The German Americans

The term "German-American" refers to immigrants from German-speaking areas and their descendants, even if they did not come from territories within the boundaries of a current map. Many areas of Europe that were formerly German-speaking, now lie behind political boundaries outside of Germany--for example, Alsace-Lorraine is now a part of France; the northern reaches of Schleswig-Holstein are in Denmark; parts of East Prussia are in Lithuania and Russia; West Prussia, Posen, Silesia, and Pomerania are in Poland. Germany's current eastern boundary corresponds roughly to the one of the Holy Roman Empire in the 10th century.

In the narrow political sense, the term "German-American" can refer to emigrants from Germany and its given geographical area in a specific historical period. However, political boundaries change. Elsass was called Alsace when it became French in the 17th century. It became German again in 1871, French again in 1919, German again in 1940, French again in 1945. Therefore, an American whose ancestors arrived in 1869 might be classified Franco-American, even though his ancestors spoke predominantly German; a post-1871 arrival from the same area was then classified German-American.

Taken in the broad ethno-linguistic and cultural sense, German-Americans also include immigrants--and their offspring--from Austria and South Tyrol, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, Germans from Russia and the Balkan countries, and Jewish-German immigrants. In earlier centuries most of these areas were within the boundaries of "Germany."

Before the "homogenizing" processes of the 20th century (mobility, media), there were many more distinct differences in how people live in the various German-speaking regions. It was often possible to tell where someone ame from by observing how he or she was dressed. And there were--and still are--numerous regional customs and traditions. Despite the regional characteristics, many sociologists consider the German-speaking regions of Europe to be a "cultural nation" (Kulturnation), because a large number of shared cultural traditions and values have provided German-speaking regions a sense of affinity.

The term German-American actually was not used universally among the earliest immigrants from the German-speaking territories. When asked where they came from, immigrants in the 17th century and 18th centuries were likely to describe themselves as Palatines, Swabians, Badeners, etc. It is unclear just when the term German-American came into widespread use. It was commonly heard, however, by the time emigration from German-speaking areas picked up steam in the middle of the 19th century.

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Updated: 17 November 2007, BAS
Comments to: IUPUI Max Kade German-American Center,
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