These twin powerhouses of North America and Europe have not always been seen as natural partners (being on opposite sides of both World Wars will do that to public perception) – and if images of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel glowering at each other at the most recent G7 summit are anything to go by, you might assume that relations between the two countries at the highest administrative levels are currently at an unlovely ebb.
But to look at the Berlin–Washington DC love-match through the fractured lenses of the 20th century and current political turbulence is to overlook the 19th century – and the German role in carving a new nation on the far flank of the Atlantic. As the freshly forged US distanced itself from its roots as a British colony, striding into its future as an industrial behemoth, so it attracted waves of immigrants from Hamburg, Heidelberg, Hanover, Halle, and other German cities not starting with the letter H.
This was not unusual – the adolescent US drew plenty of its lifeblood from Europe. But the German diaspora left a particular imprint, influencing the language, culture and diet of the fledgling nation – particularly in the north-east and the Midwest, where the connection remains to such an extent that today (October 6) is German-American Day.
Nor is this a small matter. German-American Day is an official holiday, enshrined in US law (as Pub.L. 100–104, 101 Stat. 721), which dates back almost 350 years – indeed, far further back into the past than the population booms in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the 1850s.
It pins its tail to 1683 – the year when 13 families from Krefeld (in what is now North Rhine-Westphalia) arrived in Philadelphia. The home they created for themselves was the first German settlement in the New World. It started a trend that is still clear on the map, although the link has not always been celebrated. “German Day” came into being on October 6 1883, on the 200th anniversary of first footfall – but would drop out of favour as the First World War (in particular) fomented anti-German sentiment in cities that had once held their folklore close.
It was not until 1983, and the 300th anniversary, that the day was formally revived. It was signed into statute by President Reagan in 1987, in a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.
If you are reading this in Europe, it is obviously too late to mark German-American Day in situ in 2018. But if you want to trace this often overlooked friendship between these sometimes star-crossed nations – and the way it shaped the larger of the two – then you might want to wander in the direction of the following bootprints on US soil.
It is no coincidence that the foundation date for Germantown coincides with German-American Day. The creation of what is now a district on the north-west side of Philadelphia, on October 6 1683, was the very spark from which America’s German tradition came ablaze. It was a distinct town – initially of German Quaker and Mennonite families – for almost two centuries, before it was swallowed by the city on its doorstep in 1854. But it is still easy to tell the area apart from the wider sprawl of Pennsylvania’s biggest metropolis. Colonial Germantown is marked as a “National Historic Landmark District” – thanks to buildings like the Mehl House, which dates to 1744, and the Mennonite Meetinghouse, which traces its story to 1770. The latter is a reminder of the religious conviction which defined the area in its earliest decades. The Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, issued in 1688 on the basis of biblical teaching, was an emancipation protest over a century before Abraham Lincoln’s birth.
The tide of American development in the 19th century saw the new nation stretch west, and quickly – and German settlers played a key role in that. Their legacy is writ large across the third biggest city in what is now the state of Ohio. Cincinnati boomed in the second half of the 19th century thanks to German immigration – the main result being Over The Rhine (OTR), a distinct district, due north of modern-day Downtown, that has ridden the storm of city’s last 200 years. It swelled from the 1850s onwards, and underscored its ties to the mother country by spawning an impressive brewing industry, the smell of fermenting hops filling its streets. It would be brought low by twin malign forces. The First World War (1914-1918) stripped it of much of its identity, streets with Germanic names being rechristened to remove their association with the enemy; Prohibition (1920-1933), which eviscerated its beer trade. But after a 20th century of poverty and urban decline, OTR is a brightening symbol of renewal, full of new restaurants and bars – and, in the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company, an echo of old times in cavernous new premises (christianmoerlein.com). That aroma of hops is back.
Four hundred miles north-west of Cincinnati, Milwaukee tells a similar story on the west shore of Lake Michigan. What is the largest city in Wisconsin owes its size, in part, to a similar mid-19th century surge of German incomers. Many – known as “Forty-Eighters” – came in the wake of the revolutions which wracked Europe in 1848. One of them, Carl Christian Schurz, who later became a high-ranking Republican politician, would later explain why he came to Milwaukee in 1854, saying that “so far as I know, nowhere did their [Forty-Eighters] influence so quickly impress itself upon the whole social atmosphere as in the ‘German Athens of America’, as Milwaukee was called at the time.” Like Cincinnati, it would also gain a thirst that it has never really quenched. The Old German Beer Hall is a Midwestern take on the iconic Hofbräuhaus in Munich (oldgermanbeerhall.com) – while the avenue on which it sits, North Old World Third Street, is alive with bars which keep the party going late into the evening.
More information: visitmilwaukee.org
In truth, there are very few international communities not represented somewhere in New York, so it should be no shock that the Big Apple offers the grandest take on a specific German-American tradition. Von Steuben Day is another US holiday, held on the weekend date closest to September 17, the day Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben – a Prussian who fought alongside George Washington in the American War of Independence – was born in 1730. Festivities swirl around parades, pageantry and music, and are held in cities including Philadelphia and Chicago (the parade gatecrashed by Matthew Broderick’s titular character in classic 1986 high-school comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Chicago’s Von Steuben Day parade). But New York does it with the most glitzy flourish – on Fifth Avenue and in Central Park.
More information: nycgo.com
There is no doubting the parentage of this town in central Michigan – its name alone gives it away. It was settled in 1845 by emigres (largely) from Bavaria – and has held onto its heritage to such an extent that “Little Bavaria” has become its nickname. Its architecture pays tribute to the prettiness of Munich, all long sloping rooves and Alpine whimsy. Its Historical Museum (frankenmuthmuseum.org) relates the back-story in detail, while Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland – reputedly the largest festive shop in the world (bronners.com) – gives off a year-round Christmas-market vibe. In truth, Frankenmuth is not a place you might visit as a tourist unless you are heading for Michigan’s wild and wonderful Upper Peninsula on a road trip – but should you be going north on such a journey, you might find that you route also takes you through Frankenlust – 25 miles north-west of this mini Munich – which has the same genealogy.
More information: michigan.org