Rupert Cornwell: Do mention the Germans, Uncle Sam

Out of America: German-Americans have had a huge impact on the US and it's time they were allowed to shout about it

Share
Related Topics

What links Fred Astaire, Herbert Hoover, Doris Day, Babe Ruth and Donald Trump? Three more names that could be added to the list – Dwight Eisenhower, Wernher von Braun and Henry Kissinger – surely give the game away. On the other hand, a fourth name, Leonardo DiCaprio, would thoroughly confuse you. But the mystery is resolved by DiCaprio's middle name of Wilhelm. All of the above, from the legendary baseball slugger to the star of Titanic, are, of course, German-Americans.

Often, in recent US history, that particular ancestry has not been much to boast about. The one thing that many Americans know about Germany, even now, is the latter's responsibility for the events recorded at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington DC. But last month a modest counterweight of kinds opened a mile or so away, in the Penn Quarter, the hottest downtown entertainment neighbourhood.

The German-American Heritage Museum does not set out to give an alternative, sanitised history of Germany. It dispels the tiresome myth that in 1794, Congress came within a single vote of declaring German to be the official language of the fledgling United States. But it does demonstrate that the US and Germany are bound together by an umbilical cord.

According to the 2000 census, more than 42 million Americans, 15 per cent of the total, claimed German ancestry – more than the country's entire African-American population, half as many again as self-declared Irish-Americans, and almost double the number tracing their origins to England. Given the bad publicity for Germany over the years, the figure probably understates reality.

Germans were coming here from the very start. A doctor called Johannes Fleischer, was among the first settlers from England to arrive at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Their settlement proper was at a place called (you might have guessed it) Germantown, now part of blighted north Philadelphia but which, in 1688, was home of America's first anti-slave movement. In the centuries that followed, millions joined them. And they have left a mark to match.

We British sometimes imagine America is shaped in our image. In fact, a German played a giant role in ending British rule here. Indeed, if you think America is too obsessed with its undoubtedly top-drawer military – might that not be indirectly due to General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the Prussian who trained George Washington's Continental Army, turning a rabble into the serious fighting force that won the country's independence?

German-American commanders have led many triumphant US armies since: Generals John Pershing in the First World War, Eisenhower in the second, and Norman Schwarzkopf in the 1991 Gulf War. Just to balance things out, America's most famous military loser, George Custer, was also a German-American. The virtues upon which America has been built, some would say, are those famous "Midwestern" values of common sense, unpretentiousness and unassuming decency. If so, we should also hold Germans largely responsible, given that the region where German-Americans are most strongly represented is that very same Midwest.

One of the most striking aspects of the US is its profusion of community-based interest groups. I would venture this is not unconnected with the tradition of Vereine, of "unions" or clubs, brought with them by German immigrants. Sometimes that sense of community can turn into a bossiness and pressure to conform.

It was a German-American, too, who gave America some of its most potent political imagery. Thomas Nast was born in the Rhineland Palatinate. In 1849, he emigrated to New York, where, as a caricaturist for Harper's Magazine, he produced the definitive depiction of Uncle Sam in top hat, goatee beard and striped trousers,.

But in 1917, America entered the First World War, and the country of Thomas Nast became its mortal enemy. German culture was shunned. Frankfurters turned into all-American hot dogs and sauerkraut was renamed "liberty cabbage". The Second World War made matters even worse for the Germans.

The new museum in Washington is not to everyone's taste. A Washington Post columnist criticised it as another example of the "Balkanisation" of US history, as each ethnic group extols its contribution to the country. But why not? The fascination of this country lies in its diversity. We hear so much about the greatness of America. So why not about the greatness of its constituent parts – of whom none were more numerous than the Americans who came from Germany?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Case Handler

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Case Handler is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Sales Apprentice

£15000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £20,000 - £60,000

£20000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Team Leader

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would ramp up Britain's spending on science

Paul Nurse
A family remain in the open for the third night following the 7.8 quake in Nepal  

Nepal earthquake: Mobs of looters roam the camps and the smell of burning flesh fills the air, but still we survive

Bidushi Dhungel
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence