned to his homeland - but not without first giving the Americans some valuable advice based on his brilliant view of economics:
"You must impose tariffs on the imports of British goods, to make yourselves independent of foreign countries! You've thrown England out the front door, but she has crept in again through the back door." And more: "It is the British theory that anyone who does not believe that there is eternal peace among all the nations, is an idiot. But then, why did England wage war against America twice in recent years, and for more than 20 years with France? When England speaks of world peace, she means that no-one in the world shall dare stand up against her.... It is very clever of England to speak of humanity and eternal peace and think all the while only of her own advantage. But common sense requires that one does not judge a nation's motives by the pretexts it invents in order to conceal its intentions."
The Adler became so successful a paper that all prominent Americans read it, and Andrew Jackson, America's most respected statesman, publicly congratulated List, saying: "Herr Professor List has shown us that a country can only be healthy if agriculture and industry, man's two main inclinations, stand in balance to each other... We hereby decide to publish Herr List's essays in anthology form and to bring them into circulation in our nation's libraries."
As German patriot, List himself was clear on the fact that the mass emigration to America "is a cancer draining the German body's vitality. What a mighty stream of power Germany allows to flow across the ocean!"
With leaders such as List, Münch or Follen, who worked for the preservation of the German language and culture, it should really have been possible to create a national consciousness among the immigrants. If this failed, the failure was primarily due to those who had attained wealth and status in the New World and neglected, in their new prominence, to preserve their German nature and German customs. While they may have maintained certain cultural traditions, such as the German Gemütlichkeit, in political respects these newly "established" immigrants were all too willing to adapt to the political structure, which already bore the Anglo-Saxon stamp. And in that light, it was useless to make appeals such as, for example, that made by the German Society of Missouri to the ethnically German Governor of Pennsylvania, Ritner, to make the state officially bilingual, since "after all, only German industriousness and German uprightness had laid the foundations for Pennsylvania's wealth and made the wilderness arable." While a bill was passed in 1837, stating that laws in Pennsylvania must also be published in German, the established German press focused primarily on intellectual rather than on politically national issues. It was this kind of petty-minded sectarianism, a reflection of the small-state mentality dominant in the Motherland, that drove the Germans helplessly into the arms of the politically superior Yankee machinery.
The church of Martin Luther, for example, instead of sticking together, split into ever more and new factions, resulting in a fateful self-dissection and thus also in the political disenfranchisement of the Germans - one reason for Bismarck's press secretary Moritz Busch to remark with acid scorn on the "German impotence in America"!
But in the revolutionary year 1848 the Germans in the United States did for once
act as a unity in their "Address to the German People": "No Austrians, no
Prussians! A united Germany! A prince spoke these words and they remained
sound - a people demand it and it becomes fact! God bless Germany!" That
sounded like the impassioned cry of the Central Germans before the Berlin Wall
fell: WE ARE THE PEOPLE!