Indianapolis is, along with Cincinnati, Louisville and Milwaukee, a city that attracted many German immigrants. Already in its early days, Indianapolis had a sizable German population. The census of 1850 lists 1,045 people of German ancestry or 12.9 percent of the population. According to the 1990 census, 140 years later, 175,101 persons were of German descent, 23.6 percent of the total population. As before, this is a highly diverse group, much less culturally monolithic than fellow Irish citizens. Since 19th-century Germany before its unification through Prussia's Otto von Bismarck in 1871 had only been a loose federation of provinces, dukedoms and kingdoms, German-speaking people identified themselves primarily with their home regions, e.g. as Bavarians, Swabians, or Saxons--all speaking different dialects. Completing the diversity is the variety of religious persuasions represented: Anabaptists, Catholics, traditional Protestant denominations (Evangelical, Lutheran, Reformed), American evangelical Protestant denominations (especially Methodist and Baptist), Jewish and, finally, the anti-cleric Freethinkers. Additional stratifications include period of immigration and socio-economic grouping.
There were those who held closely to the security of their churches and German-language services (kirchendeutsch), and those who felt most at home in one or more of the many societies, lodges and clubs they formed (vereinsdeutsch). All served to maintain German language and culture even through many generations. Indeed, they still to some extent fulfill that function. The current German-American scene has such societies as the Indianapolis Männerchor (longest extant men's choir in the US), the Sängerchor, the Liederkranz, Athenaeum Turners, South Side Turners, Association of Vegetable Gardners, German-American Klub and the Heimath-Preussen Verein. The many churches with German-American roots include Zion Evangelical United Church of Christ, where German-language services are still held for certain holidays, St. John's Lutheran Church, St. Mary's Catholic Church, and Sacred Heart Catholic Church, recently restored after a devastating fire.
After the attempt to establish a united and less autocratic Germany failed in 1848, many liberal-minded Germans brought their talents to the US and Indianapolis. August Hofmeister, Clemens Vonnegut and John Ott, all to become also prominent business leaders, founded the first Turnverein in 1851, which still exists as the Athenaeum Turners. A further indicator of vibrant culture was the many German-language publications appearing especially after 1848. The first in Indianapolis was Das Volksblatt established by Julius Boetticher in 1848. Die Freie Presse, a more progressive paper, was established by Theodore Hielscher in 1854. Over time, 26 German-language periodicals appeared in Indianapolis. The paper Telegraph-Tribüne had a circulation of 11,000 in 1910.
Germans took the business world of Indianapolis by storm. Clemens Vonnegut established a hardware business, August Schnull a wholesale grocery, John Ott a furniture business, C.F. Schmidt, Peter Lieber, and August Hook built breweries, Jon Rauch and George Meyer led in the wholesale tobacco business. By 1875 there were 91 German-American businesses in the three blocks on Washington Street between Illinois and Delaware. One of the state's largest insurance firms was the German Mutual Insurance Company. The Frenzel family controlled Merchant's National Bank.
German-Americans were progenitors of the arts in Indianapolis. Alexander Ernistinoff led both the Indianapolis Männerchor and the city's first orchestra. Hermann Lieber made it possible for artists of the "Hoosier Group", T.C. Steele, Otto Stark and others, to study in Munich and develop their ateliers in Indianapolis.
German-American architects are responsible for the design of many of the city's churches, public buildings and stately homes. Georg Schreiber designed the Scottish Rite Cathedral. Diedrich A. Bohlen's firm designed the City Market, Murat Temple, Roberts Park Methodist Church. Vonnegut & Bohn is responsible for the Athenaeum and the Herron School of Art (originally the Indianapolis Museum of Art). Bruno Schmitz of Berlin designed Indianapolis's Soldiers and Sailors Monument, the city's centerpiece and trademark. Rudolf Schwartz is responsible for the sculptures on the monument.
In the critical areas of education and social services, German-American citizens of Indianapolis established the German General Protestant Orphans Home (Pleasant Run), Deaconess Hospital and the Altenheim. Indianapolis's technical high schools were developed on the basis of the German Gewerbeschule. With good reason, the city's German-Americans saw themselves as one of the main pillars of American life in Indianapolis.
The Germans suffered three distinct blows to their prestige, their lifestyle and their fortunes: World War I and its propaganda war against all things German, Prohibition and its attempt to control people's personal and social life, and the Great Depression that devastated the economic life of broad groups of citizens. But, fortunately, in spite of the laws against German language teaching, press and way of life, people of German descent remain aware of their heritage in Indianapolis. This contributes greatly to the diversity of the city in its American context.