Monday, August 22, 2016

Trump And German-American Identity

A nineteenth century German beer garden in New York, fun for the whole family

I am a German-American, which is a phrase that very few people of my ancestry use to describe themselves. This would've been surprising back in the nineteenth century, when German language newspapers abounded and German beer halls were a common meeting place for German immigrants in cities across the country. Today, according to some measures, German is the most common ethnic ancestry in America, just ahead of African-American. At the same time, one does not see many outward expressions of German-American identity, not nearly what one sees for say Irish, Greek, Italian, Puerto Rican, etc.

I've long pondered this question, and if I had the time, talent, and resources, I'd love to write a sweeping history of Germans in America. A lot of it certainly has to do with the effect of the world wars, which made identifying with Germany very problematic. My German immigrant great-grandfather, for instance, fought in the American army in World War I, even as his own brother was fighting in the Kaiser's forces. Matters weren't helped by Nazi sympathizer groups like the German American Bund in the 1930s. Those events added urgency to the broader erasure of German ethnic identity, something already common among those groups deemed "white." That process for German-Americans (or at least those who were not Jewish) first began back in the nineteenth century, when German Protestants would often be compared favorably to Irish Catholics by WASP elites. The wave of hatred against German Americans in World War I changed that perception, and accelerated assimilation.

Another thing that probably contributed to the lack of a strong German identity was the fact that Germany was an extremely divided country before 1871, and even after that regional and religious divisions were very stark. One of my ancestors actually emigrated because he did not want to be drafted into the Kaiser's army. He was Catholic, and at the time the church had been attacked by the Protestant Prussian dominated new national state in the name of national unity. Most of my ancestors would have spoken the Plattdeutsch dialect of the swampy northwestern places they came from like Oldenburg and Ost Friesland, which would have been unintelligible to someone speaking "high" German.

The vast, vast majority of Americans of German ancestry spend little to no time thinking about their ethnic origins or know much of anything about German food, culture, language, or history, apart from World War II movies. I grew up in central Nebraska, a very heavily German area, and I didn't get a taste until I took German classes in high school from the son of Volga Germans forced to flee the Soviet Union. No one in my family ever cooked German food or spoke in German or encouraged me to learn or know much about German things. (This despite the fact that two of my grandparents had grown up speaking German in the home with their immigrant parents.) A couple of genealogists in the family were interested in researching the family's German roots, but not really at all invested in a German-American identity. We were certainly not ashamed of it or anything, it just didn't really matter that much. German-Americans, by and large, like my own family, have long fully accepted whiteness.

I get depressed that Donald Trump too is a German-American, but his history with his identity is very interesting and telling, both about him and about German-American identity and the lack thereof. Just today the Times published an article on Trump's immigrant grandfather, and the fact that for years his father Fred and Donald himself had claimed their ancestry was "Swedish" rather than German. His grandfather of course Anglicized his name from "Drumpf" to "Trump" much earlier. The Trump talent for self-fabrication seems to go back really far in his family. His own family history shows the larger story of German identity being shed very quickly in the twentieth century, within a generation of arriving in America. (Donald Trump having a Scottish immigrant mother certainly helped with that distancing, too.)

While the article paints this decision as a way for Fred Trump to have easier dealings with Jewish businessmen, the Trump family went well beyond a change in ethnic origin in its embrace of whiteness. Fred Trump was notorious for building segregated housing, and Donald himself was sued for housing discrimination in the early 1970s. He has gone on to run the most explicitly white supremacist presidential campaign since George Wallace.

While this German-American will not be voting for Trump, I see in his family history the larger, unfortunate dynamics of German-American identity. Take for instance Milwaukee, probably the most German large city in America, and also by some measures the most racially segregated. (Having been there I would not doubt that assessment.) The borders of whiteness are even starker there than in most American cities, and that's saying something. Like other white Americans, German-Americans have gladly accepted the benefits of whiteness and tossed what once made them "other" in the trash, with the usual social, moral and spiritual consequences.

It was not always this way. The first big wave of German migration after the 18th century "Pennsylvania Dutch" came after the failed revolutions of 1848. (This wave included the first of my German ancestors to come to America. He was an artisan, I'd like to believe that he was a political radical, but I have no evidence.) Those immigrants, many of whom were political refugees owing to their commitments to democracy and equality, took their beliefs with them. In Texas, those anti-slavery German immigrants refused to cooperate with the Confederacy during the Civil War. In the north, a large number of German immigrants served in the Union army, including '48er Carl Schurz, who was a general and later Republican senator. Cartoonist Thomas Nast, a German immigrant himself, used his pen to attack slavery, the Klan, and mistreatment of Chinese immigrants and to support Reconstruction. German-Americans helped build up socialist parties and institutions, putting socialist mayors in charge of Milwaukee. And, I would like to add, the antipathy of beer-drinking Germans to temperance forced the Republican party to hold back on the issue for decades, and their proclivity for beer helped undermine Prohibition when it did get put in place.

Nowadays these roots are unknown in American society apart from historians. German-Americans have been melted (with their enthusiastic participation) into the white mass, and Donald Trump is now the most famous German-American in the country. This, I guess, is the ultimate endpoint for opportunistic cultural amnesia, and it makes me despair.

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