Germans are one of the few immigrant groups to substantially define American character from the founding of the republic to the turn of the 21st century. Almost 43 million Americans claimed German ancestry in the 2000 U.S. census, making them by far the largest ancestry group. Those claiming English, Scottish, Scots-Irish, and Welsh descent number about 35 million. German immigration was less prominent in Canadian cultural development, though still the largest group among the nonfounding peoples. In the Canadian census of 2001, 2,742,765 Canadians claimed German descent. The German heritage was not monolithic, however, for Germans came at irregular intervals across four centuries from many European states, bringing with them diverse religious and political traditions. Though Anglo- Americans misunderstood their aloofness during the colonial era, Germans earned a reputation for industry, honesty, and diligence. In the colonial period, German immigration was concentrated in the Pennsylvania colony. During the 19th century, German settlement shifted to the upper Midwest and Great Plains, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska, where German influence was greatest. There were also significant German concentrations in most of the major Atlantic seaports, most notably New York City. German Canadians are widely dispersed, with large numbers in Ontario, the prairie provinces, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia.
Emigrants gather in Hamburg, Germany, to purchase tickets from the Hamburg-Amerika Line. The company provided a village for prospective emigrants, including rooms, baths, churches, and synagogues.The sign above the clock reads "Mein Feld ist die Welt” (My Field Is the World). (National Archives)
Located in central Europe, Germany has an area of 137,846 square mile. It is bordered on the north by Denmark, on the east by Poland and the Czech Republic, on the south by Austria and Switzerland, and on the west by Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The Germanic tribes of the region successfully resisted Roman encroachments, but the region was not organized politically until the early ninth century, when Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire was formed. Throughout the Middle Ages, Germany was largely ruled by an Austrian emperor as a decentralized state with more than 300 separate principalities. Two of these, Austria and Prussia, were major powers, but most were small states, governed by an array of kings, dukes, counts, margraves, electors, and ecclesiastical princes. In addition to political diversity, Germans were divided in religion. From the time of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, most northern Germans adopted Lutheranism, while most southern Germans remained Roman Catholics, and there were dozens of smaller Protestant sects scattered throughout the region. Political and religious diversity led to a wide variety of conditions under which Germans chose to leave Europe. Some emigrated to escape the restrictions of Lutheran or Catholic state churches, while others sought personal freedoms unknown in Europe. Most were seeking better economic opportunities. Napoléon’s conquest of Europe between 1796 and 1815 led to significant territorial changes, including the redrawing of German boundaries. The German Confederation took the place of the old Holy Roman Empire, and the number of independent states was reduced to 39. During the 1860s, Prussia outmaneuvered Austria politically and defeated her militarily to gain the predominant hand in the future of a united Germany. Following the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), the first German empire was established under Prussian leadership and with Austria excluded. Widely blamed by Europeans for bringing about World War I (1914–18) and by her own people for losing the war, Germany became politically destabilized in the 1920s, leading to the rise of the National Socialist Workers’ (Nazi) Party under Adolf Hitler. Again defeated in a world war (1939–45), Germany was immediately divided into what became a democratic and economically dynamic nation in the west and a Soviet-dominated, state economy in the east. During the cold war, West Germany was the front line for western resistance to the potential expansion of the Soviet Union in Europe. In 1990, the two Germanies were reunited, a move culturally welcomed but economically difficult and one that placed a drag on what had been one of the world’s dynamic economies during the 1980s.
Poor Germans, including many Christian sectarians— Mennonites (see Mennonite immigration), Baptists, Dunkers, Moravians, Brethren, and Schwenkfelders (see Schwenkfelder immigration)—came to America in the 18th and early 19th century as indentured servants (see indentured servitude), and many of them were also redemptioners. The redemption system enabled emigrants to travel free of charge, with the shipowner recouping his investment by selling the emigrant’s labor, usually for a fouryear term. German settlers were recruited by the London Company for the first voyage to Jamestown (1607), and 13 German and Dutch Mennonite families seeking religious freedom were brought byWilliam Penn to the Pennsylvania colony in 1681. Germans did not immigrate to North America in large numbers until 1709, when bad crops and heavy taxes drove several thousand of them to western New York and Pennsylvania. In the 1750s, some 3,000 Germans migrated to Nova Scotia, where they became known for their skill in shipbuilding and fishing. Most Germans emigrated from Dutch ports on the North Sea, easily accessed by citizens of states near the Rhine River: Pfalz, Baden, Würtemberg, Hesse, Nassau, Cologne, Osnabrück, Münster, and Mainz. Most of the 100,000 immigrants to America entered through Philadelphia, settling in the nearby countryside, where they became known as the Pennsylvania Dutch (from a corruption of the German word for their own people, the Deutsch). The Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) and the American Revolution (1775–1783) virtually ended German immigration to the United States for 50 years and encouraged the gradual assimilation of the first wave of German Americans. By 1790, when the first U.S. census was taken, 8.6 percent of the American population was German, with the heaviest concentration in Pennsylvania (33 percent).
While 13 colonies remained the primary destination for German emigrants, two significant German groups settled in Canada prior to the American Revolution. Some 2,000 Palatines settled in Lunenburg and Halifax between 1750 and 1752. Approximately 600 Palatines and Swabians followed, settling in Nova Scotia in the 1760s. After the Revolution, German Americans who had remained loyal to the British Crown (United Empire Loyalists) were granted free land in Canada. Most were either small farmers or disbanded soldiers and were settled along the northern shores of the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, and Lake Erie and in an area southeast of Montreal. Between 1778 and 1784, most of these German Loyalists traveled inland routes to their new homes in Ontario, where they formed the third most populous ethnic group (behind the English and French) throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Finally, some 64 German families settled in York County in 1794.
After the economic and political turmoil of the French Revolution, French Revolutionary Wars, and Napoleonic Wars (1789–1815), German immigration resumed on a large scale. The southwestern German states, which had been particularly hard hit by the effects of rapid population growth, crop failures, high taxes, and an antiquated cottage industry, continued to supply most of the emigrants via the Rhine River and the port cities of Amersterdam, Rotterdam, and Antwerp. The situation was worsened by declining potato crops in 1842 and the complete failure of the crop in 1846. German rulers sometimes sponsored organizations such as the Central Society for German Emigrants (Berlin, 1844) and the National Emigration Society (Darmstadt, 1847) in order to alleviate domestic problems. With the reduction of interstate German tolls by the Zollverein (tariff union) in 1834, travel to the more desirable German ports of Bremen and Hamburg became easier, encouraging emigration from Westphalia, Oldenberg, Saxony, Prussia, and Mecklenburg. The typical German immigrant after 1830 was more likely to be skilled and with some education, choosing America or Canada as a place to maintain family status, rather than to establish it.
Immigration to the United States peaked proportionally in the 1850s, with nearly a million German speakers emigrating to escape the effects of the abortive democratic revolutions of 1848, to flee social or religious persecution, or simply to take advantage of the burgeoning American economy. The economic downturn of the late 1850s and the American Civil War (1861–65) discouraged immigration for a decade, but it rebounded with the revival of the U.S. economy (1866–73). With endemic low wages in Germany and the unsettling effects of Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck’s wars of German unification (1863–71), many Germans believed that prosperity would never return to their homeland. Almost 1.5 million emigrated in the 1880s. As German industry developed in the 1890s, displaced rural workers more often migrated to German industrial centers than to America, although almost 1 million still came between 1890 and 1914.
Most of the 5 million Germans who immigrated to America in the 19th century were agriculturalists, seeking land, and thus were attracted to the Midwest—Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Missouri. After the Civil War, some whose families had migrated to Russia in the late 18th century began to immigrate to America. Like their cultural brethren from Germany, they were divided, based on location (Black Sea area, Caucasus area, Volga area, Volhynia area) and religious affiliation (Lutheran, Mennonite, Hutterite Brethren). The freeing of Russian serfs (1862), the introduction of compulsory military service (1871), and attempts to force Russian education upon their communities drove a substantial minority of the 1.5 million Germanspeaking Russians to the United States, where they tended to settle in the Great Plains states. By 1920, 45 percent of the more than 300,000 German-speaking Russians lived in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado. No matter the country of origin, however, German immigrants usually resisted assimilation. German-language parochial schools were common. In rural areas, the immigrants clustered around their particular churches—Lutheran, Reform, Catholic, or one of the Pietist denominations. In cities such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky; and Cincinnati, Ohio, where Germans sometimes numbered more than a quarter of the population, they played a large role in shaping urban culture, establishing newspapers, educational clubs, beer gardens, and mutual benefit societies. Whether in rural or urban centers, German clannishness had by mid-century already led to the rise of a strong nativist feeling (see nativism), which increased in the years prior to World War I.
As second- and third-generation urban Germans gained success as entrepreneurs, industrialists, and managers, they began to adopt American urban culture and simultaneously to shape it. German-language school enrollments peaked between 1880 and 1900, when some 500,000 students were being instructed at least in part in German. The German family unit remained strong, especially on the farms and in the communities of the Midwest and plains states. Rural Germans, who owned more than 10 percent of American farms in 1900, often continued to speak German and to maintain their distinct culture well after World War II.
Canada continued to attract a small but steady stream of German immigrants throughout the 19th century. Between 1800 and 1830, numerous groups of New Jersey and Pennsylvania Mennonites, pressured by overpopulation, were attracted by free land grants and the promise of religious freedom. Most settled in Waterloo County, Ontario, which then became a destination for later German immigrants, most of whom were not Mennonities. By the turn of the 20th century, most of Ontario’s Germans had been largely assimilated, though the more remote settlements of Waterloo County retained their German distinctiveness into the 21st century. After the mid-19th century, cheap land became scarce in eastern Canada, prompting greater streams of immigration to the western prairies. Between the 1870s and 1911, some 140,000 people of German descent settled on the Canadian plains, about one-third of them having been born in Europe. This group included 7,500 Mennonites who emigrated from Russia in the 1870s and settled in southern Manitoba. Germans throughout Canada were often praised as models of industriousness.
German cultural assimilation in both Canada and the United States was proceeding rapidly when World War I erupted in 1914. The German-language press in America, 30 percent smaller than it had been in 1894, was pro-German and almost unanimously called for national neutrality. When the United States finally entered the war in 1917, German Americans were harassed and widely mistrusted and expected to display "one-hundred percent Americanism.” Within a few years, hundreds of schools removed the German language as a course offering, and communities renamed streets and banned German books and music. By 1919, German churches were reluctant to use their native language, and parochial schools were often closed. This heightened cultural pressure, along with rapid industrial development, increased economic mobility, and a generally more relaxed attitude toward entertainment, aided German assimilation into mainstream American society. Although some of the 500,000 German immigrants who entered the United States in the 1920s and 1930s were attracted to the anti-Semitism of the Irish-Canadian-American activist priest Father Charles E. Coughlin, the German-American Bund, and the Nazi Party, few were committed followers. Many new immigrants were actually refugees from Hitler’s Nazi regime, which had come to power in 1933. German ethnicity was not a major issue during World War II.
In the aftermath of World War II, the United States resettled almost 450,000 displaced persons (1948–1952; see Displaced Persons Act). Almost half were ethnic Germans, many of whom had previously lived in various countries throughout eastern Europe, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russia, and Yugoslavia; about 63,000 were Jews. Thereafter, German immigration leveled off, with most coming for educational and economic opportunities. With the German economy booming during much of the postwar era, most Germans stayed at home. Between 1992 and 2002, German immigration to the United States averaged about 7,300 per year.
Canada continued to attract German religious minorities in the 20th century, including 20,000 Mennonites (1923–30) among some 90,000 Germans who emigrated from Poland, Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia between 1919 and 1935. Several thousand Hutterites migrated from North and South Dakota in the United States to Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Between 1946 and 1965, about 300,000 immigrants from West Germany entered Canada, most well educated and seeking "adventure” or economic opportunity and choosing to settle in Canada’s largest cities. Of 174,075 German immigrants in Canada in 2001, almost 97,000 came before 1961, and 128,000 before 1971. About 15,000 immigrated between 1991 and 2001.
See also Austrian immigration.