According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 46.5 million Americans claimed German ancestry, making Germans the largest nationality group in the United States.
There was no nation called Germany prior to 1871. The ancestors of today's German Americans who immigrated prior to 1871 came from nation-states in the German-speaking regions of Western Europe, such as Brandenburg (Prussia), Saxony, Hesse, Rhineland, and Bavaria.
The German states
Like the rest of Europe, the German states were shaken up in 1517, when German priest and scholar Martin Luther (1483–1546) challenged the Roman Catholic Church. Luther believed that people should follow the Bible, not the pope. His call for reform brought about the rise of Protestant churches throughout Europe. Religious conflicts brought war to the German states, but eventually each German state was allowed to choose its own religion.
Religious freedom in the sixteenth century resulted in the rise of new forms of Protestantism . Calvinism, the strict “puritanical” form of Protestantism established by Swiss theologian John Calvin (1509–1564) was very popular throughout the German states. Also popular were “plain churches,” which included the Anabaptists, Mennonites, Amish, German Brethren or Dunkards (so called for the way they baptized members by dunking them), and the Society of Friends, also called Quakers . All the plain church groups were nonviolent and believed that knowledge of God must come from within oneself. To them, the rituals of existing churches were a hindrance to true faith.
With more Protestants taking control over their own countries in the late sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic rulers armed for war. The Thirty Years’ War began in 1618, and by the time it ended an estimated one-third of the population of the German states had died. When a peace agreement finally ended the fighting, there were three hundred independent German states, many only the size of a small city. The small states were often unable to defend themselves. Fearing the ongoing violence and uncertainty, Germans began to emigrate.
Colonial immigration and the Pennsylvania Dutch
From sixty-five thousand to one hundred thousand German-speaking people made their way to the United States during the colonial era (before 1776). The first immigrants joined the Quakers in the British colony of Pennsylvania , which had been founded as a holy commonwealth characterized by peace, brotherly love, and religious toleration. In 1638, thirteen families, mostly Mennonites from the Rhineland, sailed for Philadelphia. There they established Germantown, where they built stone houses and a church and created a successful linen-weaving business. Other German families joined them, and soon Germantown was a community of three thousand people.
Germantown was just the beginning of the settlement of large portions of Pennsylvania by German-speaking people. The first settlers in Pennsylvania sent home glowing reports of the new colony, leading more people to make the journey. Pennsylvania's population was one-third German by the time of the American Revolution (1775–83).
The Germans in Pennsylvania have come to be known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Despite the name, they are not from the Netherlands. In the German language, the word for “German” is Deutsch (pronounced “doytch”), and other settlers probably mistook the German word for the English “Dutch.” Although many people associate the Pennsylvania Dutch with the Amish population, the term actually includes all German-speaking immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania.
Mass immigration begins
As industrialization began to change the economy in the German states in the early nineteenth century, many Germans were squeezed out of their traditional jobs as artisans and family farmers. A large-scale migration began in the 1830s, with Germans traveling to the United States in search of opportunities to farm or to ply their trades. The two peak decades for mass migration were the 1850s, when more than 950,000 German immigrants entered the United States, and the 1880s, when nearly 1.5 million Germans arrived. About three-fifths of the immigrants settled in rural areas to set up their own farms. The other two-fifths settled in the cities. Wherever they settled, they often established German-speaking communities, setting up their own churches, schools, newspapers, and other institutions, and keeping their culture alive in the New World.
One large group of German immigrants was known as the forty-eighters. These were rebels who had fought against tyrannical princes in various German states, hoping that the states could unite under one democratic, constitutional government. They set off a series of uprisings in 1848 but were defeated. Facing arrest, between four thousand and ten thousand disappointed forty-eighters immigrated to the United States. The forty-eighters were an elite group; many had been educated at the finest European universities and came from wealthy and powerful families.
The world wars
The German states, with the exception of Austria, were unified in 1871. Germany quickly became the strongest military, industrial, and economic power in Europe. In 1914, Germany and its allies went to war against the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and eventually the United States in what would come to be known as World War I (1914–18). When Germany was defeated in 1918, the reparations (payments for damages and war expenses) it was required to make financially devastated the nation. An economic crisis followed, and thousands of Germans left. Between 1919 and 1933, some 430,000 Germans immigrated to the United States.
By the time of World War I, German Americans had settled quietly into American life, often creating large German American communities or neighborhoods. With the start of the war, however, German Americans suddenly became the face of the enemy in the United States, and they suffered violent harassment. Many felt the need to change their names or otherwise hide their German background to avoid persecution.
When Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) came to power in Germany during the 1930s, another surge of intellectuals, many of them Jewish, fled to the United States. A total of 130,000 Germans immigrated between 1933 and 1945. During World War II (1939–45), the freedom and rights of thousands of German American citizens were restricted because of their ancestry. Still, German Americans made up one-third of the U.S. armed forces during the war.
Wartime hostilities toward German Americans passed quickly after the world wars. In any case, by that time most German Americans had taken steps to assimilate, or blend into the mainstream. German festivities and other elements of German culture remain popular, but the daily lives of most German Americans show few signs of distinct German heritage.