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There is an age-old saying that goes: "Trees have roots. People have histories." Trees, unlike people, don't have to search far because they grow where they are planted. People, on the other hand, must embark on a journey to uncover their histories. Here at the GACC (German-American Cultural Center), we harbor doubts that the collective narrative we've been told about our ethnic identity as German-Americans truly captures the depth and richness of the history of German-speaking people who came to live in America.
I, myself, am a German-American from Maryland. Both my parents were born in Germany and immigrated to Canada after World War II, where I was born. Later, our family moved to Baltimore, and I have spent most of my life here. My parents, proud of their German heritage, instilled in me a love for the traditions, language, and culture. Within the confines of our family, being German was a given, but outside the family in American society, it was often easier to blend in as an American.
History classes understandably focused on United States history, presented from an American perspective. Information about Germany primarily revolved around the rather malevolent influence of Kaiser Wilhelm in the First World War and Adolf Hitler in the Second. Any mention of German history before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was sparse, with perhaps an exception for the "Hessians" who came as mercenaries to aid the British against American patriots.
From my parents and grandparents, I received fragmented pieces of German history. Their brief explanations were filled with tales of endless wars and intricate aristocratic intrigues. While their stories contained many intriguing episodes, they never coalesced into a coherent whole.
For German-Americans interested in understanding why their forebears came to the United States, much of the research falls on their shoulders. In my case, I was surprised to discover that before the American Civil War, there was no entity known as "Germany." Surprisingly, the rather nebulous medieval entity called the Holy Roman Empire was where most German-speaking people resided. I was genuinely taken aback to learn that it was Napoleon who ignited the spark that led to the formation of the Confederation of the Rhine, slowly piecing together the puzzle. While the narrative in the USA credits the English, led by the Duke of Wellington, for ultimately defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, the English Empire never claimed the Germans. Instead, it was the Austrians and Prussians who divided Napoleon's German Confederation and continued to vie for control of those territories.
I mention this because it's probable that if your German-speaking ancestors arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century, they were likely fleeing the political turmoil gripping central Europe during that era. Inspired by Enlightenment ideas, many Germans sought to establish a democratic form of government. The numerous small German-speaking principalities were vulnerable to larger empires, necessitating a more unified alternative to the rule of countless little kings, dukes, and tyrants governing semi-independent regions. Representatives from these various states convened at the famed Frankfurt Assembly in 1848, drafting constitutional documents aimed at creating a republic that could have united the states of Germany. However, Prussia, the dominant kingdom with a formidable army, had different plans. Instead of a democracy, the smaller kingdoms were amalgamated into an empire under Prussia's sway. This transformation was largely orchestrated by Otto von Bismarck, bolstered by Prussia's military might. Germans who, for various reasons, couldn't or wouldn't align with the "imperial" agenda sought refuge in the United States, which at that time had few, if any, immigration restrictions.
The deeper I delved into this narrative, the more intriguing it became. The more I linked national historical details to my family's history, the more I discovered a gift that keeps on yielding increasingly captivating insights.
Personally, I am keen on exploring the period when Napoleon dismantled the Holy Roman Empire, leading to the reorganization of various scattered German kingdoms, states, and regions into the Confederation of the Rhine. We could debate whether this marked the inception of a "German nation" or if the concept of Germany as a nation predated the Enlightenment. Coincidentally, this transitional period in Europe aligns with the War of 1812 in America, which also piques my interest.
The exciting aspect of a new organization like the GACC is our openness to suggestions and willingness to experiment. If you are interested in something along these lines, please reach out to us and let us know which facet of the German national story you'd like to explore.
We were honored to be a part of a livestream event with the United States Holocaust Museum. Friends and community members gathered together on 10.11.23 to hear Frank tell his story about the rise of Hitler, his escape to the US, and his 35 year career in the United States Army. If you missed the livestream, it was recorded and is via the link below:
The United States Holocaust Museum also provided us with Frank's biography and a link to his oral history interview.