In the early 20th century, German Americans remained the largest immigrant group, as well as one of the most highly regarded. Thus the vicious nativist attack on the loyalty of German Americans that emerged before and during World War I was particularly remarkable. Germans had followed a successful assimilation strategy through which they sought to become “American” in politics while remaining “German” in culture. This relative acceptance, however, may have contributed to the problem. Because they saw themselves not as strangers but as full members of the American polity, German Americans responded to the war initially by lobbying strongly to influence American foreign policy in ways favorable to Germany. When the German government began submarine warfare, resulting in American deaths, even German Americans joined in questioning the behavior, if not the loyalty, of their fellow immigrants. In 1916, Reinhold Niebuhr, a German American and young theologian (who later became famous), wrote an article in Atlantic Monthly in which he argued that German Americans were themselves responsible for the “lack of esteem” in which they were currently held by other Americans.
Among the influence which the war in Europe has exerted on our own national life, none is more important than its effect on the immigrant groups which comprise so large a part of our population. Their sympathies for the respective countries of their birth or races of their blood have given new vigor to their racial consciousness. Their partisanship in the European conflict has made compact racial groups out of hitherto partially assimilated racial elements of our citizenry. Having believed ourselves to be one people, cemented by a common love of our nation and bound by the power of new ideals and liberties, we suddenly find ourselves broken into racial groups whose old-world loyalties seem more powerful than their new allegiance. We have found, to our sorrow, that our melting-pot has not been able to undo in decades what the processes of centuries had wrought on the hard metal of racial consciousness. The result is that America is facing the problem of the “hyphen.” . . .
With this problem on our hands, it is natural that larger alien groups should engage our particular attention, and that their doubtful loyalty, or divided allegiance, should especially arouse our indignation. No group is larger than that of the German-Americans, and those which are as large have the advantage of a closer relationship with us in language and customs. The result is that the problem of the “hyphen” has centered in German-Americanism. . . .
Whether the resentment that has been aroused against German-Americanism has been justified or not, the attention which it has gained has been inevitable. Having become a more or less tangible entity among the elements of our national life, it invites examination of its characteristics, if it does not justify criticism.
Such an examination must cover not only the present activities and tendencies of German-Americanism but its attitude toward American affairs and problems in the past. History ought to have a voice in determining whether present accusations of disloyalty are justified or not.
In one respect, at least, history offers no justification for these accusations. When the nation demanded definite services in the crucial periods of its history, no criticism of the conduct of German-Americans seems possible. Their loyalty to the nation was sincere and their service unstinting. They fought bravely in all of our great wars. Their deeds of heroism are conspicuous in our history. Such men as Von Steuben and Carl Schurz have a prominent and honorable place in the annals of our country. Germans have pointed with pride to these achievements in order to disprove the charges of disloyalty now made against them.
However a nation needs and demands the loyalty of its citizens, not only when its existence is at stake or when its claims upon their allegiance are put with particular force by the crises of physical combat. In times of peace also it requires their loyalty—their loyalty to its ideals, and their allegiance to the principles upon which it has been founded. Of the immigrant it is entitled to expect that he will place the virtues and powers with which his particular race has endowed him in the service of the ideals that animate the people with whom he has allied himself.
The German-American appears to have failed to meet either side of this obligation. He has been too often not only indifferent to our ideals but untrue to the virtues of his race. This is a charge that can easily be made against any immigrant; but since no immigrant came to our shores more richly endowed with the characteristics of a unique civilization than the German immigrant the charge seems to be particularly applicable to him.
The German-American has made contributions to our national life, but they have been economic rather than spiritual. He has served the body of our nation well, but his contribution to its soul-life seems to have been inadequate. In developing our national resources, particularly the agricultural resources of the Middle West, the German-American has had no inconspicuous part. His thrift and industry are proverbial, and these virtues were employed to good advantage upon our countrysides and prairies. The industry of the German immigrant converted our prairies into fruitful fields; his thrift contributed to the prosperity of the nation which established his own. By virtue of his prosperity and affluence, and by virtue also of his well-known qualities of dependability and prudence, he has become a potent influence in the communities in which he had been placed. Where the interests of the nation and his own interest were identical, the German-American can has served the interest of the nation well.
But, unhappily, the interests of the nation are not always identical with those of the individual. They often require sacrifices on the part of the individual, and they always demand large social sympathies. In these qualities the German-American seems to be deficient. His virtues seem to be individualistic rather than social. He has unwittingly served the nation through his qualities of prudence and thrift, but he has been rather indifferent to the problems of the nation that did not directly affect him. He has manifested no great interest in a single one of the great moral, political, or religious questions that have agitated the minds of the American people in late years. His failure to do so is all the more striking because he comes from a country where interest in community welfare on the part of the individual has reached its highest development. This indifference toward our national ideals and problems was vaguely felt by the American people even before the outbreak of this war. Perhaps it is the reason why German-Americanism had only to manifest itself as a definite element, to arouse the resentment of the American people. They had not known it to be hostile to our ideals, but they had felt it to be indifferent to our problems. The German-American had poorly fortified himself by solid achievement against the day when his loyalty would be, justly or unjustly, questioned.
In the first place, German-Americanism has manifested a lack of interest in our political problems. German-Americans have played no prominent role in our political struggles. The Irish-American element, for instance, has been a far more potent factor in our political history. This does not mean that German-Americans ought to have acted as a racial group in our political struggles. Their purpose to do so now is one of the causes of hostility toward them. America wanted no political activity from them of a factional and selfish character, but it might have expected them to dedicate their knowledge of European affairs to the service of this nation. The most enthusiastic champion of our democracy is willing to admit that we have not yet achieved an ideal democracy. We have, to mention one weakness, paid a very high price in efficiency for the liberties which we possess. This weakness, among others, we have been ambitious to overcome. Might we not well have expected that the German-American, coming as he does from a country that has achieved so extraordinary a degree of efficiency in domestic administrative measures, would be helpful to us in our attempts to develop such efficiency, particularly in our municipal governments? But the German-American seems to have taken no interest in these problems. He has not been conspicuous, at any rate, in any political tendencies, connected with this or any other problem. He has manifested an ordinary interest in political question in common with the average American citizen, but he had gained no distinction in the espousal of any particular cause, or in devotion to any special ideal.
In the social development of the nation and in the agitation of social questions the German-American has been equally inconspicuous. . . . Perhaps the fact that he has been engaged in agricultural rather than in industrial pursuits is an additional cause for his indifference to our social problems, which have so largely centered in our industrial and commercial life. At any rate, he has shown this indifference—and that in spite of the fact that he comes from a country that has been a clinic for the world in the methods of humanizing industry. While America has freely borrowed from Germany in workmen’s compensation and insurance legislation and other kindred measures, the German-American did not turn a hand to facilitate this importation. The Jew has been far more potent factor in modern social tendencies than the German-American.
This failure of German-Americanism is doubly censurable because it has been, not only an indifference to our own national problems, but an indifference to, and an ignorance of, the very tendencies which have received their completest development in the country of the German-American’s birth.
In the development of the religious life of this nation the German-American has manifested an even more regrettable aloofness. Christianity has, without doubt, received a unique development in this country. Conditions have been particularly favorable for the solution of some of the old, vexing problems of Christendom. The problem of denominationalism is one of these. Nowhere in the world have different denominations and sects had such large opportunities to come in close contact with each other as in this country. Here they are all represented, and the spirit of fraternity, so dependent upon the consciousness of equality, is not jeopardized by special government privileges to some. This condition encourages them to emphasize those points of doctrine and polity on which they can agree and to minimize the points which still separate them. The result is that a spirit of fraternity has developed here which bids fair to culminate, at some time, into an organic and vital interdenominationalism.
In this development the German-American church has had no part. Among strongly denominational churches it takes first rank. It has maintained a studied, and sometimes a hostile, aloofness toward all interdenominational movements. Not even the more liberal of the German-American churches have entered very heartily into Christian fellowship with other churches. . . .
One other characteristic of organized German-Americanism deserves special mention. It is its opposition to all temperance reforms. If there is any activity which German-Americanism has undertaken as a unit, and which has brought it as a body to the attention of the American people, it is this opposition to the temperance movement, particularly the prohibition movement, in America. If German-Americanism was discredited in any way even before this war, it was because of its attitude upon this question. Next to the interests directly affected, German-Americanism has been the strongest opponent of prohibition in this country. The German press is particularly unanimously opposed to any and every kind of prohibition, and the German pulpit has given the opposition a less unanimous but even more effective support. Resentment against this attitude has grown with the phenomenal increase in prohibition sentiment among the American people.
The prohibition movement has come to express the most enlightened conscience of the American people. It has the practically unanimous support of the churches and is being championed with increasing vigor by the press. It is natural that opposition to a movement that has the support of the intelligent public opinion of our country should cause resentment, especially when it comes from a group of otherwise respected and respectable citizens. . . .
Whatever may be the cause of the failure of German-Americanism, its failure is obvious. And this failure may be a contributory cause not only of the lack of esteem in which German-Americanism is now held in this country but also of the lack of understanding between Germany and this nation. This want of understanding may be only very indirectly responsible for the present ill feeling between the two countries. This seems rather to be due to more specific historical incidents. But the position of German-Americanism in this country would have been fortified against suspicions of disloyalty, and its defense of the German cause would have been more convincing and effective had it been less indifferent to the ideals and principles of this nation and more true to its own.
Source: Reinhold Niebuhr “The Failure of German-Americanism,” Atlantic Monthly 118 (1916): 13–18.