Wednesday, January 20, 2010

TEARING THE SILENCE---What is a German American Identity?

TEARING THE SILENCE---What is a German American Identity?

By Kevin Stoda, Wiesbaden

Studies of individual and collective memories as well as how these memories are used and/or distorted by society and individuals have been of major interest to me for decades. Looking back, there are several reasons for this focus of mine as a historian and researcher.

First of all, for decades, I, myself, had never called myself a German-American, but historically speaking I have almost every right to do so.

That is, all my American born grandparents have strong lineage of German speaking grandparents or ancestors themselves. This means that going back to my family’s 5th, 6th, 7th , and 8th generations Germanic ancestors sailed from Europe to the United States and integrated them into the new American Experiment in the 18th and 19th centuries.

German-Americans continued to influence 20th Century America but by this time the melting pot theory had come to dominate. Texas and Kansas families, like the Eisenhauers, had in the meantime changed their name’s spelling to Eisenhower.

My name Stoda comes from the von Stade Saxon clan. Stade was a royal family and involved in various other regimes in northern and central Germany and in England from the 7th century onwards. The plattdeutsch for Stade is Stood (long vowel o)

My mother’s maiden name Whisner comes via Holland and the UK to the U.S.A. from Germany, too. Like Stoda, Whisner had one of two writings in German--Weisner and Wiesner are not an common name in Germany or America today. Where I live currently in Wiesbaden, my doctor works in the same clinic as one Dr. Weisner. On both grandmothers’ sides there were certainly Germans: Schiffmans, Maels, and Leiboldts from various German ancestries and regions.

In short, what makes one a German-American by definition? It is naturally simply the fact that someone identifies you as German. [Nearly 65 million Americans come from German or Austrian heritage. ]

Interestingly, until 1990, in America (my homeland) I was never once recognized as being of German descent. I was 28 years old, when I returned from living and studying 3 ½ years in Germany. At that time, I had begun teaching German language in a high school in Kansas when one day, the principal of that very high school noted I was obviously of German heritage—i.e. of German-American descent.

In making this identification with me, this particular Principal had had a lot of experience. He proudly stated that he was from an ethnic German family and recognized all the Germanic traits I displayed in and around the school, e.g. the high standards I had for others, the way I pushed others to excel, my determinedness or hardheadness, the way I talked or argued, the way I analyzed things, and my impatience with tomfoolery.

For me, this proved to be a sort of transformation of my identity.

Until then, I had never been identified as a German-American (in Germany or) in the USA, and there had been many opportunities to do so: From 1980 through 1985, I had attended a largely ethnic-German (Mennonite-founded) college in Kansas, named Bethel College. No one there at Bethel had ever noted my German-American characteristics. (The Mennonite founders of Bethel College in the late 19th century were German-speaking immigrants from Russia.)

Perhaps this lack of recognition of me as a German-American was because at that time (1980-1985), I did not carry myself as a German, or perhaps it was because ethnic Mennonite Germans saw all non-Mennonites as non-ethnic (German). Similarly, as a child, I had lived in several small Midwestern towns where no Germanic heritage was overtly displayed, so until I came to study at Bethel I had hardly known well any ethnic Americans well. [1]

In summary, as a child and as a young adult I had had no idea that the mannerisms and genes passed down to me from my parents were particularly Germanic. It is with interest, therefore, that I recently came across and read Ursula Hegi’s TEARING THE SILENCE: On Being German in America (Touchstone: 1997). TEARING THE SILENCE focuses on German immigrants to the USA, who were born between 1939 and 1949. In her work, Hegi writes in a thoughtful reportage-style narration that would make Studs Terkel proud. That is, Hegi allowed the interviewed German Americans to pretty much have their own voice.

What struck me the most about the 17 “autobiographies” in TEARING THE SILENCE was that so many had lived lives similar to my own. Admittedly, I have never known life of hardship as a war orphan, e.g. as some of those interviewed by Hegi did. Neither did I personally know war nor had I experienced life in immediate post-war Germany, i.e. where unemployment was high, food scarce, refugees everywhere, and everything had to be rebuilt up from catastrophic conditions. What I mean by “they and I” living similar lives is how their lives (and lives of their children) as teens and as adults had proceeded over the decades.

By the way,Hegi had begun her research for this book around 1990—a time when I was first identified by an ethnic German in America as ‘German”. The character and lifestyle of the different interviewees in Hegi’s collection are similar to mine in these ways.

Many interviewees have:

(1) apparent signs of Attention Deficit or Compulsiveness [2],
(2) a great sense of wanderlust—bouncing back and forth between continents--,
(3) an positive attitude in ever-searching for or finding oneself--or identifying “who one is” by reflecting on the past and destructive traits or practices,
(4) a strong interest in learning about the Holocaust and why it happened,
(5) decade’s long effort in helping the world not replay the horrors of WWII by being involved in peace movement, witness, and awareness raising activities
(6) strived to become fairly educated,
(7) tried to learn/maintain German as an adult and/or learned of other cultures with great zeal as adults,
(8) come to accept certain of their German traits/characteristics and embrace portions of traditions or heritages that are positive—as well as balancing those understandings with the ejection of negative traits and impulses.
(9) experienced being seen as outsiders in both Germany and in America.
(10) tended to be to direct with people in expressing their opinions or feelings too strongly, firmly, or loudly

Those descriptors do not describe all 17 “autobiographies” in TEARING THE SILENCE, but they fit too many of them for me not to feel a connection between those Germans who have settled for life in the USA and me—an American who has thrice moved to Germany. [3]


In autumn 1990 and in winter 1991, I was teaching in Great Bend, Kansas while President Herbert Walker Bush prepared America for war and then carried out world wide war on Iraq, an Arab state which had made the huge error of taking over Kuwait oil fields just as the Cold war was winding down.

That autumn, I did not like the fact that in Great Bend High School, the army, navy, marine, air force, and national guard recruiters were allowed to wander the school’s hallways and even meet students in the cafeteria. I stated so loudly in the teachers lounge. I spoke up specifically against this undue level of influence these recruiters and the school had on adolescents. Soon thereafter, my principal let me know that he had grown up with Germans and knew “how they speak and think”. I was going to have to learn to speak more tactfully—i.e. show more concern and feeling. In short, the principal was warning me about my hardheadness and seemingly German-behavior in how I expressed myself at school.

Later, in February 1991—as the Gulf War was still going on in Iraq and Kuwait--, my “Germanic” principal unilaterally canceled the school exchange program between Great Bend High School, Kansas and a private partner (Gymnasium) High School in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. Over 30 families and youth were affected by the cancelation of the exchange program.

None of these families in Great Bend or Germany were contacted before the decision was made—neither was the head of the partner school in Germany contacted. Naturally, safety and security of the students was the reason this principal gave for the decision. (Recall: The war ended before February was over. So, the preemptive cancelation was totally unnecessary.) The “Germanic” principal at Great Bend High School had made the decision without talking either to me or to my partner, the principal of the Gymnasium in Germany—nor had he talked to the students or parents. (The fact that he did not contact our counterpart, the principal of our Partner school in Germany led to trouble in that interschool intra-school partnership over the next years.)

Interestingly, that following June of 1991, I was back in Munich attending an international seminar for German teachers from all over Europe and North America at the Goethe Institute. One day, in a subway I talked to an older man (in his 60s or 70s) who heard my American accent as I spoke to him in German. He suddenly turned to me in rage and blamed me unfairly and loudly for the following:

(1) Causing the U.S. led alliance in making war on Iraq that winter.
(2) Having forced Germany to take part indirectly in that war—the first such time in post-WWII history for Germany.

The man was loud and a bit out of control. That German reminded me a bit in self-righteousness of many Bush-Republicans and my previous high school principal in Great Bend (as well as reminding me of my own father when he got angry over politics).

After I had gotten away from my German heckler at the next train stop, I began to ponder:

(1) Was he a former Nazi himself? or
(2) Was he a child of war—i.e. like the German Americans interviewed in Hegi’s book? Or
(3) Was he a lifelong pacifist who had always stood against war? And saw me as the American military enemy.

I didn’t know for sure because I had just been glad to get away from the German. In the end, I saw him as an old man who was simply mis-projecting his anger at the United States government and military on any U.S. citizen—even one [like me] who had actually opposed the Gulf War in Kuwait/Iraq fairly vocally earlier that winter. In this new silence of mine, I had behaved like many of the individuals in Hegi’s book, TEARING THE SILENCE.


Several of the characters interviewed in TEARING THE SILENCE talked about love-hate relations they had observed on-and-off over the decades with the USA and Germany. Two of the interviewees noted that the worst thing one could be called in Germany when they were growing up was “An Ami”—or American (usually American in Occupying Army but not exclusively), i.e. when “ami” was said in a very derogatory tone of voice. Meanwhile, in and after WWI, the worst you could say to a German was to call him a “Kraut”. Later, in the post-war period, the worst thing was to call a German a “Nazi”. Many interviewees shared how much they had hurt to feel unfairly called the name, “Nazi”.

Every one of those interviewed by Hegi had experienced being called a “Nazi”—even those who were born after 1945 experienced this. Nothing bothers a German of the post-WWII world more than being referred to as a Nazi.

I would have to concur—for most Germans this is true today.

Similarly, a German educator, I had once known in Wuppertal, shared that in the 1970s when she was 19, she was working as a nanny in New York City. She was out on the town one Saturday taking pictures with a fellow German nanny when her camera stopped rewinding properly. The two German teens subsequently went over to the nearest camera shop. They asked for help with the camera.

The Jewish owner looked at them and asked, “Are you German?”

They said, “Yes”. [They, in fact were.]

“I thought so,” the photo shop owner nodded.

Then, before the young German women’s eyes, the camera shop owner tore the camera open and intentionally let the film fall to the floor--exposing it to the light and spoiling the photos.

Tearfully, these German girls left the Jewish camera shop. They certainly felt charged with a crime from their parents and grandparents generation. Without exactly saying it, the Jewish owner had called them Nazis.

These teens were being called Nazis by an American Jew. They felt defenseless. All they could do was walk away—in silence--and possibly go back home and learn a bit more about their country’s Nazi past.

Such antagonism between Jews and Germans is, however, seldom present in TEARING THE SILENCE. Most of the 17 German-Americans interviewed have had positive working and familial relationships with Jews and Jewish families in America. Some even say that they find a bond in a common history between Jews and Germans that brings them together as they don’t have to explain their anguish in much detail for the other to comprehend the source or memory causing the pain or worry.

However, this does not mean that German-Americans (Jews and Non-Jews, too) do not need to work on their pasts and their identity through reflection and responses to the Holocaust. For Jews and Germans today around the globe, this usually means that they are both almost equally burdened by what they have seen and learned about the Holocaust and the III Reich in films and school.

As well, many of those German Americans interviewed in TEARING THE SILENCE knew what it was like to be either a refugee or as an underdog (or both) in their won society or in American society. This has created for most of them empathy for the downtrodden in both America and in post-WWII Germany. They see that foreigners take on duties that the natives don’t want in both countries. Yet, the foreigners and minorities will be the first to be targeted when the economy goes badly or if there are any societal conflicts.


“The Holocaust was unspeakable, and the silence—eventually—spoke much louder than the words have” said Katherine in interview. The author, Hegi, wants Germans, and German Americans to go beyond the silence.

Yet, as I read TEARING THE SILENCE several times during trainrides in Germany this winter, I was struck by the silence of Germans. In contrast to foreigners, most Germans are sitting and reading in their own silence. (This happens in Japan but most of those travelers are sleeping.) Those foreigners who are known Germanized, too, sit in silence far too often--when they don’t have a coworker or a compatriot beside them.

German-American author, Ursula Hegi, wrote in her autobiography: “I don’t want to go beneath that silence again.”

“Those brave enough to ask about the war (WWII)were told not to dwell on the past but focus on the good things in our lives.” Hegi added.

Other phrases, like “Don’t spoil [soil] your own nest”, were responses to the same queries or calls for commitment from her elders to not go through the skeletons in one’s own [family] closet.

Things have changed since Hegi and her generation grew up in Germany and the USA. There is much more media and method in German education providing fuller understanding for the III Reich catastrophes causing present and past German Angst. However, silence is too often a problem in Germany. Only a minority are often active in international exchange efforts and international development or peace efforts. More internalization and multicultural education is needed.

Naturally, there are many Germans and German-Americans who have well-studied the WWII horrors, and many of these peoples have committed themselves to never allow such horrors to take place again. However, the overall German silence to its own multi-cultural world (the EU and many recent post-WWII émigrés) bothers me and should bother Germans (and German-Americans alike). Similarly, I am disturbed by the generalized silence of American opinion-makers and/or German-American educator silence about injustice and war crimes originating in my homeland, the USA.


[1] It is very likely that WWII and WWI had taken their toll on small-town-America concerning American willingness to identify with any German-American heritage outside of ethnic German settlement towns: like Marian or Victoria, Kansas.

[2] See Kevin Stoda’s ADD and Germans, auf deutsch

and in English

and Dostoyevsky and ADD in Wiesbaden, Germany

[3] Jewish German Émigrés to America




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