The Failure of German-Americanism

AMONG the influences which the war in Europe has exerted on our own national life, none is more important than its effect on the immigrant groups which comprise so large a part of our population. Their sympathies for the respective countries of their birth or races of their blood have given new vigor to their racial consciousness. Their partisanship in the European conflict has made compact racial groups out of hitherto partially assimilated racial elements of our citizenry. Having believed ourselves to be one people, cemented by a common love of our nation and bound by the power of new ideals and liberties, we suddenly find ourselves broken into racial groups whose old-world loyalties seem more powerful than their new allegiance. We have found, to our sorrow, that our melting-pot has not been able to undo in decades what the processes of centuries had wrought on the hard metal of racial consciousness. The result is that America is facing the problem of the ‘hyphen.’ The problem of properly assimilating our large foreign population has always been a great one in this country, but through this war it has assumed a gravity we had hitherto believed impossible.

With this problem on our hands, it is natural that the larger alien groups should engage our particular attention, and that their doubtful loyalty, or divided allegiance, should especially arouse our indignation. No group is larger than that of the German-Americans, and those which are as large have the advantage of a closer relationship with us in language and customs. The result is that the problem of the ‘hyphen’ has centred in German-Americanism. This condition has been aggravated by the fact that America’s frank sympathy for Germany’s enemies has transformed the natural sympathy of the German-Americans for their bloodrelatives into a bitterness against this country and its people. Their criticisms of an administration which they believed to be unneutral too easily culminated in criticisms of our whole scheme of government, and their resentment against the hostile sympathies of the American people betrayed them too easily into abuse of American character. Much of this has been done, in the name rather than in the spirit of the average German-American, by professional propagandists. But whether these spokesmen had the sanction of the average German-American or not, the very fact that they pleaded and threatened in his name has made a compact social and political group out of the German-American element, both in its own eyes and in the eyes of the nation.

Whether the resentment that has been aroused against German-Americanism has been justified or not, the attention which it has gained has been inevitable. Having become a more or less tangible entity among the elements of our national life, it invites examination of its characteristics, if it does not justify criticism.

Such an examination must cover, not only the present activities and tendencies of German-Americanism, but its attitude toward American affairs and problems in the past. History ought to have a voice in determining whether present accusations of disloyalty are justified or not.


In one respect, at least, history offers no justification for these accusations. When the nation demanded definite services in the crucial periods of its history, no criticism of the conduct of German-Americans seems possible. Their loyalty to the nation was sincere and their service unstinting. They fought bravely in all of our great wars. Their deeds of heroism are conspicuous in our history. Such men as Von Steuben and Carl Schurz have a prominent and honorable place in the annals of our country. Germans have pointed with pride to these achievements in order to disprove the charges of disloyalty now made against them.

However, a nation needs and demands the loyalty of its citizens, not only when its existence is at stake or when its claims upon their allegiance are put with particular force by the crises of physical combat. In times of peace also it requires their loyalty — their loyalty to its ideals, and their allegiance to the principles upon which it has been founded. Of the immigrant it is entitled to expect that he will place the virtues and powers with which his particular race has endowed him in the service of the ideals that animate the people with whom he has allied himself.

The German-American appears to have failed to meet either side of this obligation. He has been too often, not only indifferent to our ideals, but untrue to the virtues of his race. This is a charge that can easily be made against any immigrant; but since no immigrant came to our shores more richly endowed with the characteristics of a unique civilization than the German immigrant, the charge seems to be particularly applicable to him.

The German-American has made contributions to our national life, but they have been economic rather than spiritual. He has served the body of our nation well, but his contribution to its soul-life seems to have been inadequate. In developing our national resources, particularly the agricultural resources of the Middle West, the German-American has had no inconspicuous part. His thrift and industry are proverbial, and these virtues were employed to good advantage upon our countrysides and prairies. The industry of the German immigrant converted our prairies into fruitful fields; his thrift contributed to the prosperity of the nation while it established his own. By virtue of his prosperity and affluence, and by virtue also of his wellknown qualities of dependability and prudence, he has become a potent influence in the communities in which he has been placed. Where the interests of the nation and his own interests were identical, the German-American has served the interests of the nation well.

But, unhappily, the interests of the nation are not always identical with those of the individual. They often require sacrifices on the part of the individual, and they always demand large social sympathies. In these qualities the German-American seems to be deficient. His virtues seem to be individualistic rather than social. He has unwittingly served the nation through his qualities of prudence and thrift, but he has been rather indifferent to the problems of the nation that did not directly affect him. He has manifested no great interest in a single one of the great moral, political, or religious questions that have agitated the minds of the American people in late years. His failure to do so is all the more striking because he comes from a country where interest in community welfare on the part of the individual has reached its highest development. This indifference toward our national ideals and problems was vaguely felt by the American people even before the outbreak of this war. Perhaps it is the reason why German-Americanism had only to manifest itself as a definite element, to arouse the resentment of the American people. They had not known it to be hostile to our ideals, but they had felt it to be indifferent to our problems. The German-American had poorly fortified himself by solid achievement against the day when his loyalty would be, justly or unjustly, questioned.


In the first place, German-Americanism has manifested a lack of interest in our political problems. German-Americans have played no prominent rôle in our political struggles. The IrishAmerican element, for instance, has been a far more potent factor in our political history. This does not mean that German-Americans ought to have acted as a racial group in our political struggles. Their purpose to do so now is one of the causes of hostility toward them. America wanted no political activity from them of a factional and selfish character, but it might have expected them to dedicate their knowledge of European affairs to the service of this nation. The most enthusiastic champion of our democracy is willing to admit that we have not yet achieved an ideal democracy. We have, to mention one weakness, paid a very high price in efficiency for the liberties which we possess. This weakness, among others, we have been ambitious to overcome. Might we not well have expected that the German-American, coming as he does from a country that has achieved so extraordinary a degree of efficiency in domestic administrative measures, would be helpful to us in our attempts to develop such efficiency, particularly in our municipal governments? But the German-American seems to have taken no interest in these problems. He has not been conspicuous, at any rate, in any political tendencies, connected with this or any other problem. He has manifested an ordinary interest in political questions in common with the average American citizen, but he has gained no distinction in the espousal of any particular cause, or in devotion to any special ideal.

In the social development of the nation and in the agitation of social questions the German-American has been equally inconspicuous. We have, for the past years, been in the throes of a social revolution, or social reformation, which has given a new meaning to many of the old ethical conceptions. The obligations of the individual toward the welfare of his fellow man and society as a whole have been considerably widened, and the moral conscience of the whole nation has been made more sensitive. We have attempted to establish more equitable relations between capital and labor; we have tried to introduce a more just distribution of our prosperity. These problems are all connected with issues that have had, and will have, the attention of men throughout history. But it does seem that we have been particularly eager in late years to find some solution for them.

In this tendency of our national life, however,the German-American has had no part. Like most men whose affluence was gained by industry and thrift, he is prone to attribute all poverty to indolence and to hold the individual completely responsible for his own welfare. Perhaps the fact that he has been engaged in agricultural rather than in industrial pursuits is an additional cause for his indifference to our social problems, which have so largely centred in our industrial and commercial life. At any rate, he has shown this indifference — and that in spite of the fact that he comes from a country that has been a clinic for the world in the methods of humanizing industry. While America has freely borrowed from Germany in workmen’s compensation and insurance legislation and other kindred measures, the GermanAmerican did not turn a hand to facilitate this importation. The Jew has been a far more potent factor in modern social tendencies than the GermanAmerican.

This failure of German-Americanism is doubly censurable because it has been, not only an indifference to our own national problems, but an indifference to, and an ignorance of, the very tendencies which have received their completest development in the country of the German-American’s birth.


In the development of the religious life of this nation the German-American has manifested an even more regrettable aloofness. Christianity has, without doubt, received a unique development in this country. Conditions have been particularly favorable for the solution of some of the old, vexing problems of Christendom. The problem of denominationalism is one of these. Nowhere in the world have different denominations and sects had such large opportunities to come in close contact with each other as in this country. Here they are all represented, and the spirit of fraternity, so dependent upon the consciousness of equality, is not jeopardized by special government privileges to some. This condition encourages them to emphasize those points of doctrine and polity on which they can agree, and to minimize the points which still separate them. The result is that a spirit of fraternity has developed here which bids fair to culminate, at some time, into an organic and vital interdenominationalism.

In this development the German-American church has had no part. Among strongly denominational churches it takes first rank. It has maintained a studied, and sometimes a hostile, aloofness toward all interdenominational movements. Not even the more liberal of the German-American churches have entered very heartily into Christian fellowship with other churches. This unfraternal spirit is not a racial characteristic of the German but seems to be a surviving relic of the eighteenth-century orthodoxy of the German church.

In this old, cocksure orthodoxy, that is forced to be intolerant because it is so sure that it alone is right, the German-American church is as different from the German church as day is from night. The German church, particularly the German theological school, is known to the world as the foremost protagonist of liberal Christianity. Nowhere have Christian theologians worked with greater freedom in reinterpreting the old truths of the Christian faith in the light of modern scientific discovery than in Germany. But the old dogmatic orthodoxy, which the German church was first to overcome, has been nowhere more obstinately maintained than in the German-American church. It has adhered to tradition with a pertinacity that presents a strange contrast to the readiness of the German church to abandon it. This strange anomaly has been confusing to American thinkers who are acquainted with German thought, and has been perplexing to German thinkers as well. It has certainly not contributed to an understanding of the real Germany on the part of the American people.

The contrast between German liberalism and German-American conservatism, while strikingly illustrated in their respective theological positions, is by no means confined to these. The German-American gives the impression of conservatism in all his mental processes. His mental attitude sometimes has an appearance of stolidity and sluggishness that is in inexplicable contrast to the brilliancy, the ingenuity and the sometimes licentious freedom from tradition of the German mind.

Because of the German-American’s unrepresentative character, America never understood these characteristics of the German race until they were revealed in a rather unfavorable light by Germany’s present militaristic task. Perhaps this failure of German-Americanism contributed to the unfavorable verdict pronounced on Germany by American public opinion.


One other characteristic of organized German-Americanism deserves special mention. It is its opposition to all temperance reforms. If there is any activity which German-Americanism has undertaken as a unit, and which has brought it as a body to the attention of the American people, it is this opposition to the temperance movement, particularly the prohibition movement, in America. If German-Americanism was discredited in any way even before this war, it was because of its attitude upon this question. Next to the interests directly affected, German-Americanism has been the strongest opponent of prohibition in this country. The German press is practically unanimously opposed to any and every kind of prohibition, and the German pulpit has given the opposition a less unanimous but even more effective support. Resentment against this attitude has grown with the phenomenal increase in prohibition sentiment among the American people.

The prohibition movement has come to express the most enlightened conscience of the American people. It has the practically unanimous support of the churches and is being championed with increasing vigor by the press. It is natural that opposition to a movement that has the support of the intelligent public opinion of our country should cause resentment, especially when it comes from a group of otherwise respected and respectable citizens. In this attitude, as well as in his attitude upon other issues, the indifference and hostility of the German-American to our ideals is a betrayal of the ideals of his own people. Perhaps this contention will seem less convincing in this connection than it was in the others which we have tried to establish, for Germany is known as a drinking nation. The position of German-Americanism upon the drinking question as such is, in fact, not inconsistent with German customs, though it must be mentioned that the temperance movement has made much more progress in Germany of late years than among German-Americans.

The real inconsistency of GermanAmericanism, however, is established by the principle it invokes to justify its opposition to the prohibition movement. It claims to be fighting for ‘ personal liberty,’ a principle that has, in the history of civilization, covered a multitude of sins with the mantle of respectability. The espousal of that principle by Germans is, however, peculiarly unfortunate. They have sprung from an intensely communistic race, a race in which personal privileges have been more successfully subordinated to the common weal than in any other. Individualism, with its emphasis on personal liberty, is on the other hand, an Anglo-Saxon heritage. Tradition and training have made the German a champion of community interests, and his attempt to espouse the cause of the individual therefore justifies the suspicion that he is either ignorant of history or insincere. At any rate it is a curious anomaly, that a Teuton descendant should fight for an Anglo-Saxon heritage against the Anglo-Saxon heir.

We see upon every hand that, where the German-American is hostile or indifferent to our ideals, he is, in some sense, false to his own. It is difficult to find an adequate reason for this peculiar situation in which German-Americanism is found. Perhaps it is due to the fact that German immigration was largely drawn from the peasant class of Germany, which is ignorant of, and unaffected by, the influences of the modern German university, which has had such a large part in moulding contemporary German civilization. Perhaps it is caused by the fact that the German exodus to this country had virtually stopped before the modern Germany was born. Thus, the attempt of German-Americans to remain true to the customs and conceptions of the fatherland, causes them to perpetuate customs and ideals long since discarded in Germany itself.

Whatever may be the cause of the failure of German-Americanism, its failure is obvious. And this failure may be a contributory cause, not only of the lack of esteem in which German-Americanism is now held in this country, but also of the lack of understanding between Germany and this nation. This want of understanding may be only very indirectly responsible for the present ill feeling between the two countries. This seems rather to be due to more specific historical incidents. But the position of German-Americanism in this country would have been fortified against suspicions of disloyalty, and its defense of the German cause would have been more convincing and effective had it been less indifferent to the ideals and principles of this nation, and more true to its own.