The fate of immigrants, refugees, and migrant workers was experienced by the more than seven million Germans who emigrated to America over a period of three centuries. Their experiences ought not be forgotten. For these lessons from America can be learned and adapted by nations faced with large-scale immigration today. These include Germany, where the flood of non-German-speaking immigrants -- with their clubs, houses of worship, schools and newspapers in inner city neighborhoods -- is widely and at times harshly criticized as a misdirected development. In reality, however, these practices of present-day immigrants resemble age-old approaches that German immigrants to America implemented successfully in the decades before they or their children and grandchildren became fully Americanized.
As the following depiction of the American experience will show, one key element for the success of the American policy of integration -- at least with regard to most European immigrants -- rested on the political belief that every male adult in good standing and after only five years of residence was to be entitled to full citizenship, even with the handicap of little knowledge of English and just a smattering of American civics. Once a citizen, the lowly alien found himself transformed in a sought-after voter. Of course, undergirding American policy on immigration and assimilation was the unbounded faith in the ideal of a "country for the oppressed," or as formulated with great exuberance by the idealistic revolutionary Thomas Paine in the nation's birth year of 1776, "asylum for mankind."
No one knows the number of German-Americans today. For no one can determine whether somebody with a German grandmother and a grandfather from Luxembourg on his mother's side, with an Irish grandmother and an Italian grandfather on his father's side, and with parents who simply consider themselves "American" (especially if they speak only English) is German, Irish, Italian, or what?
[Source: Based on the U.S. Census Bureau's Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Series C89-199, and the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States since 1971. Designed by H.-J. Kaemmer.]
The figures of 50 or 60 million German-Americans reported in the press after the 1980 census is based on a statistical game that is at best questionable. In that year the census asked about the country [countries] of origin of each individual, or his or her ancestors. Of the 226 million Americans, 17.9 million responded with "Germany." Additionally, 31.2 million reported that there were also Germans among their ancestors. Altogether, a total of 49.2 million Americans, or 21.7% of the total population, claimed to have had Germans among their forefathers. It would, of course, make no mathematical sense to try to compare this figure with those of other nationalities because someone who reported "German-Irish," for instance, would be enumerated twice. However, if we play the statistical game of nationalities a bit anyway -- just to get some graphic sense of the "German element" -- then we must use this questionable figure of nearly 50 million Germans as a comparison to the likewise debatable statistic of 101.4 million people who reported England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland as their ancestral homes. The fact remains that no one knows just how many "German" Americans there are today. What the melting pot has put together, statisticians can no longer untangle.
With a degree of certitude, however, we can say that the Germans who were among the immigrants to the United States between 1820 and 1970 amounted to about 15% of the total, and that, since the 17th century, about seven million people born in the former states of Germany settled in what is now the territory of the United States. We know too that the percentage of German-speakers was never large enough that German might have become the official or second language of any state in the Union. Nevertheless, the stubborn legend that on one occasion just a single vote caused German to lose the battle in becoming the official language of the United States simply will not fade. More about this in the section on the language question.
The year 1683 is rightfully celebrated as the beginning of group immigration from the German states. On October 6, 1683, thirteen Quaker families from Krefeld arrived in Philadelphia. From the outset, their settlement on the northern outskirts of Philadelphia was called Germantown. From then on, the tolerant Quaker colony of Pennsylvania served as a beachhead for the immigration of pietistic and other Protestant minorities, notably dissidents of the Reformed and Lutheran persuasion. When the first American census was taken in 1790, Pennsylvania's German population was put at 225,000 which amounts to a third of the state's entire population. If we further count those Germans who in the course of the 18th century settled in the English colonies of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina, especially those from the Palatinate, Baden and Wurttemberg, and include their children, then Americans of German origin were about 9% of the total population of the youthful United States around the close of the 18th century.
European mass immigration to the United States began in earnest only after the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, at a time when unimpeded transatlantic commercial shipping resumed. Soon a first major wave of 20,000 emigrants from southwestern Germany took place, occasioned by major crop failures in the years 1816-17. The figures fell during the 1820s, but increased significantly in the 1830s. Since 1832, the areas of German emigrant origin shifted gradually to the West, later to the Northwest, and in the latter third of the century to the Northeast. Small farmers from the Southwest were followed by craftsmen and those engaged in the cottage industries, by day laborers and eventually by farm hands from Germany's Northeast. As time went by, immigrants from all regions of the German Empire arrived in the United States where, allegedly, German dialect barriers between Bavarians and East Prussians were occasionally overcome with the help of English.
The first peak of German immigration to North America came in the year 1854, when more than 220,000 arriving Germans were registered in American ports. Decisive factors that unleashed this wave of emigration were the repeated crop failures that began in 1846 in southwestern Germany, especially potato rot. In the wake of the failed Revolution of 1848, according to rough estimates, some 6,000 political refugees made the transatlantic trek, the majority of whom had first sought interim sanctuary in Switzerland, France or England. To be sure, these "Forty-eighters" amounted to only a fraction of the total immigration during this decade. But taken together with the political refugees of the post-Napoleonic restoration period during the "Thirties," these expatriates in the years that followed 1848 represented the prototypes of the well-educated, liberal -- if not radical-democratic -- German-Americans in the United States.
With the recession of 1857 and the American Civil War (1861 -1865), immigration declined substantially. After the Recovery following the war, immigration again dipped as a result of the economic downturn of 1873. But in spite of the founding of the "Second German Empire" in 1871, following the Franco- Prussian War, and the boom this created in the unified Germany, 1882 saw the highest number of German immigrants in a single year, with over 250,000 registered arrivals. A million and a half departed from the Empire during the 1880s -- more than in any other decade before or after. Around 1900, however, the figures dropped to the level of the 1830s. A booming Imperial German industry was now able to provide jobs for the surplus rural population and for the craftsmen whose line of work had been taken over by machines. In fact, more people came to Germany during this period than left it; particularly Polish emigrants found work in the coal region of the Ruhr Valley.
After World War I, the age of unlimited European immigration to the United States came to an end. Newly-enacted immigration quota laws for the years 1924 and 1929 limited immigrants from the "Weimar Republic" to only 25,957 per year. Because of the world-wide economic crisis of the 1930s, this quota was never lifted, not even to rescue Jewish refugees from Nazi terror. For the entire decade of the 1930s, therefore, the statistics show only 119,107 legal immigrants from the German Reich -- among them thousands of intellectuals, writers, artists, actors and musicians, making this a real "brain drain" for Germany. After World War II, generous exceptions were made for "Displaced Persons," German war brides and others who could no longer envision a future in Europe. This amounted to a considerable number of postwar emigrants and brought about another "brain drain" of highly qualified persons during the 1950s and 60s. During these two decades, 786,000 Germans crossed the Atlantic to find a better standard of living and to experience the professional advancement they could not achieve in the hidebound structure of West German science and industry, prior to the sweeping cultural liberalization of the late 1960s.
[The twelve layers illustrate the composition of the annual immigration waves, not the actual numbers of immigrants. Clearly showing is the decline of the German share beginning in the 1950s, the first decade of West Germany's "economic miracle" of recovery after World War II.]
Concerning the number of return migrants -- those who abandoned America in disappointment -- there has been a great deal of speculation. But statistical evidence is unavailable, with the exception of a few regional and short-term investigations. According to rough estimates based on Hamburg ship rosters, the figures hover around 4.7% for return migrants in 1859 and up to nearly 50% for the recession year of 1875. The statistics are not reliable because the passenger lists do not distinguish between those who were traveling back and forth, such as businessmen, seasonal workers, traveling journeymen, short-term visitors, widows who were taking their fortunes to live out their days back in Germany, and the truly disappointed who were genuine return migrants. What is certain is that during periods of weakness in the American economy, many of the disillusioned returned to Germany.