Ok, so I am mostly of German heritage. Strongly Irish, but more German. What was my level of consciousness of all things German as a child, as a youth, pre-high school?
Well, the Vietnam War was raging at that time. Born in 1959, I was in the first grade in the years 1965-66. The turbulences of 1968 I recall only vaguely, but I was aware of them. I was nine years old and in the third grade.
1968. The Tet Offensive. The assassinations of Martin Luther King in April, then of Robert Kennedy in June, the ensuing riots in many major American cities, and the violence outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. We had been at war for at least five years.
Probably the greater entry into my consciousness were the television series during the 1960s, during the Vietnam War. Hollywood was pumping out movies about the Second World War. The Great Escape. The Guns of Navarone. The Dirty Dozen. Von Ryan’s Express. The Bridge at Remagen. Where Eagles Dare. Their popularity led Hollywood to create a few television series along the same theme. The Rat Patrol. Hogan’s Heroes.
An interesting coincidence. We’re bogged down in a war in the jungles of Southeast Asia. It is not going well. The public senses it. And Hollywood goes nostalgic on us with WWII movies. Lots of John Wayne-type heroes. Real men.
I recall vividly playing war with some childhood friends. It was always the Americans against the Germans. For me the thrill was playing the Germans. Why? Perhaps like wanting to play the Indians versus the Cowboys. The underdog. The oppressed. The courageous. Henry Schlottenmeier was one of my friends. With a last name like that you’d think he’d insist on playing the German soldier.
At the dinner table my father would every now and then pronounce the names of us children in French, German and Spanish. He was not particularly good in languages, but did consulting work in Canada, including Quebec, in Germany, and in Mexico and Venezuela. John. Jean. Johann. I thought that was cool.
Then came the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. I was fourteen, and like my four brothers, very athletic. I watched the games with great interest, especially broken-hearted when the Soviet Union beat the USA in basketball, a national catastrophe.
Oddly I do not recal the PLO-terrorist attack. Was it covered heavily on the news? Perhaps not so as not to discourage viewership of the games. ABC, one of the three major television networks, had paid top dollar for the broadcasting rights. Jim McKay, an Irish-Catholic from Philadelphia and a graduate of St. Joseph’s Preparatory High School (Jesuit), was the announcer for many years.
When I reflect on the pupils in our Catholic elementary school, Our Lady Help of Christians, the ethnic names come to mind. Irish: Loughery, McFadden, Tyrell. Italian: Lofredo, Pontalondolfo, Sacchetti, Vagnoni. And the names of the families in our neighborhood? German: Heidt, Gebhardt, Probst. Greek: Argyris, Gabriel. Italian: Brigidi, D’Aquila, Sacchetti. Syrian: Moses.
A few times a year our mother would serve us for dinner Knockwurst, to us over-sized hotdogs, and salty-tangy Sauerkraut. It did not seem to us as particularly German.
Things Irish were more present during my childhood. We were Catholics, attended Catholic schools. Many pupils went on to Catholic high schools. Our sister, Thea, to Gwyned Mercy Academy. Frank to LaSalle. We other four boys to public high school, Lower Moreland, but many classmates went on to Bishop McDevitt, Monsignor Bonner, Bishop Egan, Bishop Kenrick, Archbishop Wood.
Interestingly, it was the German, Johann Neumann (1811-1860), who immigrated to the United States, and went on to establish the Catholic parochial school system in Philadelphia, which came to be the model for many other Catholic school systems in the United States.
Germans, meaning Americans with German backgrounds, never did make such a big deal of their Germanness. For three reasons. As stated before Germans, along with the British, made up the old stock of Americans. They settled in the thirteen colonies early on. Yes, many more immigrated in the 1800s, especially in the second half of that century. But they were already here.
Whereas the Eastern and Southern Europeans came in great waves from 1850s onward. Czechs. Hungarians. Slovaks. Poles. Ukrainians. Russian Jews. Greeks. Italians. And very many Irish. These newer peoples were not welcomed with open arms. They had to fight to make a life for themselves in the United States. Their sense of ethnic identity was strong.
The second reason was the two world wars. Particularly during the First World War, originally called the Great War, German-Americans did anything but communicate their German heritage. They were first and foremostly Americans. This was less so the case during the Second World War, but was a concern.
The third reason is that Germany became a nation-state rather late. In 1871 and by force. The German state of Prussia had forced the other major German states by war to accept a German Reich under Prussian rule. To this day Germans have a stronger regional than national identity. First Bavarian, then German. First Rhinelander, then German. Saxons. Hessian. Swabian. Americans of German descent, certainly prior to 1871, were more likely to affiliate themselves with a city or a region in Germany than with Germany as such.