Thursday, September 24, 2015

What happened to German America?

Good piece in the New York Times about my people, the German-Americans. Though there are more German-Americans than any other ethnic group, we have assimilated the most. Why? Well, it's pretty easy to understand, if you think about it. It all began with World War I...

In what is a largely forgotten chapter of American history, during the roughly 18 months of American involvement in the war, people with German roots were falsely accused of being spies or saboteurs; hundreds were interned or convicted of sedition on trumped-up charges, or for offenses as trivial as making critical comments about the war. More than 30 were killed by vigilantes and anti-German mobs; hundreds of others were beaten or tarred and feathered.

Even the German music of Beethoven and Brahms, which had been assumed to be immune to the hysteria, came under attack. “It is the music of conquest, the music of the storm, of disorder and devastation,” wrote The Los Angeles Times in June 1918. “It is a combination of the howl of the cave man and the roaring of the north winds.” Sheet music, along with books by German authors, was burned in public spectacles.

Not surprisingly, those who could hid their Germanic roots; some switched their names; many others canceled their subscriptions to German newspapers, which virtually disappeared. Whatever vestige of German America remained after the 1910s was wiped out by similar pressures during World War II, not to mention the shame that came with German identity after it.

When World War I began, one in every four Chicagoans was German. The Mayor pandered to this group so much, he was known as "Kaiser Bill". But during World War I, names were changed all over the city. Even the frankfurter could no longer be called that. It's been a hot dog ever since.

My family didn't come here until the 1950s, but being a German was not exactly a cool thing to be after World War II, which is why I rebelled against it so strongly (much to the chagrin and disappointment of my father). Ironically, when we moved back to Germany, I had assimilated so much, the Germans didn't consider me German.

Knowing this history is one of the reasons why I always cringe when someone rips an entire nationality for something, or blames them for our problems--whether it's Arabs or Mexicans or insert nationality here.