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…..

Striving for high quality and excellence in education: The Frauentag Demonstrations in eastern Germany


Erfurt City Hall: The Starting Point for the Demonstrations

It was a perfect day out in the small market square called Fischmarkt (Fish Market) in Erfurt, the state capital of Thuringia in central Germany. All was quiet for the entire day- that was until 3:00 in the afternoon on the 6th of March, when the square was filled to the brim with people dressed in red and white, green and black, and neon yellow vests with a red, black and white warning sign that says Soziale Schieflage (Social Inequality) on the back. While there are many specialty restaurants and ice cream parlors surrounding the square, these people were not at Fischmarkt to eat and socialize. They were lining up in front of the historic Erfurt City Hall, a gothic style building dating back to the Renaissance Era, which lights up in shades of orange at night. And while they were celebrating International Women’s Day, honoring the millions of women in the world who contribute their time and energy in their work either in the public or private sector, the gathering went beyond honoring the women carrying the pink and red roses they received in their honor.

Soziale Schieflage (Social Inequality)
Flowers in their honor- Happy Frauentag, Ladies.

Oh no, this went well beyond that. On this day, at least 2,500 demonstrators gathered to march on the Staatskanzlei (State Chancellery Office) to demand better pay and working conditions. This not only consisted of those who teach at various education institutions, like the public schools and universities, but also those working in the forestry, police department, and other public works facilities. Every single union representing each sector was on hand to deliver one message to the politicians in Thuringia and all of Germany, which was “we want a pay increase of 3% plus an additional 50 Euros in our wallets,” and “we want unlimited contracts so that we can settle down in our jobs and not roam around like nomads,” and “we want to have a family friendly environment so that we can establish our existence,” and “we are not willing to go to the western part to work,” and lastly “we want to be paid just as much as our counterparts in the western parts of Germany!” The writing was on the wall, the sidewalks at the Staatskanzlei and Fischmarkt, and on the faces of many who were disgruntled that the debate over reforming the public sector and the pay has been dragging on for over four years and now the agreement must be settled before the end of the week at the absolute latest. Should it not be settled beforehand, it is possible that strikes could take place before the end of the month at the earliest, with the hardest hit area being the educational sectors, where the teachers could walk off the job, leaving the students without someone in front of the blackboard to teach.

The writing is on the sidewalk.

As the people march toward the Staatskanzlei to present the demands, one has to think of how well off Germany has been in terms of its economy in the past year and a half, with a growth in the gross domestic product of 2.3% for all of last year and the constant decline in the unemployment rate since Angela Merkel took over as chancellor in 2004- that is minus the slight decline during the financial crisis of 2008-09. Yet still, cuts in financial support for the public sector, including the universities, have been in the works for over a year, with the purpose of reducing the inflation rate to comply with the standards introduced by the European Union in 1999. This has sparked protests that have been ongoing since the middle of last year throughout all of Germany, including the state of Thuringia, where a massive protest involving over 7,000 students took place in November in Erfurt, demanding that the state not slash the budget by 20% and sack employees at the same time. While the budget cuts were passed anyway, the working conditions of those working in the public sector were now the top agenda for the following reasons: The workers were getting less pay, some sectors had to shed people (including the police force), universities are offering only limited contracts forcing many to emigrate to other regions should they run out, and the population is aging rapidly- the babyboomer generation is retiring, and there are not enough positions to fill due to poor pay in the eastern part in comparison with the western part. Furthermore, the distribution of wealth between the private and public sectors has been uneven for a long time, with the public sector receiving the lesser end of the stick. Henceforth, the march on the Staatskanzlei was deemed a necessity, in order to guarantee better pay and working conditions before the agreement on reforming the public sector is settled.

The percussion leading the way....

And as the Bonga, Conga, and Madal players lead the pack of demonstrators across the City Hall Bridge, one could also imagine what the situation would look like if Germany was like the United States at the moment, where talks of abolishing the collective bargaining deals with the unions in Wisconsin might play out throughout the rest of the country, and how students and pupils may suffer from it, if they have teachers, professors, and other lecturers standing in front of the classroom knowing that they are being paid less, having to use that money to pay for health insurance and other social expenses where it is automatically taken out and in a really small percentage of our paychecks in Germany, and knowing that their institutions are using teaching materials dating back to 20 years ago, as they cannot afford to buy up-to-date material- something that is unheard of in Germany and other places in Europe and the rest of the world. But yet the countries still look to the US as a role model for cutting back on the budget for the purpose of increasing consumption; something that is foreign to many who believe that this is short term thinking and would decrease their standard of living, something that is noticeable in the US no matter where you go.  Should these cuts continue, then there is a danger that only a small elite few will receive the education that is usually provided to everyone from kindergarten up until college, this leaving the rest to fend for themselves. Then there is the danger, which social padagogue Pestalozzi claimed that the uneducated will become beasts who cannot be controlled. Therefore, he claims that it is important to teach the children as early as possible so that they become civilized as adults. Apart from the basics (like reading, writing and mathematics), his includes the introduction of social sciences, as it is important to know about one’s country and background in order to know onesself better, and sciences to allow those who want to develop new products and scientific theories to do so.  The question is how effective are these cuts? According to scholars and writers, like Fareed Zakaria, they do nothing but hinder the success of the countries in comparison to those, like the ones in Scandinavia Southeast Asia and the Benelux Region who have ranked in the top ten for the past decade. As for the US and the rest, they’re slipping to the 15-25th ranking in sciences, mathematics, reading, writing and humanities. With this danger, the question is whether this concept is efficient or should a person look at other alternatives? In the eyes of the demonstrators, scholars, students, and teachers, those who demand a higher quality of education and something in return for what they are providing to those wanting to learn something interesting and important, this cost cutting concept is not working.

Crossing the City Hall Bridge enroute to the Staatskanzlei

As the protesters finally arrived at the Thuringian Staatskanzlei, located about a kilometer from the starting point of the demonstration at Fischmarkt, the number of demonstrators picked up and the motivation grew as they demanded an explanation from the politicians and the state employers of why they cannot get a 3% increase in their salary plus additional money to deal with the increasing costs, while at the same time the economy is expanding and businesses are hiring people. But unlike the November demonstrations in front of the state parliament building south of the train station, no politician came to answer the questions that were posed by the union leaders, let alone listen to the demands and the reasons for them. Were they away on business or were they unwilling to listen? One may never know. But one fact is for sure and that is the longer the state ignores the pleas of those working in the public sector, the more voices demaning change will grow until the demands are met. This is the mentality that has worked well with unionized workers in many sectors, including the locomotive drivers who went on strike many times for higher incomes, and actually received at least a lion’s share of the demands by the German Railways and other private railway companies. Can this work for the public sector and especially in the education sector, as the students need some stability in a teacher who stays for longer than two years and is paid just as much as his counterpart in the western part? The question will be answered in the coming days, as union leaders and the state will sit down and come up with a good bargain that everyone will be happy with. At the moment, there is an impasse, but it cannot last forever.

Thuringian Staatskanzlei
The demonstrators listen as the union leaders speak

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Thuringia was not the only state that took to the streets to protest for equal and better pay plus better working conditions. On this day, almost all of the eastern states- Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, Brandenburg, and Mecklenburg-Pommerania experienced similar demonstrations in their capitals (Dresden, Magdeburg, Potsdam, and Rostock) but in the tens of thousands. In Dreden alone, over 20,000- mostly educators on all levels- marched onto the capital complex and protested all afternoon, effectively shutting down schools for the day. At the present time, negotiations between the finance minister of Lower Saxony and chief negotiator of the public sector of Germany Hartmut Möllring and the labor unions representing the education sector, public service (police, street maintenance, forest service, etc.), the public health sector, the finance sectors, and other institutions belonging to the public sector. The hardest hit areas are in the public health and education sectors due to the aging population and lack of opportunities for the younger generations because of poor pay. Both sides claim that the offers brought to the table are unrealistic, however Möllring believes that a compromise can be brought up before the debate comes to a close.

INTERESTING FACT I: The Public Sector, consisting of over 4.5 million state-owned employees, is the largest employer in Germany and covers the above mentioned sectors. This includes those working at Germany’s 370 universities, 9 of them are located in Thuringia.  The debate over unequal pay between the west and east has been a key issue since German reunification in 1990 as workers in the eastern part are being paid less than their western counterparts. Furthermore, the demand for structural reforms in the pay system has been on the table as well, as many claim that the old system, which the east adopted from the west is outdated.  The plan is to equal the pay between west and east and modernize the system so that everyone has the right to work in the public sector and stay there for a longer period of time because of improved working conditions.

INTERESTING FACT II: In connection with the budget cuts and the need to disable and even eliminate unions, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker wants to eliminate collective bargaining between the public sector and the employees and labor unions in order save money. The state, like almost every state in the union has a budget deficit in the billions of dollars. This has prompted Democratic senators, opposed to voting on the bill, to flee the state in exile, as the Republicans have the majority of the state congress (House of Representatives and the Senate). This has effectively and perpetually delayed any attempts to vote on the measure, which some fear will result in the union being disbanded and the public sector doing with the employees what they please, which would include eliminating health care benefits, pay cuts, and even layoffs. The governor has threatened massive layoffs in the public sector, should the Democrats not return to the capital to vote on the measure, and the people- many of whom have been protesting in the hundreds of thousands outside the state capital building in Madison- are getting the ball rolling for recall elections of many Republican politicians and even the governor. Other states, including California, are watching this closely as they might mull this possibility to trim their debts as well. Germany has not gone that far, but anything is possible in the world of free enterprise and consumption at the expense of some of the basics we need in order to function as a society: education, health and human services, and all means to provide care and safety for the public.

TO BE CONTINUED…..

Links:

http://www.mdr.de/mdr-info/8319911.html (Info in German only)

http://www.thueringer-allgemeine.de/startseite/detail/-/specific/Lehrer-demonstrieren-in-Erfurt-Bessere-Bezahlung-gefordert-1076764199 (Video clip)

http://minnesota.publicradio.org/features/npr.php?id=134340952 (Links to Scott Walker’s plan is also here)