More Than Just a Blurred Ethnic Identity: Teaching German American Day

By Andreas Hübner

It is one of the found­ing myths of “Ger­man Amer­i­cana” that the first migrants from Ger­man-speak­ing ter­ri­to­ries arrived on Octo­ber 6, 1683, on North Amer­i­can soil. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, Ger­man Amer­i­cans have always sought to cel­e­brate this par­tic­u­lar date in order to pro­mote and to secure Ger­man Amer­i­can tra­di­tions and inter­ests. Such cel­e­bra­tions, for­mer­ly often called “Ger­man Day,” flour­ished dur­ing the 19th cen­tu­ry and ceased after the world wars. After the 1983 tri­cen­ten­ni­al, Ger­man Amer­i­can stake­hold­ers were able to revive and to con­tin­ue the cel­e­bra­tions: On August 18, 1987, Con­gress approved a joint res­o­lu­tion to des­ig­nate Octo­ber 6, 1987, as Ger­man-Amer­i­can Day.

Since that time, most Amer­i­can pres­i­dents have issued annu­al procla­ma­tions to cel­e­brate the achieve­ments and con­tri­bu­tions of Ger­man Amer­i­cans to our Nation with appro­pri­ate cer­e­monies, activ­i­ties, and pro­grams. Also, Ger­man Amer­i­can soci­eties have tak­en on the ‘task’ and includ­ed annu­al Ger­man-Amer­i­can Day cel­e­bra­tions into their cal­en­dars, often in com­bi­na­tion with the famous Oktoberfest.

Source: Pitts­burg Dis­patch, 17 Sept. 1891. Chron­i­cling Amer­i­ca: His­toric Amer­i­can News­pa­pers. Library of Con­gress, accessed: Sept. 24, 2020,  <–09-17/ed‑1/seq‑8/>

When teach­ing Ger­man Amer­i­can Day in high school and uni­ver­si­ty class­es, fac­ul­ty of all lev­els need not yield to temp­ta­tion: They can’t just sim­ply cel­e­brate a some­what blurred Ger­man Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty with their stu­dents, but should allow for a crit­i­cal assess­ment of Ger­man Amer­i­can his­to­ry. Here are three ideas to get started:

Most pres­i­den­tial procla­ma­tions empha­size the “arrival of the first Ger­man set­tlers” on Octo­ber 6, 1683, call upon “all Amer­i­cans” to cel­e­brate Ger­man Amer­i­can “achieve­ments and con­tri­bu­tions” to Amer­i­can his­to­ry, and tend to show­case cer­tain aspects of Ger­man Amer­i­can impact on the “nation­al landscape.”

  • Have your stu­dents research who these first set­tlers were and whether it is appro­pri­ate to label them as Ger­man settlers.

To begin with, your stu­dents may read the 1983 New York Times arti­cle, “Obscure Ger­man Pil­grims Star in a Tri­cen­ten­ni­al.” Take this arti­cle as a start­ing point to dis­cuss ascrip­tions of nation­al­i­ty, eth­nic­i­ty, and race. Explore the his­to­ry of these peo­ple, often described as “Krefelders,” and learn more about their rela­tion to William Penn, Native Amer­i­cans, and African Amer­i­cans. In addi­tion, con­sid­er the con­cepts of set­tler colo­nial­ism and set­tler imperialism.

  • Have your stu­dents dis­cuss Ger­man Amer­i­can con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can history.

It is a mas­ter nar­ra­tive of Amer­i­can his­to­ry that Ger­man-speak­ing migrants were indus­tri­ous labor­ers who con­tributed to the mak­ing of Amer­i­ca more than any oth­er group. This nar­ra­tive, of course, silences the con­tri­bu­tions of many peo­ple whose achieve­ments are often for­got­ten, less empha­sized, or put into an over­ly sim­pli­fied con­text. For instance, ear­ly Ger­man-speak­ing migrants in colo­nial Louisiana are often cred­it­ed with sav­ing the colony from star­va­tion. In this con­text, it is rarely men­tioned that these migrants heav­i­ly relied on slave labor. Find sim­i­lar exam­ples with your students.

  • Have your stu­dents take a clos­er look at Ger­man Amer­i­can ‘suc­cess stories’.

While some migrants thrived on the Amer­i­can con­ti­nent, many strug­gled, and oth­ers even returned home. The “Ger­man-Amer­i­can Immi­grant Entre­pre­neur­ship” project of the Ger­man His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute, Wash­ing­ton, D.C., gives exam­ples of many suc­cess­ful migrants. To learn more about the every­day expe­ri­ence of migrant life in the Unit­ed States, you will have to dig into immi­grant let­ter col­lec­tions. Luck­i­ly, many of these col­lec­tions are now avail­able dig­i­tal­ly. The “Ger­man Her­itage in Let­ters” data­base, for instance, offers a fine col­lec­tion of orig­i­nal let­ters tran­scribed and trans­lat­ed into Ger­man and English.

Last but not least, you may now try to find out which rem­nants of Ger­man Amer­i­can life – apart from the folk­loric – have actu­al­ly sur­vived into the 21st century.

After com­plet­ing these tasks, my hope is that you’ll have a much deep­er under­stand­ing of Ger­man Amer­i­can his­to­ry. And if these ideas come too late for this year’s Ger­man Amer­i­can Day, there is always the next.

Andreas Hüb­n­er is cur­rent­ly a Lec­tur­er at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg. His research focus­es on Cul­tur­al and Glob­al His­to­ry as well as His­to­ry Didac­tics. In 2015, he received his Ph.D. from Jus­tus Liebig Uni­ver­si­ty Giessen. He served as Dianne Woest Fel­low at the His­toric New Orleans Col­lec­tion in August/September 2016 and as Horner Library Fel­low at the Ger­man Soci­ety of Philadel­phia in July 2018. Hübner’s mono­graph on Ger­man Amer­i­can fil­iopi­etist J. Han­no Deil­er was pub­lished in 2009, his mono­graph on the Ger­man Coast of colo­nial Louisiana in 2017.