The Failure of German-Americanism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In this essay by American philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr we learn of German Americans’ failure, in the author’s view, to come to terms with their place in their adopted country. Niebuhr urges German Americans to stand up, as Americans, and be counted as on the side of the United States in a time of war. Appearing in the widely read Atlantic Monthly, a journal of literature and opinion, the essay is addressed to German Americans, but makes points about “German-Americanism” that will have been of interest to non-German American readers as well. The key problem the essay wrestles with is why German Americans have been slow to move beyond their status as “hyphenated” Americans and into the mainstream, the implication being that they should do so now and recognize their debt of loyalty to the United States.

Summary Overview

In this essay by American philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr we learn of German Americans’ failure, in the author’s view, to come to terms with their place in their adopted country. Niebuhr urges German Americans to stand up, as Americans, and be counted as on the side of the United States in a time of war. Appearing in the widely read Atlantic Monthly, a journal of literature and opinion, the essay is addressed to German Americans, but makes points about “German-Americanism” that will have been of interest to non-German American readers as well. The key problem the essay wrestles with is why German Americans have been slow to move beyond their status as “hyphenated” Americans and into the mainstream, the implication being that they should do so now and recognize their debt of loyalty to the United States.

Defining Moment

When World War I broke out in Europe, many, if not most, German Americans desired to see the United States avoid entering the war on the side of the Allies. With the United States officially neutral and with a sizeable and relatively influential German American population in the country, many German Americans held out hope that, if the United States did enter the war, it might do so on the side of Germany and the Central Powers. (The German Americans were joined in this, interestingly enough, by Irish Americans, most of whom had no love for the English at the time). Many of these German Americans, who were largely assimilated into American life, did not fully support the German leadership or its aims in the war; yet, at the same time, they were not strong supporters of France or Britain, either. They disliked the idea of contributing to the killing of ordinary Germans–possibly even their own relatives–on the battlefield, preferring instead to stick to the existing US policy of neutrality. The United States had served them well as immigrants and descendants of immigrants. They were reluctant to stir the waters by publically taking sides. In some cases, German-language newspapers and a few small, but vocal, groups spoke out on behalf of Germany and against the Allies, but such views were not representative of the majority of German Americans. Rather, most of the latter remained “torn” about the war and the best way forward.

That stance, however, was beginning to wear thin by 1916. Indeed, the very month that Niebuhr’s article was printed, there occurred, in New York harbor, a massive bombing of a store of ammunition that was intended for the Allies. German spies, or their German American operatives, were suspected of the attack. Under a wave of patriotic zeal, many German Americans found themselves labeled as potentially threatening to the Allied cause and were subjected to abuses (although most of the serious abuses occurred only after the US entry into the war in 1917). Despite their having a reputation for hard work, orderliness, and respect for authority, and despite their having populated large tracts of the Midwest and elsewhere, German Americans were now under pressure to “drop the hyphen” and become Americans first and foremost. Niebuhr seeks to blame German Americans for the situation they now found themselves in–standing outside the great “fraternity” of American citizenship and serving as targets for nativist “resentment.”

Author Biography

Reinhold Niebuhr was born of German immigrant parents in Wright City, Missouri, on June 21, 1892. His father was a pastor in the German Evangelical Church, a denomination that grew out of Lutheranism and the German Reformed Church. Niebuhr, whose first language was the German spoken at home, attended Elmhurst College in Illinois and Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis before earning a master’s degree in theology at Yale University in 1914. He was ordained a pastor in the Evangelical Church the following year and sent to serve a German-speaking congregation in Detroit, where he remained until 1928. Although he is primarily known today for his later writings, including noted works on pacifism and “just war” theory, his early years in Detroit were formative. It was there that he first struggled to square, philosophically, patriotism with pacifism, and it was there that he saw, first-hand, the tensions that industrial capitalism produced and the need to counter it with what he called “Christian realism.” One of his more famous early works is entitled Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932).

During World War II, Niebuhr worked on a committee to rescue Germans suffering under the Nazi regime and sought to persuade Christians to support the war against Hitler. He stood against Stalin and communism–from a position on the political left. His later thought stressed the persistence of evil in society and in human nature. Both a renowned theologian and a keen observer and critic of contemporary life, Niebuhr taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City between 1930 and his retirement in 1960. He won the admiration of the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the liberal-progressive political tradition during his lifetime. Niebuhr died in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, on June 1, 1971.

Document Analysis

Niebuhr begins his essay by describing how the elements of “blood” and “race” often contribute to the development of ethnic consciousness within the nation state, particularly during a time of war. The result is that immigrant groups maintain themselves in spite of the so-called melting-pot that is America. Such a situation challenges commonly held assumptions about unity and allegiance. The problem is particularly notable, he says, when one is talking about the largest immigrant group in the nation, the German Americans. Although this fact is not widely known–most Americans believe that English or Irish Americans form the largest ancestry group–Niebuhr is correct in stating it: German Americans have, for most of the last century, comprised close to twenty percent of the US population. In his essay, Niebuhr laments the fact that so large a group could remain so divided in their loyalties, so “indifferent” to the nation that they now call home.

After pointing to two notable German American patriots and leaders of the past (Baron von Steuben and Carl Schurz), Niebuhr goes on to suggest that the German Americans of the present era have fallen short; they have not made use of their talents in service to their adopted country. What contributions they have made, he notes, have been in industry and agriculture, not in any areas pertaining to the national interest or to any “moral, political, or religious” principles. Niebuhr is pointing here, essentially, to the problem of leadership. Too many German Americans, he argues, operate as individuals rather than as representatives of their community and their collective ideals within their new country. Irish Americans, he remarks, stand in contrast to this. German Americans, therefore, are “poorly fortified” against criticism.

One area in particular to which Niebuhr feels German Americans might have contributed, but have not, is that of government administration. Given their talents for efficiency, he says, German Americans should be a natural fit here; but that has not proved to be the case. Worse, the entire field of politics seems of little interest to German Americans, observes Niebuhr. Again, their skills have largely been diverted to commercial affairs. What Niebuhr does not mention is that in the cities, at least, many working-class German Americans were active in the labor movement. In that case, higher, often socialist (or “universalist”) principles often overrode any particular national allegiance or affiliation.

Likewise, in the area of religion, German Americans have done little, Niebuhr complains. They have not contributed to any national spiritual growth or any effort toward “interdenominiationalism” (ecumenism), but instead have remained rooted in their existing churches–“aloof” with respect to higher principles of national existence. The one moral stand they seem to have taken, Niebuhr notes, is to oppose temperance, or alcohol prohibition. Niebuhr becomes the consummate preacher here, seeing prohibition as expressing the “enlightened conscience of the American people.” In saying this, Niebuhr is aligning himself with the Christian temperance movement that was growing in strength at the time and would soon be victorious in enacting a nationwide prohibition (the Volstead Act, 1919). As the prohibitionists saw it, the nation’s breweries, many of which were German American owned, should be shut down both for the health and welfare of the American people and for the sake of national security (fear of German spying). It is interesting in this regard that no less a social critic than H. L. Mencken considered the Volstead Act to have been the direct result of the Anti-Saloon League’s success in stirring up anti-German sentiment among the populace and flaming war hysteria in the period leading-up to passage of the prohibition law. Niebuhr, for his part, sides with the high-minded moralists of the temperance movement in blaming German Americans for contributing to alcohol usage.

Essential Themes

In this essay, the author chides German Americans, in occasionally patronizing tones, to step up and support the American nation and its goals. He speaks with authority as someone who belongs to the German American community and knows it intimately. At the same time, he is not promoting the continued existence of “German Americanism,” but, rather, want to advance a kind of “race blind” or “ethnicity blind” perspective that would have German Americans abandon any lingering “old-world loyalties” and declare themselves as Americans above all. It is by championing the American nation and the practice of democracy, he says, that German Americans will be able to move beyond their political and moral “indifference” and reach a higher plane of citizenship and responsibility. Only then will they cease being the object of criticism or suspicion among Americans of all stripes.

Ultimately, Niebuhr’s vision came to be realized. As the war progressed, many German-language newspapers either stopped publication or were shut down under pressure. Most of the school programs that either taught German or used it as a language of instruction were closed. The “hyphen” began to drop away, and German Americans began to view themselves, simply, as Americans (or Americans of German descent). In addition, as the war unfolded, thousands of German Americans fought bravely on the side of the United States, their home country. Today, although still the largest ethnic group in the nation, German Americans are hardly identifiable as an ethnic group because they have become so fully integrated into the fabric of American culture and society.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Kazal, Richard A. Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2004. Print.
  • Luebke, Frederick C. Germans in the New World: Essays in the History of Immigration. Urbana and Chicago: U of Illinois P, 1990. Print.
  • O’Connor, Richard. The German-Americans: An Informal History. Boston: Little, Brown, 1968. Print.
  • Rippley, La Vern. The German-Americans. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Print.
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