In a recent interview, White House chief of staff John Kelly told NPR that undocumented immigrants are “not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society.” And he listed a few reasons why:
“They’re overwhelmingly rural people,” he said. “In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English … They don’t integrate well; they don’t have skills.”
Kelly was talking specifically about immigrants from Latin American countries. But a century before, this line of thinking was used against another group that didn’t seem to be able to “assimilate”: German Americans.
At the time, these roughly eight million Americans were the country’s largest non-English-speaking group. Many had come over in a migration wave in the late 19th century. Once here, they built restaurants and guesthouses that, in the German tradition, each had their own beer brewery. In 1910, the U.S. had 554 German-language newspapers, as well as German-language school systems that coexisted with English-language schools.
“By 1917 these immigrants who came to Cincinnati or St. Louis or Milwaukee or New York or Baltimore were fully integrated into American society,” says Richard E. Schade, a German studies professor at the University of Cincinnati. But when the U.S. entered World War I, these immigrants came up against a new “anti-German hysteria.”
Because Germany was one of America’s adversaries in the war, many Anglo-Americans began to fear that German Americans were still loyal to the Kaiser, or German emperor. Suddenly, German Americans became “hyphenated Americans” who suspiciously practiced their own traditions instead of “assimilating” into Anglo-American culture. As President Woodrow Wilson once admonished: “Any man who carries a hyphen about with him, carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready.”
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With the war, German Americans became a perceived security threat. They also got a new nickname.
“The number one American term for Germans in the first world war w[as] ‘the Huns,’” Schade says. “The Huns in the Middle Ages swept into the plains of what is now Russia and invaded Europe, and that term became associated with the Germans.” According to this stereotype, German Americans were “a race of barbaric raiders” who spoke a language other Americans couldn’t understand.
All of this anti-German sentiment did two things. First, it motivated Anglo-Americans to push back against anything German. States banned German-language schools and removed German books from libraries. Some German Americans were interned, and one German American man, who was also targeted for being socialist, was killed by a mob.
Secondly, in response to this, German Americans began intentionally “assimilating” to avoid becoming targets. They changed their names to English-sounding ones, renamed German streets, and began to speak German only in private. In public, they spoke English.
As a result, most Americans descended from German immigrants don’t speak the language or practice German cultural traditions (like beer after church on Sundays, which Anglo-protestants considered immoral). Rather, they have become part of the category of white Americans.
However, there are still some remnants of the time when millions of Americans spoke German. Kindergarten is a grade that English-language schools adopted from German ones (the word is German for “garden of children”). And in Cincinnati, where Schade lives, one former German American neighborhood is still known as “Over-the-Rhine”—a reference to the river that runs through western Germany.