German emigrants board a New York-bound steamer in Hamburg. Published in Harper’s Weekly, November 7, 1874.
Wikimeda Commons

IDEAS | TONY REHAGEN

My people didn’t integrate well into America. And they were German

‘OUR COUNTRY IS FULL.”

That was President Donald Trump throwing up the “No Vacancy” sign on the US via Twitter last Sunday, part of his ongoing mission to halt what he has previously referred to as “an invasion of drugs and criminals coming into our country” from Mexico.

Never mind that economists say that an aging population and slowing birth rates have actually left much of our country underpopulated, with plenty of room, and in many places a dire need, for an additional workforce. Trump is still powering forward to build his new barriers along the US-Mexico border.

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While the Wall itself is increasingly unpopular nationwide — 60 percent of Americans oppose construction of border walls, according to a recent Gallup poll — there is no question that Trump’s xenophobic message resonates with a significant number of people. A Fox News state-by-state analysis found that 50 percent or more of midterm voters supported the wall, not only in border area states like Arizona (50 percent) and Texas (55 percent), but also in places like North Dakota (55 percent), South Dakota (65 percent), and my home state of Missouri (55 percent).

I find these latter states’ anti-immigration stance particularly interesting not only because they are the very places that could use additional occupants, but because they all contain a significant population of people who, like myself, are descendants of German immigrants.

For years I’ve watched my neighbors, family, and fellow German-Americans nod with Trump’s xenophobic anti-immigration rhetoric, chanting “Build the Wall” along with his 2016 campaign run, promising that the shrewd New York real estate mogul would somehow even get Mexico to pay for it. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump infamously said while announcing his run for the presidency in 2015. “They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us.”

Even before Trump decried the Mexican invaders as “criminals,” “drug dealers,” and “rapists,” I remember as a youth hearing the stifled gripes of my kin, muttered through clenched teeth, about the freeloaders who somehow stole our jobs while simultaneously feeding on our hard-earned tax dollars at the government welfare trough. How dare they fly their flags and play their music here? And for God’s sake why can’t they learn English?!

The bigotry in those beliefs was self-evident from an early age. But the hypocrisy of that racism was harder to see.

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I grew up in a town of just 300 people, the same village where my father and his father and his father were born. All of the other family trees were just as deeply rooted in that mid-Missouri farmland, packed together so closely that the branches often intertwined. My schoolmates were almost all white, German, Catholic, and conservative. Our idea of “others” were Baptists and Democrats. We knew our German-American heritage, played in and around the beer garden in the town square, ate sauerkraut in the school cafeteria, and sang German verses to Christmas carols at the holidays. But we somehow forgot what it meant to be immigrants. We forgot that 100 years ago, we were the outsiders, the undesirables.

At the turn of the 20th century, speaking German, as many of our grandparents and great-grandparents did; drinking lager beer on Sundays, as was their custom; and even having a last name like Rehagen was enough to make one a target, either of political venom or worse. Our people came here looking for opportunity and freedom from political oppression, but by the time of World War I, German-Americans (including Trump’s own grandfather, Friedrich Trump, who had emigrated from Bavaria in 1885) were at best, “not the best people” from Germany — poor, unskilled, under-educated, and unwilling to assimilate. At worst, we were dangerous invaders and subversives, traitors to Uncle Sam and spies for the Hun. Across the country, but particularly in the Midwest, German-Americans were harassed, discriminated against, interred, and, in at least one instance even killed on the basis of their heritage, while politicians harnessed the hatred for political gain.

“Any man who carries a hyphen about with him,” said President Woodrow Wilson, trying to stifle antiwar sentiment in 1917, and referring specifically to the punctuation between German and American, “carries a dagger that he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic, when he gets ready.”

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I GREW UP in St. Elizabeth, Mo., pop. 339, one of a cluster of small villages dotting the Salem Plateau of the Ozarks in the south-central part of the state. The lush, thickly wooded hills, deep valleys, and winding creeks and rivers resembled parts of northwestern Germany, leading early European settlers to refer to the region as a new Rhineland, which attracted waves of German immigrants in the mid-19th Century. Among them was my great-great-great-grandfather Johann Jodocus Rehagen, who in December 1851, moved his family from the town of Sudhagen, Westfalen, then part of Prussia, boarded the ship Welker in Bremen, and set sail for America.

Johann’s nephew, Adolph Rehagen, would later get teased that he was technically English because his mother had given birth while their boat was in the English Channel. But to anyone who mattered, the Rehagens were just a few of the million or so refugees who came over in the 1850s seeking freedom from the monarchical oppression of the German states, like the Kingdom of Prussia. As a result, many of the Germans who came to America were liberals, opposing slavery, supporting women’s suffrage, founding labor unions, and eventually, in Wisconsin, even leading a successful socialist movement in the early 20th Century.

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When the Johann Rehagens came ashore at the Port of New Orleans on Jan, 28, 1852, they did so legally. All immigrants did. There were no federal laws regarding immigration until 1882, and even that statute only forbade a “convict, lunatic, idiot or any person unable to take care of himself without becoming a public charge.” (Chinese were also banned that year under a separate act.) In 1917, Congress enacted a literacy test, but settlers could pass in pretty much any language. Real restriction on US immigration wouldn’t come until the 1920s.

My ancestors eventually boated up the Mississippi River from New Orleans and worked their way into Missouri to join the 88,000 Germans who had landed there by 1860. About 50,000 of those stayed in St. Louis, but the rest settled in the new Rhineland. There, they set up small farming communities, built Catholic churches and biergartens, and raised large families. Unlike the neighborhoods of their urban cousins in St. Louis, these rural towns were isolated and largely homogenous. They were therefore insulated from the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant movements of Anglo “nativists” against Germans and Irish in cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. They also escaped the Protestant temperance activism, thinly veiled cultural warfare against all alcohol, particularly that consumed on Sunday, which just happened to be when Germans were accustomed to enjoying beer on their only day off work.

By the start of World War I, there were more than eight million German-Americans, almost nine percent of the overall population and the nation’s largest non-English-speaking group. Their roots had dug deep into American society where they owned homes, farms, and businesses — but they still ardently maintained their own culture. They sent their kids to German-language schools. They read one or more of the country’s 554 German-language newspapers. They opened and patronized bier halls and biergartens and breweries. The German-Americans were such a strong contingent, that they at least partially influenced President Wilson’s pledge of continued US neutrality in the war to ensure their support in the 1916 election.

After Wilson secured victory and marched the doughboys into the war against the Germans, however, he needed to silence his critics — and the flag-flying German-Americans were an easy mark. In many places, the German language was forbidden — whereas in 1915, 25 percent of American high school students studied German, by the end of the war, only 1 percent of schools taught the subject. The German-language media were censored. German books were banned. German-American organizations and businesses were targeted. Some German-Americans were interned by the US government under suspicion that they might undermine the war effort. Many more were dubbed “hyphenated Americans,” or the even more derogatory “Huns” — history’s notoriously savage invaders and pillagers.

In August 1918, German-American farmer John Meints was vaguely suspected of disloyalty and taken from his home in Luverne, Minn., then driven to the South Dakota border. There, masked locals whipped and tarred-and-feathered him, and forced him to cross the state line, warning that they’d hang him if he tried to return. Meints named 32 of the men in a lawsuit. They were acquitted, but Meints won on appeal and settled out of court in 1922.

US National Archives and Records Administration
In August 1918, amid anti-German sentiment during World War I, German-American farmer John Meints was taken from his home in Luverne, Minn., and driven to the South Dakota border where he was whipped and tarred-and-feathered by masked locals.

Robert Prager was not so lucky. The previous April, in Collinsville, Ill., just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, where I now live, Prager, a German immigrant and coal miner (and outspoken socialist), was lynched by a drunken mob that accused him of being a German spy. They stripped him naked, put a rope around his neck, wrapped him in an American flag, and paraded him through town to the hanging tree. The 11 men later charged with the murder were all acquitted.

IN MAY 2018, Trump’s then-chief of staff, John Kelly, put the White House’s attitude toward immigrants coming across the border in softer terms than did his boss. “The vast majority of the people moving illegally into the United States are not bad people,” Kelly said. “But they are also not people who would assimilate into the United States. They’re overwhelming rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don’t speak English. They don’t integrate well. They don’t have skills.”

My people didn’t integrate so well, either. While German-Americans in the cities during the anti-German hysteria of WWI changed their surnames to those more Anglo-sounding and stopped speaking the language in public or at all, today the St. Elizabeth church registry is still stacked with proud Oligschlaegers, Luetkemeyers, and Holtmeyers. Though my grandfather fought the Nazis in Europe in World War II, he never finished sixth grade — the norm for a generation of young men more needed on the farm and in the fields. It wasn’t until my father’s generation, more than a century removed from Johann Rehagen, that college was a possibility, much less the norm.

Meanwhile, the race for urban German-Americans to assimilate only accelerated after World War II. The German language all but disappeared in everyday life, the German-language newspapers folded, and perhaps more important, not wanting to appear seditious, the people abandoned their ancestors’ progressive ideology for quiet conservatism. Thus, with the help of our pale skin, we were gradually absorbed into the block of conservative “White America,” virtually indistinguishable from our former Anglo oppressors, at least as far as census takers and pollsters were concerned.

This shift eventually reached the rural German outposts. While I still sang German verses of traditional songs from the choir loft of our Catholic church and, as recently as Christmas 2017, the light-box letter sign outside the 100-year-old place of worship read “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night), remnants of our German heritage slowly faded away. The last names were still difficult to spell, let alone pronounce, but the traditional first names like Agathon, Kristoff, and (thankfully) Adolph were jettisoned in favor of Andy, Christopher, and Tony. Growing up, there was no question among my schoolmates that we were full-blooded and patriotic Americans. We pledged allegiance to the Stars and Stripes every morning before class. The only foreign language that was offered at St. Elizabeth High School was Spanish.

But we arrived at our conservatism by a different path from our city cousins: Not through fear, but through contentment stemming from the stability of our settlement. For generations, the family farms, small local businesses, and rural manufacturing jobs enabled our families to grow and prosper. Our American Dream was realized — all we had to do, it seemed in retrospect, was ditch the hyphen.

And so, over the past couple of decades, as small town life started to crumble, as Big Ag has shut out the family farm, big box stores have undercut small merchants and retailers, and outsourcing for cheaper labor gutted and shuttered the local factories, we needed someone to blame. Just as the Anglo establishment once scapegoated our ancestors for usurping their dreams, it was easy for us to point the finger at the new wave of immigrants from south of the border. And when in 2016, a man with German ancestry started speaking openly about the evil invaders, fomenting the racial resentment that was already bubbling beneath the surface in these embattled rural communities, our votes were all but assured.

Racism, it seems, was just another step toward becoming American.

US President Donald Trump tours the border wall between the United States and Mexico in Calexico, California, April 5, 2019. - President Donald Trump landed in California to view newly built fencing on the Mexican border, even as he retreated from a threat to shut the frontier over what he says is an out-of-control influx of migrants and drugs. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
President Trump toured newly built fencing on the Mexican border.
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images