Drawing on much recent scholarship as well as on his own extensive research on German immigration to the U.S. and on the German-American experience, Walter Kamphoefner has produced an important new book on German immigrants in the U.S. It is an updated history of German-Americans and necessary reading for anyone interested in why Germans moved to North America, how they adapted to it, and how their children and grandchildren fared in the U.S. from political, economic and cultural perspectives.
The monograph is broken up into twelve chapters, with the first chapter covering the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the last chapter covering the twentieth century. In the middle are ten chapters focused on the nineteenth century.
My favorite chapter may be Chapter 3, “German Settlement Patterns in Nineteenth-Century America.” Kamphoefner weaves into his analysis what German immigrants wrote back home about the U.S. and about their decision to move. Kamphoefner’s deep knowledge and scholarly work with migrant letters is on full display here.1 One of the most fascinating and powerful claims in this chapter is that after 1840 or so, and once a sizable number of Germans had settled in the U.S., emigration societies, emigrant guidebooks and colonization efforts had very little impact on where German migrants settled in the U.S. Emigrants were forced to make decisions about when to leave and where to go with incomplete information. To reduce various risks, they mostly turned to their networks of family members and friends, some of whom had already emigrated and others at home who had access to a new letter from America. In this age of rudimentary communications, pre-1870, German immigrants put much more trust in the opinions of those in their personal networks than in government officials, shipping agents, colonizers, authors, and journalists. From his study of thousands of letters, Kamphoefner knows of what he writes of, and he explains that one can see clearly in the letters what was important to immigrants – namely the views of the people they knew and nothing else really.
Such insights have pushed the field of German-American immigration and in general nineteenth-century migration studies forward. The understanding of the mechanisms of chain migration and personal networks and their importance for where people settled and how they earned a living in the U.S. were not fully understood in earlier seminal works on German emigrants like those from Mack Walker and Günter Moltmann.2 Very importantly, Walter Kamphoefner and his co-author Wolfgang Helbich have played a role in the advancement of immigration history through the study of letters along with a host of scholars like Charlotte Erickson, David Fitzpatrick, David Gerber, Suzanne Sinke, and others.3
That said, while we have learned much from immigrant letters, we must not forget that not every immigrant wrote. So, we do not know very much about those who did not write. There is thus some selection bias involved in the study of immigrant letters that cannot be completely ignored. Who were the immigrants who did not write? Likely, they included illiterate individuals, those with weaker ties to family, people who wanted to disappear (criminals, e.g.) or who did not want family joining them, those who had not yet succeeded according to family expectations, and people who died early upon arrival.
Chapter 4 delves into the German-Americans’ religious practices and identities, and their connections to language and schooling. German-Americans were heterogeneous in their religious practices, to a point that “religious diversity was often an obstacle to German ethnic identity and solidarity” (p. 75). Most German immigrants belonged to either a Catholic, Evangelical, or Lutheran church. Religious practice influenced the curriculum for many German-Americans, and the different religious groups created various social services and schools to serve their respective communities. Catholic Germans had a more difficult time retaining their language given that Catholic masses were in Latin and that Catholic churches needed to minister to parishioners from numerous ethnic backgrounds. The discussion of the German language is continued in Chapter 5 as Kamphoefner describes a plethora of German language newspapers and periodicals. In parts of the U.S. it was possible for German immigrants to live in a German-language bubble for much of the nineteenth century. The author also discusses other cultural institutions like Turnvereine (gymnastics clubs), singing groups, and bands. German immigrants made up an outsized share of professional musicians in the U.S.
Chapters 6 and 7 cover the footprints of German immigrants and their offspring on the U.S. economy. Besides the great hunger for land ownership many German immigrants felt and which led them to build up large farms, German-Americans also made their mark on a few industrial sectors including the manufacturing of musical instruments, brewing, the processing of sausage and other pork products, cigar manufacturing, and others. German women contributed in a myriad of ways beyond the stereotypical trio of Kinder, Küche, und Kirche (children, kitchen, and church). Many were involved in the duties of running a family farm, and others worked as domestic servants and midwives. Some young German women worked in the urban areas to help their families buy more land.
Further chapters plunge into the study of politics, specifically German Americans’ roles in the Civil War and in American politics in general; one chapter even covers German political dissidents. Chapter 11 describes World War I: German Americans served in the U.S. military at slightly lower rates than average but at higher rates than some other ethnic groups; the war had a detrimental effect on the German language and culture in the U.S., but the author describes this as having “merely accelerated trends that were already underway” (p. 261). German-Americans have since then very much assimilated into the mainstream culture of the U.S., and Chapter 12 provides an account of this. Another way to view this rests in the author’s conclusion that “the persistence of German language and culture over 350 years in America has been impressive indeed” (p. 275).
The author covers much ground in this book. Kamphoefner is able to incorporate academic research and make it accessible to the larger world outside of academia, specifically those interested in the U.S. Civil War, genealogy, German ethnicity, and immigration. As such, “Germans in America: A Concise History” is valuable for both scholars and general readers. Walter Kamphoefner has used his gift of storytelling, his expertise in migrant letters, and his knowledge of German and German culture and quantitative data to tell the story of German immigrants across four centuries: he describes how Germans decided to emigrate, where they settled, how they earned a living, how they lived their lives in the U.S., how they expressed and valued their German-American heritage and how German language and culture fell by the wayside in the U.S. It is an important story to tell and one that needs documenting, especially given that until a few years ago more U.S. citizens could trace their roots to German-speaking nations than to any other area in the world.
1 One can read here about his partnership with the late Wolfgang Helbich and their extensive work on German immigrant letters: http://www.auswandererbriefe.de/sammlung.html (08.11.2023).
2 Günter Moltmann (eds.), Deutsche Amerikaauswanderung im 19. Jahrhundert, Stuttgart 1976; Mack Walker, Germany and the Emigration, 1816–1885, Cambridge/MA 1964.
3 See Marcelo J. Borges / Sonia Cancian, Reconsidering the migrant letter: from the experience of migrants to the language of migrants, in: History of the Family 21 (2016), pp. 281–290; Wolfgang Helbich, German Research on German Emigration to the United States, in: Amerikastudien 54 (2009), pp. 383–404.