American-born Indians have an identity crisis

German immigrants : How Germans struggled for their identity in the USA

"What I am missing is all missing / I'm so completely abandoned here / I have a nice meal in foreign lands / But it never becomes home." This is how the accountant Christopher Sydow wrote in 1860 from the USA to his family in Brandenburg. Three years have passed since he emigrated. Torn between longing for the German homeland and solidarity with America, he formulates this poem.

The United States offered many advantages to German emigrants in the 19th century. They could quickly identify with the economic opportunities and political freedoms. Nevertheless, the emigrants continued to feel closely connected to their German history and culture. So they had two identities at the same time: one as economic and social Americans and one as culturally German. These two identities could coexist peacefully - until the beginning of the 20th century national identities were increasingly politicized in the context of international tensions. Suddenly, second and third generation German-Americans felt like Germans again. Although they were born and raised in America, they should now “confess the flag” and deny their German heritage. It was only this external pressure that led to a strengthening of their German identity.

Two identities at the same time: quite normal in the 19th century

This is shown by the results of a study by Félix Krawatzek and Gwendolyn Sasse from the University of Oxford. A fund of meanwhile more than 8000 letters was examined, which emigrants from the German-speaking area between 1830 and 1970 sent to their old homeland. The letters offer a partial insight into the migration and integration experience of the estimated 5.5 million Germans who emigrated to the USA in the 19th century. At the same time, the length of the period covered also allows conclusions to be drawn about how the emigrants' identity and sense of belonging developed over time.

When the mass migration of Germans to the USA took off 200 years ago, the contrast between feudal Europe and progressive America was enormous. While European farmers were plagued by famine, land allotted to emigrants in the United States to populate the vast land. While Europe suffered from political repression, freedom of expression and the press flourished in America. Good reasons for the emigrants to take their new home to their hearts.

Migration networks connected the old and the new world

However, the popular view that poverty and political oppression drove emigrants to the land of opportunity is too simple. "To reduce the causes of mass migration to a mechanistic one, here bad, there good‘, ignores the important role of migration networks in the decision to migrate, "says Jochen Oltmer from the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies at the University of Osnabrück. When it comes to spatial movements, the question is always whether the necessary resources - money, knowledge, contacts - are available for a successful migration. The German mass migration to the USA was also not about the migration of individuals to unknown foreign lands. Rather, after the emigration of the first Germans, closely-knit transatlantic networks were created that connected individual regions in Germany with certain regions in America through family and friendly contacts and supported subsequent emigrants with information, money and contacts on departure and arrival. The targeted emigration of the Westphalians to Missouri, which led to the founding of the city of Westphalia in Missouri, is just one of many examples.

Emigrants were proud of their new home

A finding that Félix Krawatzek's analysis of transatlantic correspondence also confirms. The transatlantic networks could be reconstructed excellently from the letters. Emigrants reported on the living situation in America and encouraged their relatives to leave. The networks also facilitated the rapid social and economic integration of the emigrants. Relatives offered newcomers shelter, orientation and initial work opportunities. Knowing that English was the key to full social and economic participation, the emigrants invested a lot of energy in language acquisition. The German-speaking emigrants were generally regarded as a quickly assimilated group - and in their letters they also express a certain pride in being part of American society now.

At the same time, however, there was an opposite development. In fact, a specifically “German” culture of German-speaking emigrants was only consolidated for the first time after their arrival in the USA. In early 19th century Europe, which was characterized by small states, people identified with their local environment - their village, their region - and not with a vague “Germany”.

Living your German culture - no problem for a long time

It was only in America that a “German” identity emerged among the emigrants - driven by the increasingly national orientation in Europe, but also by the many German-language newspapers, associations, churches and schools that were an integral part of migrant life until the First World War . German culture was a visible element of public life. In the “German triangle” (St. Louis, Cincinnati, Milwaukee) a comprehensive German infrastructure was even established that guaranteed access to German doctors, German pastors and German beer.

Despite their economic and social integration, the emigrants remained a culturally relatively homogeneous group with its own identity. It was important to them to preserve German culture. As a matter of course they sent their children to German schools, where they were also taught in German.

This peaceful coexistence of American and German identities in the 19th century was only possible through the absence of a rigid “American identity” and “guiding culture” prescribed by the state. “The American identity was dynamic and flexible. In the absence of nationalist politicization by the state, it was unproblematic as a German-American to continue to speak German, to send the children to German schools and to feel connected to their homeland, ”says Félix Krawatzek.

International tensions make identity a political issue

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the political climate changed dramatically. National identities are politicized by states. While the German Empire included the emigrants in its imagination of the "German people", the pressure on them in America was also increasing. President Roosevelt is launching a large-scale campaign against Hyphenated Americans. A speech from 1915 said: “A good American is an American and nothing else. (…) We only have space for one flag and that is the American flag. (...) We only have room for one language and that is the English language. ”German-Americans are increasingly required to deny their German heritage and to clearly profess their support for the United States.

The reactions among German-Americans are mixed. While some agree with the president, others resent the growing hostility towards German culture. The First World War continues to polarize. German-Americans are increasingly under general suspicion of being agents for the German Empire. Individual states even enact laws that criminalize the public use of the German language. Paradoxically, the fact that their ethnic origin is coming under increasing pressure in the USA is causing many German-Americans to feel "German" again.

Suddenly, third-generation emigrants are again considered Germans

Even with second or third generation emigrants, international crises and assimilation pressures reactivate long-forgotten identities. This is illustrated by a letter from Marie Kuchenbecker from January 1915. After she asserted that German-Americans also want Germany to win against her enemies, she writes: “Because of the war, we feel our hearts are a thousand times closer to our old homeland than before where we sometimes believed that America had now become our home. "

“The letters from emigrants show the important role that transnational networks played for migration even before Whatsapp and Facebook,” says Félix Krawatzek. At the same time, the integration experience of Germans in the USA also illustrates what is still true today - transnational identities and assimilation are not mutually exclusive. Integration is a non-linear process that constantly renegotiates what it means to be part of a country. Migrant identities are dynamic - and national politics and international crises help determine how they develop.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page