The tendency of German immigrants to settle in close proximity to each other encouraged the continuation of familiar lifestyles. Significant problems of assimilation and adjustment were more easily solved when at least some behavioral patterns of everyday life could be retained, such as, shopping at a German baker or butcher, and enjoying a beer in a German tavern or beer garden. Likewise, if a German worked together with Yankees and other immigrants, he much preferred to spend his free time with his fellow countrymen. This resulted in enterprising German-language organizations that encompassed all aspects of life, extending from the singing society to the gymnastics club and all the way to the mutual aid society [early forms of mutual health and funeral insurance]. In colonial times already, especially in harbor cities such as Philadelphia and New York, well to-do Germans founded charitable institutions to better assist newcomers. In the middle of the nineteenth century, when the first wave of anti-immigrant Nativism hit, there was a lot of discussion, even among German-Americans themselves, concerning the positive and negative effects of the innumerable immigrant organizations that were operating at full tilt. Were they aiding or hindering integration? A well-articulated contribution to the debate was offered in 1857 by Atlantis, the top 1848er journal:
Singing societies, theater clubs, Free Mason lodges, political clubs of all parties, and other organizations are found wherever Germans live, even in the smaller cities. The cultivating effects these societies have, however, are more than dubious and, in general, the observation is valid that these clubs degenerate to the lowest possible levels of taste. They serve no other purpose than pleasure, by which, however, they hang onto their membership. Of course, many of these societies, especially the musical groups, are a means to greater fellowship and they do build bridges between Americans and Germans. The competitive singing festivals held in the East and the West are welcome opportunities for good fellowship. . . . The first attempt at building an organized network of clubs extending all across the Union was made by the Turner society, which from its earliest initiatives showed promise for outstanding results in social and political matters [Anonymous, "Das deutsche Leben in Amerika," Atlantis, Jan. 1857].
The value, especially of the Turner societies, for promoting interaction between German immigrants and English-speaking Americans, was articulated in 1886 by the Chicago-based socialist journal, Vorbote. The following editorial sharpens the debate over the admittance of English-language terminology for gymnastics training at the Boston Turner society:
English commands, which should be used alongside German commands only when necessary, bring American children onto the gymnastics field. Americans, teachers as well as others, can be won over to the cause of German gymnastics only if they understand fully what's going on. At any rate, the case for our German culture will be better served if we attract Americans to our side. On the gymnastics field we can acquaint them with our German customs and traditions and, of course, also with our language more successfully than if we hold them at bay because of our nationalistic tendency to live in our own enclaves. If gymnastics is such a good thing, then it is our civic duty to make it accessible to Americans as well" [Der Vorbote, July 7, 1886].
To what extent the Turner societies and other German-American social clubs actually became a venue for cultural exchange between Germans, Americans and other immigrant groups has not been thoroughly investigated. But if, for example, the history of the Deutsches Haus-Athenaeum in Indianapolis has any representational value for Turner clubs elsewhere, we may hypothesize that a good deal of interaction took place and continues to do so.Besides the numerous clubs and the mutual aid societies founded to meet the concrete needs and interests of members locally, the German-American National Alliance, a cultural-political umbrella organization, was founded in Philadelphia in 1900. It got underway at a time when German immigration had dropped to a sixty-year low. The task of the Alliance was "to arouse and promote feelings of unity within the people of German origin." It was also designed "to spark the inherent power of the German-Americans so that they would exert a healthy influence on, and an energetic defense of, such rightful wishes and interests as were neither in opposition to the common good of the country nor averse to the rights and duties of good citizens everywhere; to shield German-Americans against nativist attacks; and to foster good, friendly relations between America and the Fatherland."
The highest total membership the Alliance ever reported was three million in 1916. Although religious organizations tended to stay their distance, the at times vociferous National Alliance claimed to act as the "official" lobby of the German-Americans, however defined. As if reacting on instinct, the Alliance opposed the very notion of prohibition as well as all legislative attempts to enact it into law; it fought against immigration limits; and it encouraged legislation that would promote German language instruction in the public schools. At the same time, the Alliance encouraged the acquisition of American citizenship and along with that, at least indirectly, the learning of English and the study of the Immigration Commission's citizenship "catechism." Intellectually, however, Alliance leaders were not up to the challenge presented by the First World War. On the one hand they propounded arguments for neutrality to the Wilson government, and on the other they engaged in blatant pro-Kaiser propaganda. Near the end of the war, the Alliance lost even its social moorings, with the result that, following Congressional hearings concerning its possible un-American activities, it was disbanded by government fiat.
Founded in 1919 as a kind of replacement for the Alliance, the Steuben Society of America accepted into its membership only American citizens, used only English as its official language, and tried to distance itself from the former national organization that had fallen into disrepute for its "unpatriotic" stand on hyphenated Americanism. It took until 1958 before the new society initiated its now popular Steuben Parade in New York City, an event which since has become a well publicized annual festivity for German-Americans, including both local dignitaries as well as visitors from abroad. The Steuben Society's significance does not lie in the political arena. Its existence and its activities make sense rather as a symbolic statement, which holds true also for the varied small social clubs all across America. In other words, many Americans are proud of their German heritage and maintain memberships in a host of organizations that range from the traditional "Männerchor," "Liederkranz," the "Swabian Singing Society" and the "Brooklyn Schützen [sharpshooters] Choir" to the New York Hanseatic Club for businessmen. Made wise through unpleasant experiences in the past, the framers of constitutions and bylaws for these clubs usually exclude any and all party politics.
Many of the numerous local German-American clubs and societies, have long passed their 100th or even 125th anniversaries. But due to the near cessation of German immigration toward the end of the 20th century, most German-American organizations have difficulties recruiting the young for membership. The still growing interest in "roots," however, has led to the formation of regional German heritage societies where the emphasis is less on "Gemütlichkeit" and more on research and documentation. Heritage societies take the notion of "German" in its ethno-linguistic or cultural sense, which then includes the heritage of all Americans whose roots reach back into the German-speaking areas of Europe.
The period for politically significant public displays of Germanness ended for good with WW I and the exile of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918. The celebration of the Tricentennial of German Immigration in 1983 gave rebirth to "October 6" as German-American Day. It has taken its place among non-political festivities celebrated by ethnic groups across the United States. With good reason. There remains no trace of the politically-charged German Day which was celebrated in many cities from 1883 to 1933. Rivalries with other immigrant groups and the struggle to win respect from Yankees have long since passed into history.
Quite a different mood prevailed in 1849, when the first Sängerfest competition, held in Cincinnati, publicly championed the strength and vitality of the Germans, or even in 1900 in Brooklyn, when over 6,000 singers from 174 singing societies poured into the city for a Sängerfest lasting several days. In 1871, on the occasion of the peace treaty following the Franco-Prussian War and the founding of the German Empire, the intentions that lay behind the four-hour long parade of 100,000 people in Manhattan were undeniably political. Commanded by Civil War general and German-American hero, Franz Sigel, all groups marched proudly: singers, Turners, Schützenvereine [sharpshooters clubs], old veteran groups, militia units, secret societies, lodges, brewers , butchers and other trade union societies, charitable organizations, reform clubs, citizens' groups and school children. Large floats depicted among other themes and figures the "Watch on the Rhine," Gambrinus (the patron saint of beer), a full-scale brewery, a coal mine, the crown of Charlemagne positioned across the newly-united Germany, and a retinue including the Kaiser with his crown prince (and their escorts).
Festivals and parades that were occasioned by lesser historical events, but organized by an ethnic pride that has long since receded, were once perceived -- both within the group and beyond it by the general public -- as high points of ethnic array. The reasons for celebrating were quite varied. There were Schützenfests, Turnfests, Sängerfests, Carnival parades, May celebrations, Johannis festivals [St. John the Baptist Day coincides and is celebrated with the summer solstice] -- all part of the observance of annually repeated seasonal festivities. Fests that commemorated great Germans like Schiller or Humboldt, as well as the one-event commemorations such as the Peace Treaty of 1871 or the Bicentennial (1883) commemorating the first group arrival of German immigrants in Pennsylvania-all offered an opportunity to promenade the whole of German ethnic culture. Contemporaries got the impression of a continuous concatenation of German festivities:
The Germans in New York seem to be the most "advanced" pleasure-seeking people on earth. At any rate, they provide more folk festivals in the course of one year than take place in all the major cities of Europe in a whole decade. The good folk s of New York get to enjoy some kind of festival every single day, and for the most part they all attend. These festivals last one or several days -- sometimes an entire week -- and cost a great deal of time and money. . . . You cannot help but wonder where the thousands and thousands of working people who attend these festivals get the time and the money to pursue so many pleasures [Adolph Wiesner, Geist der Welt-Literatur,1860. See Conzen, in Werner Sollors, ed., Invention of Ethnicity (New York, 1989), 24' ff.].
Many simply indulged in "down-home" nostalgic feelings: "The German felt revitalized and stimulated. For a few days he was able to feast on the most wonderful memories of bygone happy days . . . and completely abandon himself to the reconciling magnetism of ennobling song" [Leipziger Illustrirte Zeitung (Aug. 5,1855),152. See Conzen, in Sollors (1989), 255]. Others saw additional benefits hoped for by the Organizers: "These festivals afforded Germans in the company of their fellow countrymen the opportunity to indulge in the old-time German style and therein acknowledge that their national traditions and moral fiber were valid even this far away from their original source." At the same time, the festivals afforded "the German element the opportunity to depict itself to Americans from its most positive angle; German skills, German strength, German education and German happy ways ought to enter the open marketplace of American business and civic activity, and thereby gradually raise them to a higher level of dedication" [Meyer's Monats-Hefte, 2 (Dec. 1883), 155. See Conzen, in Sollors (1989),255]. Likewise, the individual leisure-time behavior of the German-Americans -- the largest ethnic group in the country -- could hardly be kept secret. Sunday afternoons in particular could turn sour, since any German's innocent hike, if linked to a visit in a beer garden, bumped straight into the Puritan Yankee tradition of complete Sunday rest. In 1851 a German tourist found his countrymen's behavior somewhat offensive, especially on Sunday:
Then you have the opportunity to observe the sizable number of Germans in the larger cities. You meet crowds of them in the streets and in taverns; however, most are from the lower classes, while the upper-crust Germans choose either to stay at home or to head for their summer retreats out in the country. Working class and trade union Americans readily follow the example of the Germans in frequenting taverns, which greatly annoys the Puritans and most clergymen throughout America. In some German taverns in and around New York, the ones that are frequented by trade union and lower class workers, you even find Sunday afternoons filled with entertaining music under the pretext of being religious in nature. Some tavern keepers at times also try to offer dancing on Sunday afternoons, but the authorities usually catch up with them-which results in a fine for the tavern keeper [A. Kirsten, Skizen aus den Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, Leipzig, 1851, 315 ff.].
Attempts by Anglos to regulate the public consumption of alcohol led to social conflict again and again. It is a fact that the alcohol question repeatedly crystallized the ethnic consciousness of German-Americans. They always interpreted prohibition attempts on the part of temperance proponents as an attack on their German sense of freedom and their traditional way of spending leisure time. A Sunday fling to a beer garden in summer and an evening of gossip in the local bari -- in Milwaukee in 1860 there was allegedly one bar for every 30 households -- these traditions were defended as being part and parcel of German culture and of American civil rights. When limitations were placed on the sale of liquor across the bar on Sundays in Chicago in 1889 and when steep license fees won s upport in local elections, the Germans opened verbal barrages on the Sabbath idiocy of snoopy-nosed Yankee priests." The Illinois Staatszeitung [Sept. 9, 1889] mocked them: "Once that happens, once deadly boredom and pharisaical hypocrisy are trump, then Chicago will have become an authentic American city." Nevertheless, there were at this juncture more than 1,700 German taverns in Chicago, and in the red-light district the tavern and the beer garden were the most likely contact spots.
In all probability, very few of the contentious defenders of German-American "freedom" realized just how much or how little tolerance they themselves exhibited for cultural diversity -- although they took for granted as their God-given right that Anglo-Americans and other ethnic groups would show them tolerance.