In School in Germany: Immigration

Here’s a question for all teachers in the German school system and social studies/ history  teachers in the American schools:  How much do you teach your pupils about the history of immigrants- in particular, German immigrants?  How do you approach this topic in terms of teaching method, focusing on a time period in history as well as garnering interest in the topic? And lastly, how much information do/can you provide to your group?

As you recalled a couple articles ago, I presented you with some questions about this particular topic for you to answer, to challenge yourself and learn a couple new items that you have never heard about before.  But this article is about German immigration in general and how important it is that this topic is integrated into the learning curriculum.

Many years ago, I visited Ellis Island, during my 1.5 week stay in New York City, to learn more about this topic and how Germans represented one of the majorities of the population that moved to the new world. Part of this had to do with the fact that my mother’s family is primarily German, originating from Schleswig-Holstein (and in particular, Stein near Kiel, according to genealogy research). Also important was the fact that prior to my trip, I had discovered,  in my parents’ garage, a trunk and on it, the maiden name of my mom’s ancestors that had immigrated to the United States in 1898 and eventually settled down on a farm south of Ellsworth, at  the Minnesota-Iowa border. This sparked my interest in knowing more about how Germans immigrated to the US, the reasons behind their strive towards something new and how they survived over there (and are still prospering today).

Ellis Island. Both photos taken by boat in 1997

The immigration wave of the Germans started in the 1840s before the Great Revolution of 1848. At that time, much of Europe, which featured the Habsburgs (The Austro-Hungarian Empire), Prussia, Russia and France had their own set of oligarchs who favored the church and the powerful over the common people. With violent clashes over food and poverty, plus the strive to put an end to this type of rule in favor of democracy, many of the immigrants boarded ships bound for the States and after several stops along the way, settled down in regions in today’s Rust Belt (the former steel regions extending from Illinois to Pennsylvania), as well as parts of the Midwest, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota. Much of their traditions, including their food, such as the hamburger and sauerkraut, the German language and its usage in literature and books, and even the villages were named after those from Prussia and Habsburg. Over 400 villages and towns were created with German city names, like Frankfort, Hamburg, Hannover, Berlin, and the like. Even some of the smaller towns in Germany had their names incorporated in the US, such as Flensburg, Schleswig, Lubeck, Kiel, Weimar, Jena and Trier. There was even the city of Bismarck, the capital of North Dakota that was named after Otto von Bismarck, the founding father of Germany, which was established in 1871. German culture prospered until World War I when President Wilson declared war on Germany in 1917 after a telegram was intercepted promising Mexico portions of Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California if it entered World War I against the US.  For a period of three years, German culture was suppressed in a way that all traditions and even the usage of the language was prohibited.  Literary works by Schiller and Goethe were banned. The hamburger was renamed Liberty Steak; the sauerkraut, Liberty Cabbage. The Germans were perceived as evil in the eyes of many other immigrants, including the Italians, Irishmen and Russians, and conflicts broke out as a result.

After the war was over and the Versailles Treaty was signed, immigration to the US was limited because of the Red Scare- the Communist movement that had plagued Europe and parts of the US since the Bolshevist Revolution of 1917. Germans tried to escape the misery their country was facing, first through the hyperinflation during the Weimar Republic and later with the rise of Adolph Hitler but were faced with limitations both internally as well as externally. It would not be until after the second World War when the gates were reopened wide and many who wanted to leave and had the resources did.

Today, traces of German culture can be found in the US through foreign languages in public schools, the foods which have become somewhat commercialized, like the beer and hamburger, and the communities that still bear the German names. Some festivals can still be found in those communities, like the Oktoberfest in New Ulm in Minnesota.  Yet do we talk much about immigration in the schools?  Sadly, I have to say no.

Why?

We seem to have drifted away from topics like this one because of the strive to streamline education at the expense of the most important ones, like history, culture and politics. Foreign languages have also taken a hit, as schools in the United States are focusing solely on Spanish while leaving the rest behind- something that is angering the neighbors to the north, Canada, where French is the official second language behind English. While business and technology are two important elements needed to get a well-paying job, other aspects, like the ones mentioned, are just as important for they provide students with an insight to other countries and their culture and history.  Looking at it from a historian’s point of view, taking these humanity aspects seriously can enable the student to learn about him/herself and the surroundings and identify him/herself based on their own family history and how it contributed to the history of their countries.
Yet even when we discuss about humanities, like history and culture, in schools, we seem to have left out the meat of the topics for discussion. Reason for that are the limitations with regards to the subjects to be taught for certain grades- both in Germany, as well as in the USA. The time constraints regarding how and when to teach these subjects have forced many teachers to prioritize which subjects are important and which ones should be left out. Unfortunately, those that are left out are usually not taught unless in academia, if at all.

Immigration is one of those aspects that should be brought to the table at an early stage. There are many reasons for this argument, but I will mention only two, as they are the most important in my opinion. The first is immigration is like a bridge, connecting one’s old home with their new home. People who immigrated to other countries collected many impressions and stories to share with their relatives and friends back home. Many of these impressions and stories deal with comparisons between their new home and their old one, as well as suggestions as to how to improve their old region. While some of the immigrants returned to their old homelands, some remained in their new homelands forever, creating families of their own.  In the case of German immigration, it is typical to find many German families settling in clusters in either a community or region. An example of which can be found in an article written in 2010 about New Trier in Minnesota, which you can click here.

The second argument behind teaching immigration in school is because it played a key role in the development of the countries the immigrants originated from and the countries where they eventually settled down.  In the case of Germany, the emigration of Germans from Prussia and Habsburg resulted in the need to reform the countries respectively, unfortunately through the usage of violence, as was seen in the Revolution of 1848. Eventually the situation stabilized with the creation of a German state in 1871, which provided the solidarity and sound structure of a democratic state many people had envisioned two decades before but were realized by Bismarck.  In the case of German immigrants in the US, their  previous experiences before immigrating over, combined with their innovation and thinking has helped shape the US as it is today.  It is not hard to find Germans in America, who had made a difference, whether it was Henry Kissinger’s role as Secretary of State under Nixon and how the US scaled back on its mission of containment and opened their doors to relations with Russia and China, or John Roebling and his design of the wire suspension bridge, a few examples of which still exist today. Kissinger originated from Fürth (north of Nuremberg) in Bavaria, while Roebling emigrated to Pennsylvania from Mühlhausen in Thuringia and established the town of Saxonburg.

How the topic should be taught in the classroom is fully up to the teacher, but some of the small aspects mentioned here will help students know about the importance of immigration, even more so when it is discussed in the classroom in schools in Europe, and in this case, Germany.  This is where the article ends with a small anecdote: Ignore the smallest details and you will ignore the most relevant. Give them something small to think about and it will make a big difference as far as learning is concerned.

And now, some interesting Flensburg Files’ Fast Facts, which you will find in the next article…..

New Trier, Minnesota

St. Mary’s Church in New Trier- Photo taken in December 2010

Coming back to the tourism scene and the coverage on German-named towns in Minnesota, we will take a look at the next town on tour, which is located near Hastings and Faribault. Albeit a really small town with a population of roughly 120 inhabitants, it is one of the oldest existing towns in the state and has a history that is enriched with triumph and tragedy. This village is called New Trier.

Named after the city located along the Mosel River on the border to Luxembourg, the settlement of New Trier started in the mid-1850s, with records dating as far back as 1855, when immigrants from the western part of Prussia and Luxembourg found a plot in the northeastern part of present-day Dakota County. Most of them had fled the region in Europe for it was besieged by warfare between Prussia and France, including the 30-Year War and the Revolution of 1848. Some of them actually originated from Trier, which was ransacked at least a dozen times by three different empires (France, Spain, and Poland) until the French finally conquered the city during the Revolution of 1794. Prussia later recaptured the city in 1815, while chasing Napoleon’s troops over the Mosel and back into France.

Most of the settlers in New Trier had once lived in Washington County; especially in Stillwater. However after months of earning money for hard labor in the industries they worked, they eventually found plots of land and incorporated the village. The majority of families living in New Trier today have ancestors who helped incorporate the village, including Schaffer, Gores, Landsberger, Siebenaler, Kranz, Moes, Doffing, Tix, Thien, Riplinger and Schweizer, just to name a few. Some of them contributed a great deal to the community in a certain way. For example, the Gores and Siebenalers were known assisting or even leading the congregation in the church, while the Schaffer clan was known for carpentry and masonry work, which was started by John A. Schaffer in 1855, mainly because his farm was located next to the quarry. Some of the members of the Kranz family would eventually establish the present-day town of Kranzburg in eastern South Dakota. Another interesting fact worth noting about New Trier is the fact that the decision to name the village did not take place until the middle of 1856, for there was a division between those who wanted to have the village named (New) Luxemburg and those who wanted it named New Trier. Finally the decision was made in favor of New Trier on 15 May, 1856 by the first pastor of the church, George Keller. This was important for not only did the church needed to be built later that year, but the community itself needed an identity that would satisfy everyone. Surprisingly, a Luxemburg was eventually established later on as a settlement in Stearns County in central Minnesota, only 10 miles from present-day St. Cloud.  More information on its origin will appear in the column on that particular town.

The St. Mary’s Catholic Church, which is the main landmark anchoring New Trier, has been with this town almost since the time it was incorporated. The first church, built in 1856,  consisted of a log cabin. However, as the population grew, a larger church was needed, and it was subsequentially built in 1862. The third church followed in 1864 built mostly of stone brought in from the quarry. The rectory was added a year later. Both the second and third churches were in use until they were taken down in favor of a new church in 1909. Using quarry rock from the Kettle River region in northeastern Minnesota, and at a cost of $40,000, the new church was dedicated in 1912 and has been serving the community ever since. The majority of New Trier (about 90% of the population) are Catholic, which explains the fact that the  regions where their ancestors came from are predominantly Catholic; especially in Trier and Luxembourg, where the Holy Roman Empire dominated the area. The cathedrals and relicts from that period still exist in these two cities. St. Mary’s Church is the tallest building in New Trier, and one can see its steeple standing high in the sky when driving towards town on the main highway.

Despite the fact that New Trier was dependent on agriculture and it had its typical businesses, like the mercantile store and the saloons,  the biggest thorn in the city’s side was the fact that it was never serviced by a rail line during the period of railroad expansion between 1870 and 1915.  In fact, the nearest railroad lines ran east of town near Red Wing and to the west of town going past neighboring Hampton and heading towards Northfield and Faribault. The result of this was stagnation, both in population as well as commerce. Fortunately to this day, the city is served by it main highway, MN highway 50 between Red Wing and Hampton, which has helped businesses thrive in New Trier. Agriculture and commerce is still dominant in town.  It has two bar and restaurants- Trophy House and Dan’s Bar and Grill- as well as other businesses selling implements and providing services for farming.

While the population has decreased from an all-time high of about 220 in the census of 1873 to about 120 as of present, the heritage of New Trier still lives on to this day. Apart from the Catholic Church, one can see some of the relicts today, as a reminder of the town’s past. This includes a water tower built on a concrete cylinder foundation built around 1900, many houses dating as far back as the late 1800s including one just off Hwy. 50 that was built using the Schaffer quarry stone, and a small fire hall located across from the Trophy House. Some of the unique features you will find in New Trier include a dart throwing league, where the teams of the Trophy House and Dan’s Bar and Grill compete once a week with other teams from neighboring towns.  There is also the Euchre card game league, where Euchre is a rare card game but one which you can try yourself after clicking onto the link at the end of this column.  But the town also has a new tradition, which can serve as a remedy against cabin fever in the winter time, and that is the Schneetag festival. Created in 2005 by five women, the festival takes place every year in February, consisting of an outdoor softball tournament, a card tournament, and other unique events that draw a huge crowd to this one-day festival annually.

But apart from all the places and events that make New Trier unique, what especially stands out the most are the fourth and fifth generations of the original settlers and their families that still reside in and around the community and make up the majority of the population. Like their forefathers, they have maintained their traditions and contributed a great deal to the survival of New Trier, making it a unique little German town for people to visit and even live there.

This leads to the question of whether other communities originally settled by German immigrants have kept up the tradition that was either adopted from their former homeland or introduced at the time of their establishment, or if changing trends and other external influences have resulted in the loss of its original identity and its eventual integration into the American landscape.  According to research conducted by two professors at the University of Kiel (in northern Germany) back in the 1970s, it was revealed that despite the establishment of their community and their way of life as well as adopting the name from their German community they had once live in, most of these communities had lost their identities by the first half of the 20th century, resulting in the village just having the name but not having the typical resemblance.  We’ve already seen Bergen adopting to the changing environment while losing its identity despite being a farming community, but we have also seen a resistance to change and the fight to keep the identity, like with New Trier. What about the other German communities in Minnesota? Or in the USA in general?

Link to Euchre: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euchre

Additional Reading Source: Brown, Patricia  (ed.)  ” The Church of St. Mary’s  New Trier, Minnesota: 1856-2006″ Hastings, Minnesota: Graphic Publishing, 2006

One of the original houses in New Trier made of stone- Photo taken in December 2010
New Trier Fire Hall- Photo taken in December 2010
New Trier Water Tower- Photo taken in December 2010
Trophy House: One of two bar and restaurants serving New Trier- Photo taken in December 2010