Encyclopedia of New York City


German immigrants were present in New Amsterdam during its earliest years of settlement. Peter Minuit, who established the colony in 1626, was himself a native of the German town of Wesel am Rhein. Among those who followed him were Johann Ernst Gutwasser, the settlement's first Lutheran minister (1656-59), and the merchant Jacob Leisler, who arrived in 1660. In 1710 about 150 of the nearly 2150 Palatine Germans who fled to America during the War of the Spanish Succession settled in the city; one of those who stayed was the young John Peter Zenger, who later became well known as a printer and publisher. By the time of the census of 1790 Germans numbered about 2500, and there were two German Lutheran churches as well as a German Reformed church, a Moravian church, and a German Society. The first German neighborhood and commercial center in New York City took shape during the 1820s southeast of City Hall, in the area extending from Pearl Street to Pine Street.

By 1840 more than 24,000 Germans lived in the city, and in the following twenty years the mass transatlantic migration brought another hundred thousand Germans fleeing land shortages, unemployment, famine, and political and religious oppression (more than one million other Germans passed through the city). To accommodate this growth a new and much larger German neighborhood developed in the 1940s east of the Bowery and north of Division Street in the tenth and seventeenth wards. It extended to within sight of the East River along Avenue D in the eleventh ward and reached the river in the thirteenth. Known variously as Kleindeutschland, Dutchtown, Little Germany, and Deutschlandle, the neighborhood was the major German-American center in the United States for the rest of the century, with more than a third of the city's German-American residents. Other German-American neighborhoods took form directly across the East River in Williamsburg (connected to Kleindeutschland by ferries at Houston Street and Grand Street) and across the Hudson in Hoboken, New Jersey. In 1860 Germans in New York City numbered more than two hundred thousand, accounting for one quarter of the city's total population, and made up the first large immigrant community in American history that spoke a foreign language. Natural increase and the arrival of seventy thousand immigrants who were politically and economically dislocated by the coalescing German Empire expanded the city's German population to more than 370,000 by 1880 (about one third of the city's total). New German settlements were established in Yorkville around 3rd Avenue and 86th Street and across the East River in Queens, where Steinway and Sons built a piano factory and company town in the 1870s. The southern part of Kleindeutschland, which had older buildings and was more crowded, was abandoned to more recent Jewish immigrants from central Europe by the 1880s and became known as the Lower East Side.

Germans were more religiously diverse than most immigrant groups. The early German settlers, who were predominately Calvinists, were later joined by Lutherans and in the nineteenth century by Catholics from southwestern Germany. Catholics and Jews formed their own subcommunities within the city's German neighborhoods. Adherents of free thought, an outgrowth of the German Enlightenment, ranged from crusading atheists to members of small congregations with beliefs similar to those of Unitarians; freethinkers had their own churches, Sunday schools, "anti-revivals," and holidays, and were well known for the social events they organized for nonreligious Germans in New York City. Germans were also active in the New York Society for Ethical Culture, formed in 1876 by Felix Adler, which continued the German tradition of free thought into the 1990s. Religious intolerance was strong among the city's German Protestants during the 1840s and 1850s, when some of them joined American nativist movements that agitated against immigrants and Catholics. Some German-American Catholics were equally fervent, denouncing Luther and the Protestant "heresy" on the four hundredth anniversary of his birth (1883). The struggle between the German Reformation and Counter-Reformation was however less intense in New York City than in Germany, because of the secularism of the city's artisans, intellectuals, and merchants. Many of the more religiously inclined Germans either fled the city for the churches of Brooklyn or headed for more congenial settlements in the Midwest. This secularism also tended to mute anti-Semitism among Germans: although some Germans in Brooklyn attacked a Jewish funeral procession in 1849, other recorded instances of anti-Semitism in New York City were rare until the 1930s. German Jews were in fact integrated into German society on all social levels, from the criminal gangs to the leadership of the German Society, and from the labor movement to the financial Žlite.

Particularism rather than religion was a source of division. Those who emigrated from the fragmenting German states during the mid nineteenth century often arrived in the city with little sense of belonging to a German nation. Differences in dialect, politics, cuisine, and other aspects of regional culture left many unable to identify with immigrants who were from other parts of Germany. Kleindeutschland was broken up into smaller neighborhoods of Swabians, Bavarians, Hessians, Westphalians, Hanoverians, and Prussians, and immigrants generally married within them. Voluntary associations were often organized around home-town loyalties, sometimes unintentionally but in most cases purposefully (as Landsmannschaften). In 1862 the Swabians held a regional festival known as the CannstŠtter Volksfestverein, an event that gave rise to other ethnic institutions such as a weekly newspaper in the Swabian dialect and Volksfestvereine organized by Bavarians (1874), Plattdeutschen (1875), and even Liechtensteiners. These regionally based networks promoted ethnic identities that competed with a larger German-American identity well into the 1920s.

Regional ties were the basis of many associations, but they could not account for the multitude of businesses, sickness- and death-benefit societies, social clubs, political organizations, and other groups that formed when Germans banded together. Fraternal orders such as the Freemasons, the Druids, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the Foresters, and the Redmen were joined by German-American orders like the Hermannssšhne, the Harugari, the Vereinigte Deutscher Bruder, and B'nai B'rith. By the early 1870s the Harugari alone had sixty-two lodges with almost seven thousand members in the metropolitan area. Among the most conspicuous German associations in New York City were singing societies, which held concerts and sponsored large choral festivals. The Deutscher Liederkranz and the Arion Gesangverein became Žlite clubs after the Civil War; other German choral groups continued to be identified with middle- and working-class Germans in the city. German musicians predominated in the New York Philharmonic and provided it with most of its directors, including Leopold Damrosch, an early director of the Arion Gesangverein. Damrosch soon founded the Oratorio Society, became the director of the Philharmonic, and rescued the failing Metropolitan Opera by introducing a full season of German repertory. Under the direction of his son Walter Damrosch and the management of Heinrich Conried, the Metropolitan was built into one of the world's great opera companies, with a staple of German operas and a largely German audience. Many of the cultural organizations received support from German businessmen, notably Otto H. Kahn, one of the leading philanthropists of the period.

The large influx of German immigrants to the city led to the establishment of many breweries. George Ehret, a German immigrant who opened the Hell Gate brewery in 1866, was the largest brewer in the United States in 1879; the eighth-largest was Jacob Ruppert, also of New York City. In 1877 Manhattan had seventy-eight breweries and Brooklyn had forty-three. Germans in New York City often congregated at beer halls, beer gardens, saloons, and other places where beer was sold. Some of the halls had stages where German theater was performed, and many had meeting rooms that were used by singing societies, lodges, clubs, unions, and political organizations. The large and often elaborately decorated German beer halls were the pride of the German neighborhoods. When the city grew too hot for indoor entertainment during the summer, many Germans enjoyed picnics and festivals near Hoboken, New Jersey, and at the elaborate beer garden in Jones's Wood. May festivals as well as music, gymnastic, and sharpshooting festivals attracted tens of thousands of celebrants during the mid nineteenth century. The most prominent sponsor was Turngeminde, an organization formed by radical artisans. Strengthened and radicalized by an influx of exiles after the failed revolution of 1848, the group organized the New York Socialist Turnverein to promote physical conditioning, German culture, nationalism, and the abolition of slavery.

In the nineteenth century Germans in New York City formed numerous socialist political associations, including the Workers' League, the Kommunisten Klub, the First International, and the Socialist Labor Party. Germans were also prominent in the labor movement, and under their leadership in 1872 the New York Eight Hour League organized a strike of more than 100,000 workers. Germans later helped to form the American Federation of Labor, in which Adolph Strasser and Samuel Gompers were prominent, and the Knights of Labor. Although thousands of the city's German workers joined radical unions and socialist organizations, in electoral politics they remained firmly in the Democratic Party. German-American politicians like Anton Dugro, Philipp Merkle, and Magnus Gross formed their own organizations within the party, at first allied with Captain Isahia Rynders's faction in support of Mayor Fernando Wood. When Wood fell out with Tammany Hall and set up his own organization, the Germans remained loyal to him and were the key to his electoral victory in 1858. The abolitionist cause did draw some members of the Turnverein and other radicals into the Republican Party in the late 1850s, and a few remained in the party until the end of the century, but an anti-German riot in 1857 by the Metropolitan Police, sponsored by Republicans, weakened German ties to the party.

The undisputed leader of the German Democrats by the early 1860s was Oswald Ottendorfer, owner of the popular German newspaper the Staats-Zeitung. During the next thirty years he led a number of coalitions dedicated to reform and opposed to Tammany Hall. His German Democratic Union Party helped to elect Mayor Charles Godfrey Gunther in 1863. After the organization of William M. "Boss" Tweed eclipsed the German Democrats in the late 1860s Ottendorfer formed a German independent citizens' organization to unite German Democrats and Republicans in the campaign against the Tweed Ring in 1871. Although he helped William F. Havemeyer to win the mayoralty in 1872, Ottendorfer was defeated when he himself sought it in 1874 and his German reform party collapsed.

The German population in New York City reached a peak of 748,882 in 1900, partly as a result of consolidation. There were also 133,689 Austrians in the city, most of whom were of German ethnicity. Although many German institutions remained in Kleindeutschland into the early twentieth century, Yorkville surpassed the old neighborhood in importance, and Astoria and New Jersey grew increasingly popular as suburban settlements, especially among the American-born and the prosperous. Deaths among German-born immigrants and the migration of their children to the suburbs reduced the population of German-Americans in New York City to 584,838 by 1920, but the numbers again increased when about 98,500 Germans fled the economic and political disorder of their country between the end of the First World War and 1930.

Despite their relative decline in importance in New York City in the early twentieth century, Germans continued to shape the city's ethnic politics for many years. A local chapter of the National German-American Alliance (1901) was especially influential. The strength of the German-American community in the city was undermined during the First World War as George Sylvester Viereck and other Germans in the city who advocated neutrality were labeled enemy agents and subjected to governmental repression. German-language courses were eliminated from the public schools and German-language works from the Metropolitan Opera; hamburgers became "liberty sandwiches" and sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage." German immigrants sought to restore their sense of ethnic pride in the interwar years, but these efforts were soon disrupted by the Nazi movement and another round of wartime hostility. German-Americans were forced to make their activities less conspicuous; associations still met and Steuben Day parades were still sponsored, but active assertions of German culture and attempts at collective political action were stifled. The Turneverein became a meeting place for American Nazi activists in the 1930s and was affiliated with a front organization of the German American Bund. The close ties among Germans between Jews and Christians was ruptured by an anti-German boycott organized by Jewish war veterans and by an anti-Jewish boycott that followed.

In the mid twentieth century many refugees of the Second World War settled in the metropolitan area, especially in Washington Heights, but they increasingly chose to live outside the city. The end of mass migration and a move to the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey helped bring about the rapid decline of Yorkville as a German-American center in the 1960s and 1970s, leaving Astoria as the only neighborhood in New York City with an identifiable German presence in the 1980s. A total of 301,993 New Yorkers claimed German or Austrian ancestry in 1990.

Sander A. Diamond: The Nazi Movement in the United States, 1924-1941 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974)

Helmut F. Pfanner: Exile in New York: German and Austrian Writers after 1933 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983)

Stanley Nadel: Little Germany: Ethnicity, Religion and Class in New York City, 1845-1880 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990)

-Stanley Nadel

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