Famous German-Americans

by Matthew Noblett

German-Americans (Deutschamerikaner) can be described as citizens of the United States with German ancestry, or people from Germany who have since become naturalized US citizens.  Such people have a duel identity, with traditions steeped heavily in Germanic language and culture.  German-Americans make up the largest self-reported ancestry group within the United States accounting for roughly 49 million people and approximately 17% of the population of the US.  The states of California and Texas both have considerable German-American populations.  However, many other states also have a distinctive German-American ethnic group.

The first Germans to arrive in the States settled in Virginia in 1608.  However, it was fully seventy years later before significant numbers came over and settled in areas such as New York and Pennsylvania.  This immigration increased over time and in the nineteenth century over eight million immigrants arrived in the US from Germany.  There were many reasons for emigration to the USA from Germany.  Some Germans moved to the new land in search of religious or political freedoms that were denied them in their nation of origin, others simply desired a fresh start.  In addition, thousands of German-Americans signed up to fight for the Union in the American Civil War of 1861-1865.  Many were anti-slavery campaigners.  After several generations, German-Americans began to adopt American customs and switch their main language to English.  German-Americans also began to have a substantial influence upon mainstream US culture. In 1860-1917 German was widely spoken in communities throughout the States.  Whilst in 1853, German settlers brought the Christmas tree custom to the United States.

From 1931-1940, approximately 115,000 Germans moved to the United States of America.  Many were Jewish or anti-Nazi protesters who had to flee government oppression.  The most famous was the Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein.  During the war effort, US President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed German-Americans to prominent positions including, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Those German-Americans with fluent language capability were important in aiding wartime intelligence.  The war brought about strong feelings of patriotism for German-Americans who by know had only distant contact with the Fatherland.  After the war ended, many ethnic Germans fled to the USA as refugees from countries in Eastern Europe from which they had been expelled.  Many of the German-Americans who immigrate to the USA today are similar to other Western European immigrants, in that they come for professional or academic reasons.  The US census of 1990 showed that roughly 58 million Americans claim to be of German descent.  Also, according to the 2005 American Community Survey, around 50 million Americans have German ancestry.  About 1.5 million Americans speak German today.  The USA has a number of German-American celebrations, such as Oktoberfest, German-American Day and Von Steuben Day.  The German-American Steuben Parade in New York held every September and is a major event.  There are also annual events in Chicago's Lincoln Square, a traditional a hub of the city's German population, whilst the city of Cincinnati holds the largest Oktoberfest in the world outside of Germany. 

Since the first settlement of Germans in the USA, German-Americans have gone on to have an influence in every sphere of activity, from education, science and politics, to industry, architecture and commerce and even culture, sport and entertainment.  There have been two American presidents whose fathers were of German descent, Dwight Eisenhower (original family name Eisenhauer) and Herbert Hoover (original family name Huber).  Underneath is a list of some of the most influential German-Americans in history.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) was a German born physicist who revolutionised science with his theory of relativity and mass-energy equivalence, which can be expressed by the equation E = mc2.  In 1921, Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and in 1999 the influential Time Magazine of America posthumously declared him ‘Person of the Century’ in recognition of his widely acknowledged genius.  Albert Einstein published in excess of 300 scientific works and over 150 non-scientific works.  His relevance today is immeasurable and his contributions to science both numerous and crucial.

Einstein was born into a Jewish family in the town of Ulm, in the Kingdom of Württemberg within the German Empire.  His father was Hermann Einstein, a salesman and engineer and his mother was Pauline Einstein.  In 1880, the family moved to Munich, where his father and his uncle founded a company, which manufactured electrical equipment.

The Einstein family were not observant of Jewish religious practices, and their son attended a Catholic elementary school.  Although young Albert had early speech difficulties, he was a top student.  By the age of ten Einstein was reading and familiarising himself with key scientific, philosophical and mathematical texts.

In 1894 his father’s business failed and Einstein moved to Italy.  It was here that he wrote his first scientific work.  Einstein then moved to Switzerland and began working in the patent office in Berne.  Here he set up a weekly science and philosophy club and evaluated patent applications for electromagnetic devices.

Einstein was forced to emigrate to the United States in 1932 prior to the outbreak of the Second World War.  Due to the rise of the Nazi party, many Jewish intellectuals had no choice but to leave in order to carry-on with their work an avoid persecution.  As well as remaining as one of the world’s most innovative and important thinkers and scientists, Einstein became a voice for the Zionist movement and a campaigner for peace and understanding.  Somewhat ironically, it was Einstein’s developments in physics that lead to the invention of the Atmoic bomb.  This was something that troubled Einstein to his death.  He will always be remembered as a great thinker, a true genius and a truly inspiring German-American.

John Peter Zenger

John Peter Zenger (1697 – 1746) was a German born American publisher, printer, editor and journalist based in New York City.  Zenger emigrated to America in 1710 where he was trained as a printer by William Bradford.  He later began publication of the New York Weekly Journal in 1733, an opposition paper to Bradford’s New York Gazette.  The paper, backed by several prominent lawyers and merchants, also attacked the administration of the British Royal Governor of New York, William Cosby.  As editor, Zegner was legally responsible for the content and he was arrested on libel charges and imprisoned in 1734.  In the trial that followed, Zenger was defended by Andrew Hamilton who established truth as a defence in cases of libel.  This is now considered to be one of the most important events in American journalism.  The trial, which resulted in the publisher’s acquittal, helped to establish freedom of the press in America.

Jacob John Astor

German born John Jacob Astor (1763 – 1848) was the first multi-millionaire in the United States.  He was the creator of the first trust in America, from which he made his fortune in fur trading, real estate, and opium.

From humble origins in Germany, he emigrated to London and then to America following the American Revolutionary War.  He built a fur-trading empire that extended to the Great Lakes region and Canada, and later expanded into the American West and Pacific coast.  In the early 1800s he diversified into New York City real estate and later became a famed patron of the arts.

At the time of his death in 1848, Astor was the wealthiest person in the United States, leaving an estate estimated to be worth at least $20 million; according to the latest Forbes rankings, he would have had an estimated net worth of $110.1 billion in 2006 U.S. dollars, making him the fourth wealthiest person in American history.

Wernher Feiherr von Braun

Wernher Magnus Maximilian Freiherr von Braun (1912 – 1977) was a German rocket physicist and astronautics engineer.  Wernher von Braun became one of the foremost figures in the development of rocket technology in Germany and the United States.  

He is sometimes said to be the preeminent rocket engineer of the 20th century.  In his early career, von Braun was the central figure in Germany's pre-war rocket development program.  He was responsible for the design and realization of the deadly V2 combat rocket during World War II.  

After the war, he and some of his rocket team were taken to the United States as part of the then-secret Operation Overcast.  Ten years after first entering the country, von Braun became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1955.  He worked on the American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) program before joining the North American Space Association (NASA), where he served as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the chief architect of the Saturn V launch vehicle, which propelled the Apollo spacecraft to the Moon.  He is generally regarded as the father of the United States space program, both for his technical and organizational skills, and for his public relations efforts on behalf of space flight.  In 1975, von Braun received the National Medal of Science.

John Steinbeck

John Ernst Steinbeck III (1902 – 1968) was a seminal American author.  He wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Grapes of Wrath, published in 1939, and the novella Of Mice and Men, which was published in 1937.  In total, Steinbeck wrote twenty-five books, which comprised of sixteen novels, six non-fiction books and several collections of short stories.  In 1962 Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California but he was of German descent.  Johann Adolf Großsteinbeck, Steinbeck's grandfather, shortened the family name from Großsteinbeck to Steinbeck when he migrated to the United States.  There is a family farm in Heiligenhaus, Germany, which is still today named "Großsteinbeck".  John Steinbeck died in New York City on December 20, 1968 of a heart attack.  He left behind him some of the most important works of American fiction ever written.

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower (1890 – 1969) was the thirty-fourth President of the United States of America from 1953 until 1961 and a decorated general in the United States Army.  During the Second World War, Eisenhower served as Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in Europe, with responsibility for planning and supervising the successful invasion of France and Germany in 1944–45.  In 1951, he became the first supreme commander of NATO.

As President, he oversaw the cease-fire of the Korean War, kept up the pressure on the Soviet Union during the Cold War, made nuclear weapons a higher priority, launched the Space Race, enlarged the Social Security program, and began the Interstate Highway System.  He was the last World War I veteran to serve as U.S. president, and the last president born in the 19th century. Eisenhower ranks highly among former U.S. presidents in terms of approval rating.

Eisenhower's paternal ancestors can be traced back to Hans Nicolas Eisenhauer, whose surname is German for "iron worker."  Hans Eisenhauer and his family emigrated from Karlsbrunn (Saarland), Germany to Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1741.  Eventually Eisenhower's family settled in Abilene, Kansas in 1892.  His father David Eisenhower was a college-educated engineer.  He was an all round all American-German.

Carl Schurz

Carl Schurz (1829 – 1906) was a German born revolutionary, American statesman and reformer, and Union Army General in the American Civil War.  Schurz was also an accomplished journalist, newspaper editor and orator, who in 1869, became the first German-American elected to the United States Senate.

His wife, Margarethe Schurz, was instrumental in establishing the kindergarten system in the United States.  During his later years, Schurz was perhaps the most prominent independent in American politics, noted for his lofty principles, avoidance of political partisanship, and his strong moral conscience.  Many streets, schools, and parks are named after him, including New York’s Carl Schurz Park.

Hilla Rebay

Hildegard Anna Augusta Elizabeth Freiin Rebay von Ehrenwiesen, Baroness Hilla von Rebay, or simply Hilla Rebay (1890 – 1967), was one of the few female abstract painters at the beginning of the 20th century.

Rebay came from a German noble family and lived in Berlin for a while, before moving to the United States in 1927.

She was also an avid art collector, and a long-time friend of Solomon R. Guggenheim.  Rebay helped him buy various artworks to establish the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.  She was also the one who chose architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design the famous museum.

In 2005, nearly forty years after her death, the Guggenheim Museum honoured von Rebay, featuring a special exhibition on her role in the foundation, as well as her artworks.  The exhibit opened in New York and then travelled to Europe. Part of the exhibition demonstrated von Rebary's amazingly intricate collages of people, as well as abstract art images that she created.

Marlene Dietrich

Marlene Dietrich (1901 – 1992) was a German-born American actress and singer.  Dietrich managed to remain popular throughout her long career by continually re-inventing herself.  In 1920s Berlin, she acted on the stage and in silent films.  Her performance as Lola-Lola in The Blue Angel, directed by Josef von Sternberg, brought her international fame and a contract with Paramount Pictures in the USA.  Hollywood films such as Shanghai Express and Desire capitalised on her glamour and exotic looks, cementing her stardom and making her one of the highest paid actresses of the era.  Dietrich became a US citizen in 1939; during World War II, she was a high-profile frontline entertainer.  Although she still made occasional films in the post-war years, Dietrich spent most of the 1950s to the 1970s touring the world as a successful show performer.

In 1999 the American Film Institute named Dietrich the ninth greatest female star of all time.