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

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

Recruitment Genius: Female Support Workers / Carers - From £8.00 per hour

£8 - £12 per hour: Recruitment Genius: To assist a young family with the care ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Executive is required...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

£55000 - £70000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world lead...

Argyll Scott International: Commercial Finance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: My client, a world leading services pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Police officers attempt to stop illegal migrants from jumping onto trucks headed for Britain in the northeastern French port of Calais on October 29, 2014  

Tighter security in Calais won’t solve the problem

Nigel Morris
 

Football needs its Martin Luther moment, and soon

Boyd Tonkin
US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines