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Why 'Little Germany' disappeared from NYC

Susanne Spröer als
October 5, 2020

Some 45 million Americans have German roots, but not much can be seen beyond the Brauhaus and Oktoberfest. Why? For German-American Day, we tracked down what led Germans to land in the US — and how they left their mark.

USA Steuben Parade in New York
Image: picture-alliance/abaca/V. T. Dennis

October 6 is German-American Day and is intended to recall how German immigrants have contributed to culture and life in the US. Some decisive episodes of common history have been nearly forgotten. Here are a few.

1904 — The end of a community: The tragic journey of the General Slocum

Whether it's Little Italy or Chinatown, the roots of the inhabitants of these lively New York neighborhoods are still evident today.

Those areas actually used to be a hub of German life, with German street signs, beer gardens and pubs, yet virtually nothing can be seen of that today, other than perhaps the trendy Loreley pub and restaurant.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, however, "Little Germany" was the name given to the district on the Lower East Side that was home to around 50,000 people, most of them with German roots.

Black and white picture of the General Slocum in New York
The General Slocum sank in 1904 New York's East River, with over 1,000 people (mainly women and children) dying in the incidentImage: picture-alliance/Mary Evans Picture Library

The more than 1,300 passengers who boarded the paddle wheel steamer General Slocum on June 15, 1904 were also from Little Germany.

That was a Wednesday, a working day, so it was mainly women and children of the Protestant congregation who sailed off on the East River, heading to Long Island for a picnic.

But the cheerful trip turned into a tragedy. The ship caught fire, and panic broke out. The lifeboats could not be detached; the life jackets were worthless.

When the General Slocum finally ran aground, it was in flames. By then, countless corpses were floating around in the river, with 1,021 people ultimately dying in the event.

To this day, it is the biggest civilian shipwreck in the history of the US.

Nearly every inhabitant of Little Germany lost relatives in the catastrophe. Most of the families ended up leaving the city district as it reminded them too much of the disaster. By 1910, only a few German families had remained. Italians and Chinese took over the streets. Little Germany had disappeared — like so many German vestiges in the US.

Chinatown in New York City
Lower East Side in New York: "Little Germany" became ChinatownImage: picture-alliance/imageBROKER/J. Tack

But a look back to history can help us rediscover them...  

1683 — Escape to the West: The 'Original 13' wanted freedom of religion

For over two months, the three-masted Concord had sailed across the stormy Atlantic before arriving at the port of Philadelphia on October 6, 1683. On board were 13 German families, Mennonites from near Krefeld.

They came to the "New World" attracted by the proposal of colony founder William Penn. The English Quaker had made land available to religious refugees for colonization. 

Quaker William Penn
Quaker William Penn founded Pennsylvania as a colony for religious refugeesImage: picture-alliance/Photoshot

After all, in the German principalities and kingdoms of the 17th century, only the Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Churches were permitted. Other religious communities were persecuted.

In Penn's colony, the "Original 13," as the German families were called, ended up founding "Deitschesteddel": the first German settlement in the US.

A hundred years later, 200,000 people were living in Pennsylvania, a third of them with German roots. Their antiquated-sounding "Pennsylvania Dutch" — a reference to the term Deutsch, or the dialect they used, Deitsch — is still spoken in some communities today, such as among the Amish.

Amish people riding in buggies
The Amish in Pennsylvania still speak "Pennsylvania Dutch" todayImage: Getty Images

The former "Deitschesteddel" is now called "Germantown" and is part of Philadelphia.

The influence of Germans was also marked in other parts of the Midwest, such as in the states of Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin: Most of the Americans with German ancestry live in this region, and many major breweries were founded by Germans.

Commemorating the arrival of the first German settler group back in 1683, German-American Day is now celebrated every year on October 6.

Independence and the Civil War: German military organized American troops

It was due to a Prussian that the American colonialists were able to win the Revolutionary War (1775 - 1783) against the British colonial power: Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was his name. Born in 1730, the offspring of a soldier family had served under Prussian King Frederick the Great before meeting Benjamin Franklin in Paris. Franklin recommended Steuben to the commanding general of the overseas colonialists, George Washington.

In 1778, Steuben arrived at the winter camp of the Continental Army. His task: to form an army out of the irregular forces, who consisted of farmers, merchants and politicians, that could stand up to the British professional soldiers.

With typical Prussian discipline and drill, Steuben organized the training of the soldiers so thoroughly that they defeated the British.

George Washington crossing the Delaware River in 1776
German soldiers also fought alongside George Washington in the Revolutionary War Image: ullstein bild - histopics

Since 1957, the annual Steuben Parade in New York has commemorated one of the most important German-Americans of the founding period.

Members of the German military also fought in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Among them was Franz Sigel, originally from the Heidelberg region. The German lieutenant made it to the rank of major general and was one of the highest-ranking commanders of the North's army. The then popular civil war song "I Goes to Fight Mit Sigel," with its German-English smattering of lyrics, recalls him and the around half a million German soldiers or those of German descent who took part on both sides of the war between the North and South.

1848  Women's rights activist Mathilde Franziska Anneke and the 'Forty-Eighters'

Franz Sigel had also been one of those in Europe who had rebelled against the princes and kings in 1848. After the failure of the revolution, he fled to the US.

Fritz Anneke from Westphalia (who later fought for the Northern states during the Civil War) and his wife Mathilde Franziska Anneke did the same. She had already been working as a journalist in Europe, among others, for a newspaper for which poet Heinrich Heine had also written.

Mathilde Franziska Anneke
Mathilde Franziska Anneke was one of the leading women's right activists in the US Image: Gemeinfrei

In the US, she was then allowed to do what had been forbidden in the German states: She gave lectures on educational opportunities, gender equality and spoke out against slavery.

In 1852, she founded the German-language Frauen-Zeitung (Women's Newspaper). In 1869, she became the first vice-president of the National Woman Suffrage Association — and thus one of the most important activists of the American women's movement.

Other "Forty-Eighters," as the people who emigrated from Europe after participating in the 1848 revolutions became known, also pursued careers in the US: Revolutionary Friedrich Hecker got involved with the newly founded Republican Party and Carl Schurz became interior minister and adviser to US President Abraham Lincoln.

But all in all, the former German revolutionaries numbered few among the emigrants. Most of those who emigrated fled from hunger and poverty to the West. And the numbers grew: By the middle of the 19th century, one million Germans had arrived in the US. Only towards the end of the century did the numbers decline.

1917 — Sauerkraut becomes 'liberty cabbage'

World War I began in 1914. When the US entered the war in 1917, the relationship to German-Americans in the US also changed. German-Americans Americanized their names, while authorities called for a boycott of German goods.

German terms disappeared from linguistic usage. Even the popular "Sauerkraut" was renamed into "liberty cabbage."

In the state of Illinois, a mob ambushed German-American Robert Prager, forcing him to hoist the American flag and sing the national anthem. He was ultimately hanged.

Funny name for German Sauerkraut: "liberty cabbage," shown here with juniper berries and parsley Image: Colourbox

Even between the world wars, much of what was typically German had disappeared from everyday American life.

And the people who fled to the US after the National Socialists seized power in Germany in 1933 wanted nothing more to do with the country that persecuted Jews and other unpopular minorities and murdered millions of people.

Many quickly became Americans — like Henry Kissinger, the later US Secretary of State, who fled Germany with his Jewish family in 1938 as a teenager. He assumed American citizenship in 1943 and fought as a GI against his country of birth.

US President Richard Nixon (l) with Henry Kissinger in 1973
US President Richard Nixon (l) with Henry Kissinger in 1973Image: AFP/Getty Images

Unlike the Italians or Chinese who immigrated later, the traces of Germans are markedly more hidden — and yet so closely interwoven with American culture that the two can hardly be separated.

Interestingly, the US even owes its title to a German: Cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. Waldseemüller gave the newly discovered country in the West a name on his world map of 1507: "America," after navigator Amerigo Vespucci. He, however, was not German, but Italian.

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