No wonder I have been running into “Germanness” and Americans who proudly tell me of their German ancestors at almost every turn. I know the immigration history of the United States enough to remember that Germans came in large numbers in the 19th century for religious and political freedom, peace and work opportunities.
But the neat map above shows a nuance of the outcome of this history that I had not been aware of. Almost all of the Northern states have counties with large ethnic German groups. While having jumped between four states and one district in my almost eight years of living in the United States, they were all situated in the Northern half of the country (except for a couple of months living in Atlanta, GA). That is, they are covered in the bright orange blanket in the upper part of the map. German heritage everywhere! 46 million Americans claim German ancestry — making them the biggest ethnic group in the United States. It shows in names, in people’s stories, businesses, in small stores and tourist traps, where German references in image and text are often adjacent to Austrian and Swiss products and landscapes.
Americans are happy to point out to me their connections to Germany, often claiming that they are German, too! It is the most frequently used marker that people pin on me: the German one. My accent serves as a reminder to ask: “Where are you from?” My response usually goes one of two ways depending on my energy level on a given day to indulge in American-style excited small talk about superficial commonalities referring to Germany, or not. I either play along with a smile, succinctly explaining that yes, of course, Leipzig is near Berlin. Or I am bluntly shooting back saying that I do not know their (fill in the blank for town) in West Germany where their friend/great-grandmother/father was visiting/living/stationed. Exceptions of true interest beyond small talk exist but remain rare.
I know and feel my being German everyday. It is a huge part of me and will always be. But that does not mean that I am only German. I am also a reader of novels from all over the world, a professor, a hobby runner, an Arabic learner, (and I guess a blogger)…. You get the idea.
One of the luxuries of life is not to have to explain oneself. As an immigrant this becomes even more treasured. For one, the explanation load to new friends, acquaintances and colleagues with references to strange cultures, pasts, and childhood products, TV shows etc. from abroad is way higher than within a given country and/or culture and might remain incomprehensible to non-natives. Second, albeit well-meant, confusions with Austrian and Swiss vacation visits make small talk even weirder. Why would I know anything about Salzburg or Vienna? Even the otherwise smart Economist starts its article on the German silent minority with an example of an “Austrian chalet.” ???
Many Americans think they know Germany, and most of them only West Germany anyway, but they don’t. They only mangle, albeit mostly positive, stereotypes with re-hashed fourth-hand stories. Beer, cars, Autobahn, Bavaria, pork, engineers… I am sure you got some of your own. We all do.
But it is okay to not always know, to not always connect, to endure silence.
The German heritage might be very visible in the map as a yellow carpet of assumed familiarity but day-to-day encounters show that few Americans know anything about the real Germany, let alone the current and former East.
Perhaps German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the United States this February 9 will help. As an East German, childless woman with a Ph.D. in physics she is a quadruple anomaly in politics but a great symbol for Germany’s past and present. Surely some of that will find its way into the more observant U.S. news media, perhaps bringing some of Germany’s realities to the many Americans who like to fantasize about their ancestors’ homeland.