Lesson 13 Table of Contents Lesson 15

L e s s o n 14


1. Key personalities

Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778-1852). German founder of the Turner (gymnast) movement. He considered physical fitness and patriotism to be prerequisites for Germany's liberation from Napoleon's rule. In the reactioary period from 1815 to 1848 the movement was suppressed in Germany but flourished in the free political atmosphere liberal exiles found in the U.S.

Charles Follen (1795-1840). A liberal reformer who was forced to leave Germany on account of his outspoken political views. Follen taught German at Harvard but was dismissed on account of his abolitionist activities. He was an early promoter of the Turner movement in America.

Francis Lieber (1800-1872). A native of Berlin, where he studied gymnastics under "Turnvater" Jahn. Coming to America as a political exile in 1827, Lieber played an important role in transmitting the Turner movement to the U.S. He was the founder of the Encyclopedia Americana and gained respect as one of the great legal minds of the 19th century.

2. Main trends

German immigrants who formed ethnic enclaves in American cities were quick to establish German-language clubs (Vereins) and associations of various orientations, all according to the satirical formula, "One German, one Verein; two Germans, two Vereins; three Germans, three Vereins..." Such German-American voluntary associations are somewhat less popular today than they were a century ago, but they continue to be an obvious indicator of the need for continuity of ethnic identity. Some associations, such as German Masonic lodges, are not unlike their counterparts in the English-speaking community. There were also some distinctly German lodge organizations, such as the Harugari, but these appear to have lost popularity. The Schlaraffia is an international social organization whose members are "knights" dedicated to maintain a quaint and witty German in prose and verse. In large cities like New York and Chicago there are still numerous German clubs and associations. The total number for the U.S. may well exceed 1,200. The German-language papers keep people advised of their activities.

An important type of German-American association is the one in which membership is primarily based on regional origin or dialect. 3 For example, the Danube Swabians (Donauschwaben), i.e. Germans from the Balkan region, have a national organization with groups in many U.S. cities.

The Turnvereins, which spread to all major cities after 1850, have played a key role in pioneering physical education. In addition to providing athletic facilities and organizing gymnastic competitions, the Turners have always had an important social function. In some Turner halls, such as the ones in Milwaukee, in the Yorkville section of New York, and in Indianapolis, there is a restaurant or "Rathskeller." The clubhouse may also have a "Biergarten" and a ballroom and an auditorium for lectures, concerts and theatrical productions. And it may provide a venue for classes where the children and adults can learn German.

At one time there were close ties between the Socialist Party and some Turner groups, but this is no longer the case. The national Turnfests before World War I were major events in the respective cities. With immigration from German-speaking countries being at an all-time post-war low, in many if not most German-American Vereins, the primary language is no longer German but English.

In many American cities the Germans established music societies and choral groups. Some of these, like the Arion Club in New York, have become nationally famous. In some cases such groups formed the nucleus of a civic music association and ultimately lost their originally ethnic character. In many cities there were workers' choral associations which were typically linked to the Socialist movement. There have been a number of national and regional associations of choral groups. Regional festivals and visits between choral societies in the U.S. and Europe have long provided an opportunity for recreation and social contact. Like the Turnfests, the "Saengerfests" of the North American Singers Union were, and still are, grand occasions not only for German- Americans but for all citizens.

There are numerous organizations that are not primarily made up of immigrants but by their descendants interested in their ethnic heritage. The largest such organization is the Germans from Russia Heritage Society with national headquarters in Bismarck, ND. The German-Texan Heritage Society, the Indiana German Heritage Society, and the Kentuckiana German Heritage Society are similar organizations. They promote studies in local and regional ethnic history and folklore, help preserve historic landmarks, encourage cultural exchange and sister cities relationships with German-speaking countries, and assist members and others in genealogical research.

The German-American National Congress is a protective membership organization which promotes close relations with German-speaking countries and attempts to represent the interests of the German- Americans and their heritage. In recent years it has taken the lead in promoting the observance of German-American Day, 6 October, in communities around the country. It has its prototype in the German Society of Pennsylvania, an organization founded in Philadelphia during the 18th century to protect the interests of German immigrants, particularly indentured servants.

Partly because there was no clear distinction between church and state in 19th-century Germany and Austria, resulting in an often politically repressive alliance between crown and altar, the radical democrats of the era were often quite vocal in their opposition to the established churches. Most Turner organizations were in this camp. One reflection of this trend was the establishment of "free congregations" and other free-thought groups (Freidenker) in many German ethnic enclaves of the period. They have now dwindled in importance.

3. Suggested further reading

Mary Jane Corry. "The Role of German Singing Societies in Nineteenth-Century America," 155-168, in E. Allen McCormick, ed., Germans in America: Aspects of German-American Relations in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Brooklyn College Press, 1983.

Henry Metzner. A Brief History of the American Turnerbund. Pittsburgh: National Executive Committee of the American Turnerbund, 1924 (available in reprints).

Albert Post. Popular Free-thought in America, 1825-1850. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1943.

Horst Ueberhorst. Turner unterm Sternenbanner. Munich: Heinz Moos Verlag, 1978 (out of print).

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Created: 4 August 1998, SEL
Updated: 17 November 2007, BAS
Comments to: Eberhard Reichmann, reichman@ucs.indiana.edu
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