German Americans: Background information when reading A Good American

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A Good American

A Novel

by Alex George

A Good American by Alex George
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2012, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2013, 432 pages

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German Americans

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It might surprise you to learn that in the latest census, 51 million Americans self-identified as having German ancestry (estimates suggest that about 1/3 of these are of German ancestry alone, the rest are of partial German ancestry). That's a whopping 17% of the population, more than any other heritage group - over 13 million more than claim Irish heritage and almost double those who claim English heritage.

Because Germany as a country did not exist until 1871, many of the ancestors of today's German Americans would not have emigrated from Germany itself but from other parts of Europe that were dominated by German speakers during the height of the Holy Roman Empire (which had its center in the Kingdom of Germany, just one of the many kingdoms that were unified to form modern day Germany). So perhaps the easiest way to think of this group is that their ancestors arrived, not necessarily from Germany, but speaking German.

The first German arrived with the English at Jamestown in 1607, but it wasn't until almost seventy years later that the first German foothold was established when thirteen Quaker and Mennonite families founded Germantown in Pennsylvania (now part of Philadelphia). Over the next century, large numbers arrived, mostly Lutherans and Calvinists, plus a sizable number of Mennonites. The key attractions being religious freedom and land, both of which were in short supply in Europe.

By 1790 (based on the names in the 1790 census), historians estimate people of German heritage constituted nearly 9% of the white population of the United States. This percentage rose substantially during the 19th century with the arrival of a further 8 million. In fact, between 1840 and 1880 Germans were the largest group of immigrants, boosted by the "Forty-Eighters" - a wave of political refugees leaving the German confederacy either because they were on the government's wanted list or simply because they were disappointed by the failure of the 1848 uprisings to bring about political change and wanted to start afresh in a new country. Many of these were wealthy and well-educated and went on to do very well in the USA (and the other two countries where they mainly settled - the UK and Australia).

Most of the Forty-Eighters favored democracy and human rights, and were adamantly anti-slavery. Over 176,000 German-born soldiers volunteered to fight for the Union during the Civil War, the largest immigrant group to participate.

Although most Germans settled in East Coast cities, or in large numbers in the Midwest to farm, pockets of immigration developed elsewhere. One such was in Louisiana where, in the 1720s, the Mississippi Company invited thousands of Germans (particularly from the Alsace region, which had just fallen under French rule) to immigrate to the French territory of Louisiana, giving them rich land along the Mississippi about 25 miles from New Orleans, which became known as the "German Coast" - not all that far from where Frederick and Jette would settle almost two hundred years later.

Distribution of German Americans Today, while the largest numbers of German Americans are in California, Texas and Pennsylvania; the largest concentrations of population are still in the Midwest where almost 40% of the population have Germany ancestry.

Notable German Americans include Generals Pershing, Eisenhower and Schwazkopf; businessmen John D. Rockerfeller, William Boeing, Henry J. Heinz, Milton Hershey, Walter Chrysler and Donald Trump (but only on his father's side, so German Americans don't have to carry the burden of "The Donald" all by themselves).

German Americans such as Lou Gehrig, Jack Nicklaus and George Herman "Babe" Ruth hold the flag in the sports arena; while the world of acting reveals many notables including Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz), Sandra Bullock (her mother is German), Leonardo DiCaprio (German mother, Italian father) and Clark Gable.

We have Germans to thank for kindergartens (envisaged as a place where the young would be nourished in "children's gardens" like plants in a garden), hot dogs and hamburgers. We also owe the Germans for Christmas trees (the first Christmas tree in America is recorded around 1816, but they did not become popular until at least the middle of the 19th century); and let's not forget beer brewing, where companies founded by German Americans have long dominated.

Useful to know: Because the song O Tannenbaum is translated into English as O Christmas Tree, it's easy to assume that tannenbaum means Christmas tree; but it actually translates as fir tree. In fact this German folk song isn't even about Christmas. The lyrics, which refer to the fir's evergreen qualities that symbolize constancy and faithfulness, predate the tradition of Christmas trees by at least a couple of centuries. Only in the 20th century did O Tannenbaum become associated with Christmas.

Map shows the distribution of German Americans according to the 2000 Census.

This article was originally published in February 2012, and has been updated for the February 2013 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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