First was the war. Nations around them fought for power, soldiers and their destruction spilled over and laid waste to their land.
Then there was the famine, after a harsh winter destroyed the crops. Hunger reigned.
While they were reeling from war and famine came tales of a better life, a book sent by a former countryman who described a land of opportunity and wealth on the other side of the sea.
30,000 people left their homes to chase that dream.
Propelled by nothing more than their own feet, they traveled hundreds of miles before they were stopped by the water. Sympathetic persons on the other side, thinking the new immigrants might be an asset, sent boats and helped them over.
In their new country they were placed into camps outside the city. More and more people came, far more than the host nation had expected. When the camps swelled to 6,000, they began patrolling the coastline to keep the migrants from arriving. Still, people found their way in, and soon there were 13,000 in the camps.
The host country roiled in debate. One political party welcomed the migrants, highlighting their desperate refugee status and suggesting they would bring new skills and be an economic benefit. A law had passed giving citizenship to anyone who paid a small fee, and the idea that immigrants improved life for all was common in that time. A successful charity drive was undertaken to help care for the newcomers.
But the other political party desired to maintain national “purity”. They described the new immigrants as a financial burden and distrusted their origins. When some were found to be followers of a foreign religion, they were deported.
Within months people began to accuse the migrants of exaggerating their plight and being opportunists. One pamphlet read, “Our charity ought to begin at home before we extend it to our neighbors.” A famous politician called the migrants a “race of Vermin” and claimed they “infest” the land. A famous writer1 argued that only skilled workers or wealthy people should be let in. The fact that some of the migrants had been found to be of a foreign faith made matters worse, as it was said that people of such faith could never integrate into a free society. Some called the migrants lazy, others claimed that they would steal their jobs. Some were civil in their disapproval, stating, “We’ll pray for them, but wish ’em out of the Land.” Some were less so, threatening to go into the camps and slit their throats. The general sense became that these dirty people were too poor, too unskilled, too stupid, and too attached to foreign religion to be proper British citizens.
They were, after all, Germans, and some had even been Catholics. They year was 1709, and the event was the Palatine Migration.
The British government gave in to the anti-immigrant fervor and began shipping the migrants to American colonies, which was what many of them wanted anyway. But the journey was terrible – a quarter of the Germans died in the ships on the way there, and more died after arrival. After the migrants left, the conservative party took control of Britain and repealed the citizenship act, blaming it for the arrival of the migrants even though there was little evidence to support this. Some argued that the laziness of the immigrants was the reason their settlements in England had failed, others said that it was the lack of support from the conservatives that had sparked their demise.
Over the next few decades many more people from troubled lands joined the German communities in America. My six-greats grandparents Peter and Adaline were Hugenots, German-speaking Protestants who had faced persecution in Catholic France, and so they came as a young couple in 1715 to join some of the Palatines in this “Pennsylvania” colony that the Quaker William Penn had erected as a beacon of religious tolerance. In 1727 a young Mennonite named Ulrich and his seven siblings came from Switzerland where they had faced religious persecution. They too settled in William Penn’s community and Ulrich married Peter and Adaline’s daughter, Anna. Jacob, an Amish man from Switzerland, came at about the same time. He had a daughter named Catherine, who would later marry a young Swiss Protestant named Johannas who had come over in yet another Palatine ship in 1729. Their daughter, Barbara, would marry Ulrich and Anna’s son Michael, and one of their sons, Joel, is my great-great-great-great grandfather.
That same year, possibly on the same ship, a young Palatine named Johann Michael arrived in the community and became a schoolmaster and eventually the pastor of a Lutheran Reformed church. His daughter, Sophia Louise, married a young man named Christoph who had arrived from Germany in 1752. Their son Jacob would marry a young woman named Elizabeth, whose father Joseph had arrived from Switzerland in 1737 at the tender age of 15. Their granddaughter, also named Elizabeth, would one day become a Mennonite and marry Joel.
Though they came from Switzerland, Germany, and France, and were Huguenots, Mennonites, Amish and Lutherans, they all spoke German and found a shared heritage together in the new land. Within a few decades the German community was 1/3 of the population of Pennsylvania and nearly 10% of the population of America. They mostly kept to themselves, with many never bothering to learn English as they spoke German in both their churches and their homes (many German speakers got by in America for decades without speaking English even into the 1900s). They brought their own foods, their own way of educating children, and their own political causes. The first newspaper to print the Declaration of Independence was Der Pennsylvanische Staatsbote, a German press. English speakers weren’t able to read the Declaration until it arrived in the Pennsylvania Evening Post the following day.
For some time the community grew relatively slowly, but in the 1840s a potato blight in Germany led to widespread famine, and hundreds of thousands of economic refugees fled to America looking for better opportunity. Revolutions broke out across Europe in 1848 and even more people streamed in, the number of German refugees crossing one million. Some even tried to form their own cities – in the 1840s a German prince led 6,000 immigrants to establish a new Germany in Texas, called “New Braunfels”. Soon there were 20,000 Germans living there. My great-great grandparents Frederick Fritz and Louise Wilhelmina were among them, though they soon left the community to settle in California instead.
While there had always been some degree of animosity between the English-speaking residents and the German speakers, it was only in the mid-1800s that opposition became organized. Anti-immigrant forces formed their own political party called the “Know-Nothings”, due to their originally secretive nature regarding their activities. The basic tenets of the Know-Nothing party were that immigration was harmful to America, foreigners were not to be trusted, and Catholicism led to divided loyalties. They blamed German Catholic immigrants for crime and accused them of being on welfare, made up conspiracies about the pope and said that these followers of a foreign religion would obey him rather than American law.
Soon the Know-Nothing party was electing candidates in numerous states. In the worst situation they took over the Massachusetts government, where citizenship applications stopped being processed and Catholics holding state jobs were replaced. They pushed (but failed) to establish a new law that would restrict voting and citizenship to those who had resided in the country at least 21 years. They even tried to regulate “sexual immorality” among the new residents, an initiative that failed when the leader of the committee turned out to have used committee funds to pay off a prostitute himself.
At times violent riots between the Know-Nothings and immigrants broke out, and dozens died. Accusations of voter fraud were made. A Catholic church was burnt down, a priest was tarred and feathered. But within a few years the new party’s power faded, its members absorbed into other parties. In the following years they attempted to promote their anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner sentiment there instead.
At their height a young politician wrote to a friend, “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal.’ We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.’ When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” The politician’s name was Abraham Lincoln.
Though there was growing opposition to foreigners in the USA, conditions in Germany were only getting worse. Technological advances by American farmers allowed them to flood European markets with cheap wheat, which poorer countries like Germany could not compete with. Farms closed down, thousands of people became unemployed. One million German immigrants in America became two million, then five million, then seven million.
Charles and Minnie arrived from Germany during this period and settled in Indiana. Their son Louis would later marry Joel and Elizabeth’s granddaughter Anna, and their child would be my great-grandmother Ruth. Ludwig and Matilde reached America from Germany in 1862, their son Gustav married Ruth who then gave birth to my grandmother Dorothy. Friedrich and Friedericke, along with Friedrich’s parents, arrived in Indiana from Germany in the 1880s, as did Anna Marie. Anna married a young Swedish immigrant named Gustave (Sweden was a poor country experiencing virtually the same issues as Germany at the time). Freidrich and Friedericke’s son Henry later married Gustave and Anna Marie’s daughter Ruth Eva, and their child is Ted, my grandfather, who married Dorothy.
With millions of immigrants streaming in, America began to consider laws to restrict immigration for the first time. The strictest laws were openly racist in nature, banning certain classes of Chinese laborers and then blocking Chinese immigration completely. Other immigrants who were insane, criminal, sick or infirm were also turned away. But nearly all the Germans were still allowed in. By the 1900s many major cities in the Great Lakes region were more than 40% German-American.
Of course, anti-immigrant sentiment was bound to crop up again. When WWI hit and the USA joined England and France in opposing Germany, German-Americans were accused of being sympathetic to the German cause. Teddy Roosevelt attacked “hyphenated Americans” and said that duel loyalty was impossible in wartime. The Justice Department made a list of all 480,000 “German aliens” in the country, which would have included my great-great-grandmothers Friedericke and Anna Marie and possibly Charles and Minnie (see right) as well. 4,000 Germans were imprisoned during the war for accusations of spying on Germany or supporting their war effort.
Oppression did not just come from the government. One German man was lynched in Illinois under suspicion of being a spy; a minister in Minnesota was tarred and feathered when he was heard speaking in German to a dying woman. Frederick Stock, a German immigrant, was forced to temporarily step down as conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. German composers were not played, German books were taken off of library shelves, the speaking or instruction of German was banned in many schools and public places (though the Supreme Court ruled the ban on German-language instruction illegal in 1923). Many Germans were forced to buy war bonds to prove their loyalty, and others Americanized their names (like “Friedrich Drumpf” becoming “Fred Trump”) and stopped speaking German in church or public. The Red Cross barred people with German last names from joining.
Anti-German sentiment died down after the war, but nearly two decades later the Nazis took power in Germany and German Jews began fleeing for refuge. In many cases they were refused entry. When the Nazis’ “Night of Broken Glass” attacks on the Jewish community made global headlines, some congressmen sponsored a bill to allow an additional 20,000 Jewish refugee children to enter. But the bill was opposed by the U.S. commissioner for immigration and naturalization, whose wife (a cousin to FDR) declared, “Twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”
Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long, appointed by FDR specifically to be in charge of “problems arising from the war”, was blunt in his desire to block as many refugees as possible from entering:
We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices, which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visas.
Breckenridge’s program worked – from 1933 to 1943 there were 400,000 unfilled entry visas for people living in Nazi-controlled Europe, comprising 90% of the applications that had been filed. Some authors estimate that 190,000 people could have been saved from the Nazis if their visas had been granted.2
In 1939 the M.S. St. Louis, carrying 900 refugees from Germany (most of whom were Jewish), attempted to land in Florida after having been refused entry to their planned destination of Cuba. President Roosevelt barred the ship from landing upon the advice of his Secretary of State. Coast Guard ships shadowed it around Florida to prevent it from purposely running aground. Canada also barred entry, and the refugees were forced to return to Europe. While they were accepted into Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and England, three of those nations were overrun by the Nazis and 254 of the St. Louis’s passengers died in Nazi concentration camps.
“For the Jews, the doors were closed. We never understood that. Even President Roosevelt kept the doors closed. Why? The boat, St. Louis, was turned back. What was the world afraid of? I don’t understand.”
– Rae Kushner, grandmother of presidential adviser Jared Kushner , speaking to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in 1982. Rae Kushner immigrated to the United States in 1949 after having survived the Holocaust by dramatically escaping from a Nazi-controlled ghetto in Belarus.
Prejudice and selfishness have horrific consequences.
Once the United States entered World War II, German immigrants in general came back onto the radar. While non-Jewish German-Americans faced less prejudice than Japanese-Americans, around 300,000 German citizens in America were forced to register and had their travel and property rights restricted. Of those 11,000 were interned, some all the way until 1948. At the same time, German-Americans like General Dwight Eisenhower, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and General Carl Spaatz were at the top of their respective military forces during the war, and German-speakers were a major asset in intelligence, translation, and spy work.
Today over 40 million Americans trace their ancestry back to Germany, more than any other nation, nearly as much as all the Latin American nations combined. Because of German immigrants we have some of our most basic “American” customs, including hot dogs, hamburgers, and Christmas trees. German-Americans were responsible for introducing kindergartens and leading the Manhattan Project and much of our space program. German Americans had been instrumental in opposing slavery, though many drug their feet when it came to giving women the vote. The Lutherans and Catholics among them were heavily opposed to Prohibition and a force in its repeal, though Methodists and some other Germans supported the cause. America wouldn’t be the same without them.
When I began looking into the German side of my history, I was struck by how often the demonization of “the other” repeats itself. The anti-German migrant arguments in England in 1707 were virtually the same as the anti-Central American or anti-Syrian migrant arguments today. The Know-Nothings of the 1850s made many of the same claims about German Catholics as were attributed to Muslims during the 2016 election. The ongoing development and integration of the German-American community over generations looks much like how the Mexican-American community develops today. We can look back now and find most of those arguments ridiculous – the idea that Germans as a whole are lazy, stupid, unskilled, criminal, a drain on the economy, or controlled by the Roman Pope would be laughed off. But those arguments once carried power. And to many, those same arguments when applied to other peoples continue to carry power today.
How should we treat the immigrants in our midst? If you follow the Bible, the answer is not difficult:
When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.3
Just as the Hebrews descended from aliens in the land of Egypt, so every American reading this descends from those who were aliens in America. We are to treat immigrants as we treat citizens, as we treat our neighbor, as we love ourselves. In fact, we are to do more than that, as they are the ones in need. As Paul spoke to the wealthy Corinthians when taking up a collection:
Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”4
And in the book of Hebrews:
“Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”5
 Jonathan Swift!
 the information about American response to German-Jewish refugees comes from this Washington Post article
 Leviticus 19:33-34
 2 Corinthians 8:13-15
 Hebrews 13:1-2
In order to focus on a single coherent narrative, I followed the German-speaking strain of my ancestry, and even then only focused on one side of my family. On the other side my mother’s great-great-grandparents Frederick and Louise also immigrated from Germany in the 1860s, their daughter Freida married Oswald, who had come over from Germany as a child probably in the 1880s but who died at the age of 19 just two years after my great-grandmother Mathilda was born, who I got to know when I was a young child 90+ years after her father’s death.
The situation in Sweden in the mid-to-late 1800s, with famines, post-war fallout, and unemployment due to industrialization, was quite similar to the German account. In addition to my Swedish great-great-grandfather Gustave, my great-great-grandmother Hilda on my maternal grandmother’s side immigrated from there as a teenager in the late 1880s. We remain in touch with her family in Sweden to this day.
I also have a great-great-great-great grandfather on my maternal grandmother’s side with an Italian Jewish name who married a Swiss woman in Switzerland in the early 1800s before immigrating to Virginia and eventually Arkansas. Their daughter Harriett Moretti, wearing black below in an 1893 photo, married into the English/Scottish lines of my family.
Other than my great-grandfather, whose story I will cover in the next post, and one other line that I can’t trace, the rest of my family derived from English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish immigrants who came during the late 1600s all the way up through the early 1800s, in some cases via Canada. Some of the early ones fought with various Native American groups (especially in Missouri and Texas), participated on the Patriot side of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, were neighbors of and friends of Daniel Boone, fought in battle alongside Sam Houston and Davy Crockett, and at least one was a slaveowner.