19. April 2005 · Comments Off on Germantown · Categories: European Disunion, General, History

The comments at Davids’ Mediancritik set off a train of thought for me last week about Germany and the US, about how the German media is about as nastily and unflattering about Americans as the French is, but only the French catch it in reverse from American media. The usual explanation is that we always thought of the French as friends and allies, whereas we were fighting Germany in both world wars and therefore didn’t have too many illusions to be shattered.

I think the real explanation is a great deal more complex, and goes much farther back than that- and curiously, it is something that swims to the surface of regional consciousness much more often in the US than in Germany. It just so happens that quite a lot of Americans are descended from German immigrants. And even more to the point, in a lot of places, like Texas and Pennsylvania, there were distinct German enclaves and settlements, going back even before the American Revolution, some of whom, like the Amish (or Pennsylvania Dutch— which is actually a corruption of deutch) still speak German amongst themselves.

There is a trick history question that sums the situation up nicely: “Who was the winningest German general of World War Two?” The expected answer is usually “Rommel,” but the correct and unexpected one is “Eisenhower.” You can do a variant of it with the winningest German admiral, too— and the answer would be Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who commanded the Pacific Fleet. Both Eisenhower and Nimitz were ethnically German, the descendents of German immigrants to America. Nimitz was actually born and raised in the little town of Fredericksburg, established as a refuge for German settlers in the mid-1840ies. Up until the two world wars, German was the common language of communities thorough-out the Hill Country, communities which were as distinct and self-contained as a Chinatown, or a little Saigon is today. In the adjacent town of New Braunfels, the local newspaper is still called The Herald Zeitung. My mother remarked how very much like Pennsylvania the area around Fredericksburg looked, with tidy stone-built houses, neatly organized little farms and orchards, the very image of comfort and domesticity. The image of German settlers in America was quite wholly favorable, associated with well-run and prosperous establishments, excellent food, frugal and neat, in comparison with the sometimes more slapdash Scotch-Irish.

German settlers were well established in the colonies; historians estimate that although they were about a twelfth of the overall population, they formed an eighth of the Revolutionary Army. The Reverend John Peter Muhlenburg preached a fiery Sunday sermon to his congregation, and then theatrically took off his clerical robe to reveal a Continental Army officers’ uniform underneath, and asked for volunteers. He eventually raised a regiment, and led them with distinction. There may even have been some thought given to making German one of the languages of the new republic.

The failure of the 1848 Revolution in Germany sent a tidal-wave of educated, politically active German immigrants to the United States. German-born and the descendants of German settlers were the largest ethnic component of the Union Army— only the Irish came anywhere close. Over two and a half centuries they were a presence in the upper mid-west, in Pennsylvania, in Texas and the West, a presence in a way that the French only equaled in Louisiana. A lot of what are typically German virtues— hard work, thrift, self-improvement, tidiness— are also seen as American virtues, at least in flyover country.

I think we are inclined to cut the present-day Germans some slack, and to swallow some of our disappointment. They are still kin, you see. Distant, but still kin.

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