Searching for Hope: German Immigrants in the USA

America is well-known for being the destination point for thousands of immigrants from all over the world. Every ethnicity that entered the USA left its country searching for better living and working conditions. However, the immigrants faced many problems on their way to the new life. There were several waves of immigration, namely during the colonial era, in the period after the Civil War, and since the early 1940s. One of the largest ethnic groups that came to America is the German one. The German immigrants had many reasons for leaving their country: religious repression, unfavorable political and economic conditions, and a great desire to live independently and happily.

German people, who once made up their minds to leave the country of their origin for this or that reason, experienced a hard fate of immigrants. The first large group of immigrants from Germany came to America in 1683. It consisted of thirteen families, the members of which eventually found their own community and called it Germantown. Later Germans came searching for poverty-free and tolerant religious life or seeking relief from famine (Handlin, 1959, p.25). A great number of Germans entered the New World during colonial times. Starting from 1790, the immigration slowed and renewed only after the Napoleonic Wars. In the beginning of the19th century, the majority of immigrants were young males.

The second wave of immigration took place in 1850-1860. At this time, nearly one million Germans came to America and they were very active and enthusiastic writing letters to their relatives about the free society and fertile land. Such information, as well as the worsening situation in Germany, led to the arrival of more immigrants. The final peak of immigration was in 1880s, when the Catholics sought refuge from the cultural straggle, launched by Otto Van Bismarck. Between the 1890 and 1930 (not including the time of the World War I), many industrial workers came to the USA from Germany. Many people, who looked for better employment opportunities, left their families with the intention to return after a while. Thus, in three centuries, since the foundation of the first German settlement in America, seven-million German-speaking people entered the New World. Nowadays, they form the largest ethnic group in the American population as it numbers approximately 50 million people.

Germans, who left the country of their origin, had different motivations depending on the period of emigration and living conditions in Germany (Conzen, 1980, p.410).

Religiously motivated groups left Europe in the 18th-19th centuries as the environment was religiously intolerant, and there was no ability to live freely and independently following the chosen religion. Numerous Anabaptist and Pietistic groups left the country in order to evade the unification of the Lutheran churches in Prussia. In America, they managed to found communal societies. In the meanwhile, the number of migrating Catholics increased during Bismarck’s “Kulturkampf”, struggling against Catholic Church.

Speaking about political conditions that made people move to America it should be mentioned that this emigration began in 1830s when the liberals and democrats were persecuted by the reactionary forces (Kraus, 1966, p.16). Thousands of revolutionaries entered the USA after the fail of German Revolution. Numerous Social Democratic activists moved to America after the application of Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Law. Another wave of politically motivated emigration brought to America not only the opponents of the regime (Social Democrats in particular) but also the Jewish Germans and other Europeans, who were threatened with genocide and annihilation.

Economic conditions, namely the industrial changes, influenced emigration as well. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people left Germany seeking for the fertile land and better working opportunities. They left behind low wages and lack of employment. After 1815, Germany was supplied with cheap English goods and this led to the ruin of local artisans and businesses (Walker, 1964, p.2). For instance, the salary of weavers in 1817 cut down by half in comparison with the salary in 1815. Besides, there was an industrial revolution in the 50s-80s years of the 19th century.

In this way, people left Germany and moved to the United States because of many reasons during the colonial era and in the 19th century. According to existing figures, the number of German immigrants is very big. However, all the immigration groups faced many problems entering the USA, and the process they adhered in order to enter the country was very complicated.

The journey during colonial era was extremely uncomfortable. Sometimes it took more than six month. If the journey took place in winter it was so hard, that many people did not survive it. It happened because the quality of food was very poor. What is more, cheap ships were overcrowded and poorly ventilated. Besides, the passengers were not welcomed in the majority of ports, where they were robbed and battered. The situation changed with the advent of steamships in the end of the 19th century. Since that time, the trips from Europe became much shorter and safer.

The emigrants, who left Germany because of religious reformation in the end of the 19th century, or those, who sought for work, had to obtain a special emigration visa. For this, they had to provide marriage and baptismal certificates, evidence of a profession or trade and proof of the fulfilled military service for men (Taylor, 1972). Thus, the process of emigration was not easy and sometimes it prevented the immigrants from starting a new life. Sometimes the emigrants were provided with American maps, guides and lists of settlements in the USA, where they were going to stay for a long time.

The social composition of German immigrants was quite diverse. There were many peasants and farm workers. However, among the immigrants there were many skilled workers, who were quite important to the USA. The majority of German population was employed in industry and trade.

Germans in the USA were treated ambiguously. At first, the immigrants faced many problems like finding accommodation, getting job, and bridging language barrier. Without knowing English, it was very difficult to communicate with Americans and find a job. Some Americans felt that newcomers did not respect the mainstream culture and lifestyle and wanted to establish their own rules and worldview. Besides, there were some religious differences, which, however, became less distinct over the years. Later on, the situation changed. Generally, the attitude towards Germans became approving as they were praised for thrift, punctuality, temperance and other positive characteristics, which were considered important in American society. It is interesting that even the supporters of immigration restriction, who appeared in the end of 19th century, advocated Germans and their coming to the New World.

The beginning of the 20th century was favorable for the second generation of German-American ethnic group. These were people born in the United States and they were firmly assimilated. Precisely this very generation took part in the consolidation of German group. The children of German immigrants were increasingly becoming the officers and did a “clean” work. This change was caused by the fact that they were more educated and knew the English language better. It is clear, that a new environment influenced the consciousness of the German ethnic group greatly and thus people felt more free and independent. Many Germans took part in the creation of Republican Party and were active participants of the Civil War.

Nowadays, both Germany and the USA are highly developed countries, where people are independent and happy. The real number of German Americans is unknown, as some people had German grandparents while others know, that their relatives have German roots. Today, the descendants of Germans in the USA consider themselves “American” as they are accepted with respect and esteem. The present day American society is a multicultural one, and people of all ethnicities and races are treated equally. In this way, taking into account the fact that the immigrants felt better in the New World three centuries ago and that their descendants feel comfortable today, one may claim that the journey was worth all its challenges and problems.

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