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

Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

Commercial Property Solicitor - Bristol

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: A VERY HIGH QUALITY FIRM A high qual...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The power of anonymity lies in the freedom it grants

Boyd Tonkin
Rebel fighters walk in front of damaged buildings in Karam al-Jabal neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 26, 2014.  

The Isis threat must be confronted with clarity and determination

Ed Miliband
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone