The history between the USA and Germany
German culture has long been intertwined with American culture, and relations between the two countries stretch as far back as the late 1600s. Today, the US and Germany are firm allies and large amounts of American expats move to Germany every year, as do German expats to the US.
However, this historical relationship has often been fraught. While Germans flocked to America in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, bringing German culture with them and influencing American education, music and science, this all changed in the 20th century with the onset of the First and Second World Wars.
So, let’s take a look at the complex but interesting history between Germany and the US, and see how relations between the two countries have changed over time.
First German expats arrive in America
The first records of Germans immigrating to the US date back to 1683, with the founding of Germantown, a town that eventually became part of Philadelphia. German emigrants continued to flock to North America in the following years and between 1749 and 1754, around 37.000 Germans made their way over to the US.
It is important to note that, back then, Germany wasn’t the united country we know today, but rather a number of distinct duchies, kingdoms, princedoms and free cities loosely confederated under the Holy Roman Empire and united by a common language root.
Most early German emigrants to America settled in Pennsylvania, and so they came to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. This is because the German settlers referred to themselves as “Deutsch”, which eventually came to be pronounced as “Dutch” by the locals.
German culture begins to spread
From the beginning of the 1800s until the years leading up to the First World War, around 7 million Germans emigrated to the US. Most of them stayed in the east of the continent, although a decent number did set up farms in the Midwest. A few strayed north and south, but not many.
German communities became very prominent in American cities and by the end of the 19th century, they formed the largest self-described ethnic group in the US. German expats continued to speak German within these communities and their culture began to permeate into the mainstream throughout America.
Not only did German philosophy become influential in the US, but so did the German education system. When the American education system was overhauled, it was based on the Prussian model. Germans also introduced gymnastics and physical education. Even today, Americans name their pre-schools after the German Kindergarten.
American scholars and scientists attended German universities, while German music became incredibly influential in America, as did German science and medicine. In fact, the practice of homoeopathy was introduced to the States by a German doctor, and it continues to be popular today.
German influences are also clear in other elements of American culture: from food and drink (sauerkraut, hotdogs and lager beer) to recreational facilities (parks, bowling alleys, playgrounds) and even Christmas celebrations (Santa Claus and Christmas trees).
American Civil War and the German Revolutions
Before the First World War, Germans were relatively well-liked in America. The US supported the German revolutions of 1848 - 1849, with the US being the only major country to support the National Assembly in Frankfurt. Tens of thousands of German people that participated in the revolutions escaped to the US after the rebellions were quelled, where they helped to develop the beer and wine industries, as well as the agriculture industry and journalism. These refugees were known as the Forty-Eighters.
During the American Civil War (1861 - 1865), the German states supported the union but played no major role militarily. Germans in America held strong anti-slavery views, especially amongst the Forty-Eighters. This led to hundreds of thousands of German Americans taking up arms against the Confederacy. In fact, Germans were the largest immigrant group to fight in the war, with over 176.000 Union soldiers originally from German-speaking regions. Major General Franz Sigel was the highest-ranking German officer in the Union Army. During the war, New York sent 11 all-German regiments to fight, Ohio sent six, and Pennsylvania sent five.
German-American relations were largely favourable after the American Civil War. Trade between the two countries flourished as Germany industrialised under Bismarck and Americans tended to favour Germany in their conflicts against France. However, this would all quickly change with the onset of the First World War.
US-German relations in World War I
Before the First World War started, Americans were prone to neutrality. However, the American public began to change their views after reports of the German army’s exploits in Belgium came to light. A German U-boat also sank the RMS Lusitania, which was carrying over 100 American passengers, causing a huge turnaround in public opinion. Once Germany offered its assistance to Mexico in fighting the US, things took a nosedive, and the US declared war on Germany in 1917.
During the First World War, German-Americans quietly supported the American war effort. They quickly cut ties with their former country and moved to openly adopt American culture as public sentiment quickly turned against Germans and Germany. This saw German communities start to speak English, and German instruction was removed from schools, colleges and universities. Several monuments and place names related to Germany were also removed. Germans were even attacked by Americans in the US and public libraries removed German books from their shelves. In Germany, the US was made out to be another enemy of the German empire, and a false liberator of Europe.
At the end of the war, the people of Germany largely accepted US President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points of peace. Once peace had been restored, Germany and America moved forward with positive relations, with America believing that Germany was the key to a prosperous and stable Europe.
German-American relations during World War II
German-American relations reached an all-time low during World War II. The US tried to remain neutral but declared war on Germany following Germany’s declaration of war on the US in 1941. Germans living in America called for neutrality but served as translators and spies during the war and a few even had high-ranking jobs within the army. The Americans went on to help the Allied powers win the war against Nazi Germany and the Axis powers, serving in both East Asia and Europe and North Africa. In 1945, American troops stormed into Germany with British forces and forced the country to surrender.
During the war, Germans were again held in contempt by Americans, although President Roosevelt made deliberate attempts to try to dampen any anti-German sentiment in America. He protected American citizens of German ancestry from being denied jobs, as he did with those of Italian ancestry. German-Americans adopted patriotic, pro-America stances during the war.
Many Germans emigrated to the States during the Second World War to escape Nazi persecution, including prominent artists, political refugees and scientists like Albert Einstein.
East and West Germany
After the Second World War, Germany was split between the Soviet forces and the Western Allies. West Germany (The Federal Republic of Germany) found itself shaped by US culture due to the presence of American soldiers in the immediate postwar years and its wholehearted embrace of capitalism. The two countries continued to enjoy positive relations until the fall of the Berlin Wall, sharing culture and cooperating on new technology.
East Germany, on the other hand, did not enjoy such a relationship with the US. The Soviet forces perpetuated the idea that the US was at fault for the poor relations between Russia and West Germany, and Soviet ideology became increasingly present in East German media and schools. Such ideology included anti-American sentiments. However, East Germans quickly grew dissatisfied with the living conditions under the Soviet regime. More and more East Germans began adopting American culture and desired to live what was presented as a more prosperous life available in West Germany.
During this time, German opinion of America swayed significantly. While in Germany and the US Germans tended to view Americans positively, certain events such as the Vietnam War evoked anti-American sentiments, particularly among the youth. In America, anti-German sentiments had faded away by the end of the 20th century.
Reunification of Germany
The most pro-American feeling among the German populace probably came in the years leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. America pushed harder than the other western powers for a reunified Germany, something that was spearheaded by President George H. W. Bush. Growing calls for unification were amplified massively by famous American artists, such as Bruce Springsteen and David Hasselhoff, who both played legendary concerts in Germany. Both artists took the opportunity to call for the reunification of Germany, and played songs that evoked romanticism of a world without barriers and freedom.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev reluctantly agreed to let the newly-unified Germany join NATO and a new era of German-American relations began.
Germany and America have continued to enjoy a close relationship since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with the two countries collaborating closely on world affairs and technological advancement. However, the two countries' differences when it comes to foreign policy have often caused some tension among politicians, and public opinion sways significantly.
Tensions rose when Germany refused to join the US and Britain in the Iraq War after the September 11 attacks in 2001. American public opinion turned against Germany for not helping the US and German public opinion turned against the US after prominent German figures suggested there were big links between globalisation, Americanisation and terrorism.
Politics has frequently influenced public opinion in the two countries. Under President Barack Obama, political relations were generally positive. However, tensions resurfaced after Donald Trump was elected president. Then-Chancellor Angela Merkel made no secret of her disdain for Trump, while Trump stirred up anti-German sentiment over trade and foreign policy, as well as moving to withdraw US troops from Germany.
However, relations between the two countries are generally positive and have improved since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, especially after Biden froze the withdrawal of US troops from Germany. The countries have been in close contact over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and continue to work together.
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