As American as Apfelkuchen

Immigrants on an Atlantic liner, 1906, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62–11202

Somewhere along the roller coaster of Super Bowl LI as the New England Patriots dug themselves out of a 25-point hole to win Tom Brady his thumb ring, Budweiser ran a one-minute commercial that reawakened a dormant resentment.

The commercial, with its fairly high production values, depicts a coming-to-America narrative of a young German immigrant circa 1850. His ship encounters a storm, knocking him from his bunk, which leads to stitches for a scalp wound. After having his entry papers stamped, he’s shoved on the street by nativists and told to go back home. His paddle wheeler burns and he’s forced to abandon ship, finally arriving cold and wet on the muddy banks of St. Louis. In a saloon, a stranger named Anheuser kindly buys him a beer, and our hero introduces himself as Adolphus Busch. Cut to the company logo.

The resulting #BoycottBudweiser movement went flat less than 24 hours after the bottle was opened but in the meantime, infuriated viewers — doubtlessly more than a six-pack into the evening — fired off angry tweets about Muslims, illegal immigrants, and keeping America safe, all the while disregarding the images before their bloodshot eyes that Busch was (a) very probably not-at-all Muslim, (b) entered the US legally with his paperwork in order, and (c) had designs no more sinister than brewing a low-APV lager. But such is 2017, wherein Americans are assumed to have appeared on the continent spontaneously like mice from dirty laundry and an immigrant’s story, once a plaque of honor showcased on the wall of the American Dream, is now dismissed as agenda-driven propaganda.

More than 300 years after William Penn organized a group of German “atheists” to emigrate to his colony (German law only recognized Catholics and Lutherans, and Penn recruited Quakers, Mennonites, and others), it seems German immigration still raises hackles in America, even though 49 million identified as having German ancestry in the 2013 census — more than 15 percent of the nation and the largest ancestry group tabulated.

One would imagine a story like Busch’s would suggest that twenty, fifty, or a hundred years from now a president surnamed Rodriguez or Gupta or Farooq will be no less strange than one named Eisenhower; and that whatever concerns one might have about the assimilation of Hispanics and Muslims into American culture would disappear like a sauerkraut-topped hot dog eaten under a Christmas tree. But the animosity that erupted, however briefly, on February 5 toward a German immigrant story is emblematic of an American nativism once believed as extinct as a Know-Nothing but actually resurgent in the 21st century.

We may assume prejudice is always founded upon visible and obvious distinctions. Yet the English — and, in turn, their heirs among colonial America and the United States — have never needed much excuse to look down their noses at other cultures. In a 1753 letter, Benjamin Franklin complained about German immigrants that, “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation,” before tallying a menu of deficiencies.

At the battle of Shiloh, the Confederate Henry Stanley (yes, that Stanley, of Livingstone fame) was outraged that Germanic Federal soldiers had the audacity to capture him, saying, “They were apparently new troops, from such back-lands as were favoured by German immigrants; and, though of sturdy build, another such mass of savagery and stupidity could not have been found within the four corners of North America.”[1] That he felt free to write such in a memoir published in 1909 suggests sympathetic rancor still existed in the breasts of at least some of his readers a half-century later.

The Native American Party, which eventually morphed into the American Party or the “Know-Nothings” due to the semi-secretive nature of their proceedings, held their first convention in 1845. Their Declaration of Principles celebrating nativism is a scratchy wax cylinder looped endlessly during a Certain Somebody’s 2016 campaign:

  • “The almshouses of Europe are emptied upon our coast.”
  • “[T]he lives of our citizens have been attempted in the streets of our capital cities by madmen just liberated from European hospitals.”
  • “[T]he punishment of crimes has been commuted for banishment to the land of the free; and criminals in irons have crossed the ocean to be cast loose upon society on their arrival upon our shores.”

Immigration was fine and dandy in the days of Georgie W. and Tommy J., said the Know-Nothings, but now times and the types of immigrants are different. Foreigners didn’t assimilate, or if they did, they usurped and warped supposedly pristine republican processes by lobbying for their interests (e.g., New York’s Tammany Society). Democracy itself and “the civil institutions of the United States of America” stood “in imminent peril.”

Immigrants at Ellis Island, circa 1907–1917, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62–26543

To be fair, contemporary worries about non-assimilation and even German separatism were not fabricated whole cloth. In the 1830s groups like the Giessen Society and New York’s Germania Society dreamed of establishing miniature Deutschlands in Texas and the wide-open west. Some of these were to be founded on the same republican principles that had booted many exiles from the Old Country in the first place; some were socialist utopianism; and still others were intended to duplicate feudal caste systems. None of the schemes amounted to much, foundering as they did upon the apathy of a population more interested in homesteading than nation-building.

In the late 1800s, German-Americans circled the wagons around their language with newspapers and preservation groups, a phenomenon to be expected among older generations anxious by fading traditions (like jellyfish, Old World languages don’t last long on American shores — today only about 40 percent of third-generation Hispanics speak Spanish and even fewer can read it).

Even so, the physical manifestation of German settlers’ support networks into towns and communities ratcheted up xenophobia among native born. In an 1849 speech, a Kentucky congressman complained about German enclaves “living in isolation; speaking a strange language, having alien manners, habits, opinions, and religious faiths, and a total ignorance of our political institutions; all handed down with German phlegm and inflexibility.” He suggested instead they emigrate to South America where they could “aid in bringing up the slothful and degenerate Spanish race; here their deplorable office is to pull us down.”[2]

As the temperance movement gained speed during the 19th century, it became increasingly unclear whether ethnic Americans were targeted for their drinking habits or whether prohibition was a way to target ethnics. German beer gardens and saloons were the suns of orbiting ethic working-class identity — part bar, part function hall, part clubhouse, and all community center. The same could be said for Irish, Italian, Jewish, and every other stripe of immigrant establishment. Through prohibition, reformers sought to dissolve ethnic identity by throwing bleach on what they saw as dirty and foreign.

German-Americans were fond of the “Continental Sunday,” that is, church services in the morning followed by an afternoon of foamy steins at a biergarten submerged in gemütlichkeit and oompah music. In 1855, the Know-Nothing mayor of Chicago, disgusted by all the brewskis and tubas around him, closed the city’s beer halls on Sundays, resulting in the Lager Beer Riot. By the First World War, the Anti-Saloon League used anti-German hysteria to curtail beer manufacture by lobbying for the Food and Fuel Control Act, which prohibited the use of grain for distillation and gave the President control of beer and wine production. It was essentially a test run for Prohibition.

The revelation that some American brewers had been funding the National German-American Alliance, a civic group, which in turn had bought a pro-Kaiser newspaper, knotted the association between Germanic culture and sedition in John Q. Public’s mind. “Everything in this country that is pro-German is anti-American,” read one League pamphlet.[3] Businesses with “German” in their name rechristened themselves, Germanophonic newspapers declined, and those who spoke both Deutsch and Englisch became strictly monolingual in public. The WASPs were allowed to keep their country clubs and Methodist meeting halls while ethnics were supposed to retreat inside their homes, stare at the walls, and be silent.

There was another reason why many Americans disliked German immigrants, one that is subtly referenced in the Budweiser commercial when young Adolphus Busch is standing at the rail of the paddle boat, dreaming his sudsy daydreams, and smiles at a black passenger. German immigrants, for whatever reason — religion, politics — were hardcore abolitionists. Those German Quakers of William Penn’s? In 1688 they issued the first recorded protest against slavery in North America, and eventually guilt-tripped their English coreligionists — who were ambivalent about the slave trade — into embracing abolitionism wholesale. Anti-slavery views became synonymous with German identity; one traveler to antebellum Texas reported never meeting a single slave-owning German. During the Civil War, German-Americans disproportionally volunteered for Northern service — although for some it was simply because they needed a job after rolling off the boat.

The Atlantic Garden, a beer garden in NYC’s East Village, 1871, New York Public Library

A question sometimes asked in the scholarship of American-German history revolves around the so-called “spiritual drain” the many waves of immigration may have had on Germany. “The Nazi assumption of power might not have been possible if so many of the ‘good’ Germans had not fled in revolt against Prussian authoritarianism, against the militarism and nationalism which began rising in Germany during the middle of the nineteenth century,” wrote historian Richard O’Connor.[4] We can leave that answer to Man in the High Castle fanfic. Yet according to The Economist, German-American households have incomes above the national median, are more likely to be college graduates, and less likely to be jobless. This certainly has less to do with wizard magic in the blood than it does with a strong ethic and tradition passed through the generations, parent to child, beginning with those first immigrants. If one possesses the mindset to do a foreign country some harm — as many modern nativists seem to have — might not a strategy of “spiritual drain” be attractive? Suppose for a minute that if we took all the Syrian doctors and Iraqi professors and anyone else who has the gumption and wherewithal to show up here, PhD or otherwise, wouldn’t that be to our advantage and to the old country’s detriment?

The fickleness of the mob can turn on 10 pfennigs, and as #BoycottBudweiser proved, the old prejudice against Germans is still a warm ember that can be used to light fires against other groups today. Nativists will cherry-pick facts and deploy statistics but ultimately theirs is an emotional, even hysterical, ideology: if a beer commercial about white immigration unhinges you, then no amount of reason will soothe your terror of the brown hordes.

The German philosopher Carl Schmitt (and BTW *cough cough* a Nazi) believed that the political identity of a group coalesces around what its members believe is normal and right; and what is normal and right to them is itself defined in opposition to the customs and morals of another group. By defining their identity as a denial of their own immigrant roots — or at least by crowning their genealogies with white Stetsons — modern nativists defend themselves from every criticism: to point out deficiencies in their beliefs or toward history for counter-arguments is, on a certain level, to attack their very identity, which is almost always fated to fail. Ask any stand-up comedian and she’ll tell you that you it’s tough to mock a deeply held idea without also mocking the people who hold it.

My dad, who as a lifelong Democrat and civil servant probably has the most reason to feel anger at current events, remains blithe and unfazed these days. This too shall pass is a common saying of his, a result of seventy-odd years of human observation. This too shall pass — or, as I like to paraphrase, I will shit on your grave. Today’s outrage over bathrooms is often too inconsequential or boring to merit a sentence in tomorrow’s high-school history text. We German-Americans may have faded into the wallpaper but we’re still here nevertheless, still winning simply by hanging around centuries after the haters passed out blotto on the couch. There’s no reason why anyone else can’t do likewise.

[1] Henry M. Stanley, The Autobiography of Henry Morton Stanley, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1909), 200–201.

[2] Richard O’Connor, The German-Americans: An Informal History (Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1968), 75.

[3] Michael A. Lerner, Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 32.

[4] O’Connor, 9.

Cross-posted on Medium.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *