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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Nach Amerika: Die Geschichte der deutschen Auswanderung, by Bernd Brunner. Becksche Reihe.  Munich: Beck, 2009.  253 pp.  €12.95.


This is not a scholarly book, but a brief survey of the history of German immigration to the United States for the general reader. The author is known for his book Bears: A Brief History (Yale University Press, 2007) that was praised as “a little gem” by the New York Times in 2007. The first German-speaking group to come to America in 1683 were thirteen Quaker families from the city of Krefeld under the leadership of Franz Daniel Pastorius. They had been invited by William Penn and were the founders of Germantown in Pennsylvania. While 17th-century German immigration consisted mostly of Christian sects seeking freedom of religion, the motivation changed during the 18th century, when economic forces such as bad harvests, starvation, and lack of land became the prime reason. During the 19th century, it was politics that was the major factor of emigration: the failure of the 1848 revolution in Europe, the discrimination against Jews in many of the German principalities, and military conscription. By 1914, seven million Germans had left for the United States.

The author follows this chronology, including the history of German-speaking immigration after World Wars I and II, but he has also chapters that transcend the chronology, such as German perceptions of Americans and vice versa, immigrants and slavery, contact with other ethnic groups, and the growth and decline of the German language in the United States. A special chapter is devoted to the situation of German Jewish immigrants during the 19th century, but there is none for the 20th century. The mass exodus of 150,000 German-speaking Jews due to Nazi persecution is presented under the chapter heading of “The American Exile.” This title is misleading because they were immigrants and not exiles who wanted to return to Germany after World War II.

The statistics for German immigration during the 1950s were 580,000, for the 1960s 210,000, and for the 1970s 65,000. West German authorities have tried to combat the “brain drain” and persuade young scientists who immigrated to the U.S. to return.

The best chapters are on the early immigration, while the modern period shows some omissions and basic misunderstandings. The attraction of Hollywood before 1933 that brought Marlene Dietrich, Vicki Baum, and William Dieterle to California is not mentioned. Thomas Mann was not a representative of the “other Germany,” but insisted on the identity of the good and evil Germany in his speech on “Germany and the Germans” of 1945. And it was not Schoenberg’s employment by the University of California, Los Angeles that “saved” him from selling out to Hollywood, but a missed opportunity, when the composer requested absolute control over the score for the movie “The Good Earth.” The deportation of Japanese Americans on the West Coast into relocation camps was based on an executive order by President Roosevelt in 1942 and had nothing to do with the arrest of pro-Nazi sympathizers by the FBI and the Justice Department. Germans and Italians on the West Coast were exempted from the regulations of the executive order, but were subject to a curfew and travel restrictions.

One of the problems not addressed is the fact that there were a great number of German-speaking immigrants from states that were established after 1918, such as Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. Writers, actors, scriptwriters, directors, and producers, such as Fritz Lang, Peter Lorre, Salka Viertel, Franz Werfel, Billy Wilder, and Otto Preminger, came from these countries but were representatives of Weimar culture,.

As a final aspect the issue of the German-speaking immigrants as an “invisible minority” is discussed. The author traces their desire for accelerated integration to their status as former enemies of both World Wars and to their affinity to the Protestant work ethic of their American neighbors. The Holocaust is another factor that should have been considered.

There are eighteen short biographies of immigrants included, among them those of Wernher von Braun and Henry Kissinger, who make an odd couple in this context. The book has a bibliography and a useful list of internet addresses for further study, but no name index. The German-American Heritage Museum in Washington, D.C., founded in 2010, should be included in future editions.

Ehrhard Bahr

University of California, Los Angeles