Backbone

In his 1936 book Unser Amerika Ross professes to have believed for decades that the USA was an Anglo-Saxon country whose “negligible” German element would disappear from memory as soon as immigration stopped. From there he builds up his case that under this Anglo-Saxon surface German-speaking immigrants have actually left deep and lasting traces. The book’s reviewer merely provides a laudatory summary.

What apparently caused Ross’s turnabout is his assertion that immigration’s cessation had led to a focus on national origins instead of adapting to an American, i.e. Anglo-Saxon, model. In typical Ross fashion the only evidence he presents for this focus is that mixed marriages occur less than is assumed—no reliable statistics, only an unexplicated norm as an imaginary benchmark. Nor does he explain the term “mixed marriage”. And although it is unknown to what extent it concerned Americans of German descent, Ross was writing when an 1883 ruling that “upheld  a state’s right  to  ban  interracial marriages” still obtained (in fact, it did until 1967), during which time dozens of states forbade miscegenation.1 Furthermore, insofar as the restrictions on immigration refer to the 1921 Emergency Quota Act, which set quotas at three percent of Europeans censused in 1920, and the stricter 1924 Immigration Act, which “set quotas at 2 percent of each nationality residing in the United States in 1890”,2 by design this will not have seriously affected the immigration of Germans (and other so-called white nationalities). German-speaking immigrants started arriving in America in greater numbers many decades before 1890, while their share fell from all-time high of c. 250,000 a year in the early 1880s to less than c. 50,000 a year since the late 1890s.3

Another argument for the claim that German-speaking immigrants had retained their Volkstum is undercut in later chapters of this book, where Ross relates the state-sanctioned discrimination, occasioned by America’s entry into World War I, against German Americans, both citizens and non-citizens, through the Espionage, Trading with the Enemy, and Sedition Acts, and the curtailments of civil rights. This excessive, often violent backlash, compounded by self-appointed ‘patriotic’ committees, largely ended the widespread culture of German clubs and associations as well as the use of the German language in street and place names, in print, on the pulpit, and temporarily even in everyday conversation (e.g. “liberty burger” instead of “hamburger”).4 This “‘Versailles’ for German-Americans” led Ross to believe that German Americans will form the backbone of America’s new order, following the example of Hitler Germany. Fellow travel writer Alfons Paquet, in the referenced review of the book, welcomed this point of view, calling it “polemical” and a “history (...) of known and newly-discovered facts”.

But no backbone was formed, let alone a new order. Whether or not he reasoned against better judgment, Ross’s rhetoric rested on another false assumption, copied by the book’s reviewer: the coherence of America’s ethnically defined demographic sections, in which German and Anglo-Saxon Americans in particular were pitted against each other. What thus faded into the background was Ross’s earlier—although equally generalizing—statement that America’s inhabitants of German-speaking descent did not stop the US government from declaring war on Germany in 1917, or from abominating national socialist Germany now.5 On a more general level, both author and reviewer ignored the regional, political, religious, and class diversity hidden behind the term German American and the extent and degree of German Americans’ integration, as well as, of course, the way these diversities were represented in their own and other media.6

Nico de Klerk








Alfons Paquet. German America. Unser Amerika by Colin Ross. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus. 1937. In: The Living Age. 1937 May; 352: 274.


Topic: Auslandsdeutsche
Case: American journeys




Footnotes

1 Reynolds Farley. Racial issues: recent trends in residential patterns and intermarriage. In: Neil J. Smelser, Jeffrey C. Alexander editors. Diversity and its discontents: cultural conflict and common ground in contemporary American society. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 1999; 107. Cross-sectional data show that before World War II only “American Indians are distinguished by their high rate of out-marriage”; see ibid.; 108.

2 Mary Beth Norton, David M. Katzman, David W. Blight et al. A people and a nation: a history of the United States vol. 2: since 1865. 6th edn. Boston – New York: Houghton Mifflin; 2001 [1982]; 680. Aristide R. Zolberg. A nation by design: immigration policy in the fashioning of America. New York – Cambridge, MA - London: Russell Sage Foundation – Harvard University Press; 2006; 243-270. Vincent J. Cannato. American passage: the history of Ellis Island. New York: Harper Perennial; 2010 [2009]; 330-349. See also: An Act to limit the immigration of aliens into the United States, May 19, 1921. In: The statutes at large of the United States of America from April, 1921, to March, 1923. Washington, D.C.: Congress under the direction of the Secretary of State; 1923; 5-7, www.constitution.org/uslaw/sal/042_statutes_at_large.pdf. An act to limit the immigration of aliens into the United States and for other purposes, May 26, 1924. In: The statutes at large of the United States States of America from December, 1923, to March, 1925. Washington, D.C.: Congress under the direction of the Secretary of State; 1925; 153-169, www.constitution.org/uslaw/sal/043_statutes_at_large.pdf.

3 Zolberg. 2006; 243; 467.

4 Colin Ross. Unser Amerika. Der deutsche Anteil an den Vereinigten Staaten. 1. Aufl. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus; 1936; 257. See Library.

5 Ibid.; 22.

6 Katja Wüstenbecker. Deutsch-Amerikaner im Ersten Weltkrieg. US-Politik und nationale Identitäten im Mittleren Westen. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner; 2007; 51-118.

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