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America Is Not—and Never Was—a Nation of Immigrants

The 1910s cultural quarantine and how America’s deeply rooted ethnocultural identity continues to shape our ideas of what’s possible

B. Duncan Moench
March 26, 2020
Adolph Thierbach/Madison County Library
Germans interned in North Carolina, 1917Adolph Thierbach/Madison County Library
Adolph Thierbach/Madison County Library
Germans interned in North Carolina, 1917Adolph Thierbach/Madison County Library

Donald Trump is a Cheeto-colored doofus. Some of his supporters are Chrysler-driving, Nazi wannabes. Sure, yes. But the issue that led to the man’s rise—immigration restriction—isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, the COVID-19 outbreak only makes the issue more germane, and less easily dismissed with bromides about open borders. But instead of an even mildly historically informed debate on immigration and how it shapes and influences the national character and civic life, our national discussion around immigration remains clouded in a mythology about the nation’s origin story.

The American nation, we are told, is not based on a common ancestry, or even national history, but on the ideals of “democracy” and the fact that we are the sole nation on earth whose peoplehood is derived purely from immigration. The “nation of immigrants” mantra is a part of the American cultural mythology—duly intoned both by the academic “woke” left and the nationalist, heartland right. A good representative of the former, The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, promotes this mythology in These Truths, her nearly 900-page retelling of all U.S. history according to the tenets of contemporary mythological right-think:

When the United States declared its independence in 1776, plainly, it was a state, but what made it a nation? The fiction that its people shared a common ancestry was absurd on its face; they came from all over, and, having waged a war on England, the very last thing they wanted to celebrate was their Englishness.

Well, for starters, this folklore tends to sidestep the fact that Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and most other countries of South and Latin America are also colonial nations based upon immigration, as are Australia, Canada, and so many others. But there’s an even harder truth: America is not a nation of immigrants. America is a former British colony founded by Anglo Protestant, anti-Catholic extremists who copied and pasted John Locke’s ideas into their Declaration of Independence and Constitution. With the exception of Montesquieu (who F.A. Hayek labeled an honorary Anglo), nearly every thinker and thought that helped shape the country’s founding political culture and legal structures derives specifically from early Anglo-liberalism. More specifically, it was shaped by Protestant Anglo liberals who favored religious freedom and independence of thought and association as long as they were contained within the guardrails of Protestantism and Anglo Saxonism.

Understandably, the post-1960s “conflict school” of American historiography that Lepore represents is eager to “foreground” ethnic American “subalterns” and women whose experiences were often ignored or erased by previous generations of American academics. In recent decades, though, the conflict school paradigm of academia has become centered in a bizarre ritual of imagineering, rooted in panethnic and largely ahistorical concepts of race.

German American newspapers, 1922
German American newspapers, 1922Bundesarchiv

Historians and cultural studies scholars now seek to imagine into existence a distinct heterodox political culture of “color”—non-Europeans banding together to challenge the Anglo liberalism of the Founders. In this imagined Pandora, America’s indigenous peoples, the descendants of slaves, and non-European immigrants—regardless of their time of arrival or the specifics of how they got here, or what happened to them when they did—share a common experience and are therefore magically capable (like Marx’s heroic proletariat) of leading the way to the promised land of equality and justice like a collective Moses parting the Red Sea. The entire rhetoric surrounding the term “People of Color” originates from this premise.

While fascinating in terms of what this vision reveals about the aesthetics of our tenured class’ preferred future, the idea of a heterodox “POC” ethnopolitical tradition is as much a fantasy as Hitler’s Aryan race, or better yet, the “freedom-loving” Saxon tribes that much of the American founding generation believed to be singularly capable of participating in democracy due to their superior ancestral “germs.”

Besides creating a dangerous new, panethnic mythology—and reifying 19th-century concepts of race—one of the ill effects of trying to imagine into existence a POC ethnopolitical tradition has been to ignore the one actual, documented American immigrant ethnopolitical challenge to Anglo supremacy.

By the early part of the 20th century, only one immigrant population had nearly usurped its English American counterpart, demographically speaking. Many of them wished to keep their immigrant language and also organized the largest ethnic lobbying effort—possibly in all U.S. history—to fight in Washington against the legally mandated prohibition of alcohol, which they saw as a xenophobic campaign by Anglo Protestant churches to impose their morals on the population (which was true). This immigrant group also made up the largest portion of the United States’ fledgling socialist parties, as well as possibly the plurality of the labor union movement. The Anglo old stock found this group’s ethnopolitics and hyphenated attitude toward assimilation beyond the pale. “There must be but one language in this country—English. One alliance, one flag, one language,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in reference to them. Roosevelt called upon all decent members of American society to condemn these “hyphens.” These audacious non-Anglos needed to become “American and nothing else. We must see to it that the melting pot really does melt,” Roosevelt declared.

So who were they? Mexican Americans? Italian Americans? Japanese Americans? German Americans?

If you correctly answered “German Americans,” send me an email and I’ll reward you with a picture of a dachshund wearing lederhosen. In all seriousness, most Americans today, including the 46 million to 60 million Americans of German descent, are entirely unaware of the mass demonization of Germanic politics that took place in the 1910s. Incidentally, it peaked in 1918, the same year as the Spanish Flu outbreak.

The scope of the repressive cultural violence waged by Anglo nativists against German Americans during the 1910s is truly staggering and worthy of revisiting. A quick summary:

Between 1915 and 1920, 27 states made the instruction of the German language illegal, and 17 states passed legislation that made all public conversations in German a criminal misdemeanor. The U.S. Post Office required all German-language publications submit costly translations that soon drove most of these presses out of business. With the support of former President Theodore Roosevelt and current President Woodrow Wilson, the United States government forcefully disbanded the National German American Alliance—an organization with over 2 million members—by special act of Congress. So much for the right of “free association.”

German internment village, North Carolina, 1917-18
German internment village, North Carolina, 1917-18Adolph Thierbach/Madison County Library

Attorney General Thomas Gregory helped organize three separate nationwide vigilante groups (two with over 100,000 members) to police American neighborhoods’ patriotism and support for the war effort. Unsurprisingly, these groups targeted German American communities most intensely. In the name of identifying German “spies” and “traitors,” members of these self-dubbed “100 Percenter” vigilantes, demanded “100 percent American behavior” from all residents, immigrant or otherwise.

These government-sanctioned Anglo nativists groups acted like cultural hall monitors. Many were even given official badges. Any outward expression of German culture, utterance of the German tongue, or an insufficient purchase of Liberty Bonds, provided the 100 Percenters with a license to target German Americans or leftists as “disloyal.” An accusation of disloyalty, or merely confusion regarding one’s citizenship status, and a German American could end up interned for the duration of World War I—as more than 6,000 were in camps in Utah and North Carolina.

In my research, I’ve uncovered at least 125 brutally violent vigilante attacks waged on German Americans. The majority of the victims of mob assaults were attacked for exhibiting both a German accent and socialist thought in public—i.e., the first form of punishable intersectionality. Erik Kirschbaum has found that 35 of these attacks ended in death. Three of the mob assaults were highly public lynchings in which not one person was ever convicted of a crime.

As a result of (an entirely understandable) post-Holocaust hesitancy to indulge any notions of German victimhood or cultural trauma, the importance of what happened to German Americans at the hands of Anglo nativists during the 1910s has been buried in the subterranean caves of American memory.

Due to the breadth of Hitler’s evil and the enormity of the Holocaust, something that contains a key to understanding how American culture and society were shaped has been lost. The importance of these events is underscored when one realizes that Germany remains the largest single source of national origin for the American population today and is especially concentrated in the region known as the Rust Belt, formerly referred to as the “German Belt.” If one wishes to truly understand the American nation and the national character immigrants are expected to assimilate into, the successful effort to cleanse our society of German culture and Germanic politics in the 1910s remains America’s deepest, darkest secret.

German-speaking territories were the largest source of immigration to the United States during the entire 19th century. By the 1910s, German Americans achieved widespread distribution across Midwestern states, much of the Mountain West, the West Coast, and even the Upper East Side of Manhattan. These numbers gave German Americans confidence to begin asserting themselves politically in the 1910s. It helped that their homeland was then thought of as the industrialized world’s 800-pound gorilla; a highly educated nation with the world’s largest economy, run by a highly advanced and bureaucratic regime—a behemoth, protected by a military that frightened their rivals so much they all entered into an alliance against it.

German cultural strength was palpable in America—and deeply threatening to the country’s Anglo elite. In 1910, more than 530 American newspapers were printed in German, more than 100 of which spread a political message directly challenging what was then called “Manchesterianism”—the Anglo sphere’s laissez faire, pro-free market liberal individualism. Early 20th-century German American political culture offered a coherent, collectivist alternative to Anglo individualism. Germanic concepts—a la Marx, Ferdinand Lassalle, Eduard Bernstein, (all of Jewish descent) and the rest of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)—had captured the imagination of nearly every country in Europe, and many places beyond. The failed German revolutionaries of 1848 who fled to the United States were the primary vessels for this tradition on American soil.

The ethnopolitical violence waged against German Americans in the 1910s makes sense when we realize that the vigilante pamphlets, reckless yellow journalism headlines, and xenophobic anti-German speeches of Washington elites during that decade framed the military conflict in Europe as a global war not just against the German state, but against German ideas and culture within the country’s borders. Between the anti-German hysteria of the mid–1910s and the Palmer Raid crackdowns on any political dissent that followed, all heterodox challengers to Anglo liberalism were either imprisoned, deported, or economically ruined. The message was clear: Anglicize or leave.

The fact that the immigration restrictions of the 1920s—the first major immigration restrictions in U.S. history—that followed the anti-German/anti-leftist hysteria of the 1910s focused on race concealed more than it revealed. “Race” was part of the fashion of the times, not only in the United States, but in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. Race was of course a key factor in the repulsive prejudices our elites displayed, but the word “race” did not simply connote skin pigment—it meant culture. The late 1910s and early 1920s, therefore, also witnessed hundreds of thousands of German Americans applying to legally change their surnames to Anglicized versions—Schmidt to “Smith,” Pressler to “Presley,” and so forth, as German ethnics sought to escape harassment and opprobrium, and prove to their neighbors they could Americanize (i.e., Anglo-Americanize).

By the mid-’20s, the German cultural threat to Anglo supremacy had been safely quarantined. The Anglo elites had made their point—not just to the Germans, but all future immigrants. Non-Europeans who were not seen as capable of Anglicizing were subjected to disgusting, Nazi-like concepts of race.

With the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, all immigrant groups would be, thereafter, limited in number based on their point of departure. Even the racially preferred groups of Western Europe would be confined to strict national-origin quotas. Never again would the Anglo old stock find itself facing a genuine cultural, linguistic, and ethnopolitical challenge from within. Fast forward 90 years. The so-called birther movement presages calls to “build the wall,” and soon after at least half of the country has no patience for continued mass immigration—legal or otherwise. So how did we get here?

By the late 1960s, 40 years after the birth of Franklin Roosevelt’s “labor liberalism,” the captains of American industry found themselves in a relationship with the proles that they did not anticipate, one which involved high wage growth, high union membership rates, great collective bargaining power for workers, generous employer benefits, expansive government entitlements, and high taxes on corporations and wealthy incomes.

The political economy of Anglo Americanism had transformed itself into something more like the “Europeanist” model of Germanic social democracy that they had fought so hard to destroy in the 1910s. The nation’s overclass responded in a multitude of ways, one of which was again letting down the drawbridge to mass immigration. Not surprisingly, the choice to return to 19th-century levels of immigration led to a rise in the percentage of foreign-born Americans, on par with that of the Gilded Age. Wage growth is stagnant, and collective bargaining power is low. Immigration has greatly aided in this transformative effort by keeping unemployment at “healthy” levels.

In the Gilded Age, the mostly European immigration to the United States of the 1880s and 1890s supplied a bonus army of surplus laborers who could fill in as scabs, join the Pinkertons to swing clubs, or point bayonets at rowdy workers. The results of our present epoch of mass immigration aren’t anywhere near that stark. However, when The New York Times editorial board interviews Sen. Bernie Sanders (a German-style social democrat who for some stupid reason labels himself a “democratic socialist”) and feels the need to supply annotations to the interview transcript—annotations which portray any notion that higher rates of immigration put pressure on worker wage growth as madness—you know a nerve has been touched. Do not peek behind the curtain. Do not listen to the Jew with the messy hair.

A great many “multiculturalist” elites today, especially on the coasts, support the call for open borders and the limitless immigration it would entail. They claim this support is motivated not by the self-interest of the class to which they belong and whose interests they serve, but because of their enlightened respect for other cultures. They deeply respect the Honduran au pair who cares for their children, they respect the sweet young El Salvadoran man that cuts their grass, and they respect the nervous Thai person who delivers their food when they return home. Contemporary urban elites in blue-state America just can’t understand why all the “hicks in flyover country” oppose mass immigration—aside from their innate racism, of course.

The 1910s remain the last time Americans had an honest discussion about the national character and immigration’s impact—or lack thereof—on it. Contemporary pseudo-multicultural elites today resemble their Anglo “progressive” counterparts of the 1910s both in their ideals and in practice (has there ever been a more Puritan term than “woke”?). The difference is that in the 1910s, our elites were more honest about their desire for cultural hegemony and economic supremacy.

Today, our elites maintain a culture that “respects” the “cultures” of immigrants but has no interest in paying them a decent wage or providing them with preventive healthcare. Our decadent attitude toward statism remains so dysfunctional that 30 years after the Clintons tried to overhaul the health care system, even many elites can’t guarantee themselves a functional medical care experience during a global pandemic. Even in 2020, we’re told it is simply not an electable position for anyone to push for the government to pay for or supervise such tasks; unelectable being the 21st-century proxy for un-American. Not coincidentally, the standard for what is deemed “un-American” hasn’t changed much between 1920 and 2020.

In New York in 1919, labor unions helped float a proposal that would mandate businesses of a certain size be required to provide health insurance for their employees. The “New York League for Americanism”—a pro-business, Anglo-nativist lobby—helped resist the legislation. Nativists distributed pamphlets undermining any idea that the state needed to require such programs. In the nativist’s eyes, the “vital question” was “is this American in principle or is it foreign?” Americans they believed “do not want anyone to assume guardianship over our people.” The whole notion of a health care mandate was “un-American,” and contra the nation’s Anglo Saxonist and individualist character. The pamphlet explicitly argued—on its front cover no less—that universal health insurance was a dangerous foreign idea “known in Germany as Reichskranken Versicherung” and that “only socialistic leaders endorse this scheme.”

The nativists’ arguments landed because they were mostly true. Besides Industrial Workers of the World types, Germans and socialistic leaders were the only ones supporting the proposal. German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had begun providing the evil Reichskranken Versicherung to all citizens in 1883 as part of a program of sweeping legislative reforms providing unemployment insurance, health care, and even old-age and disability pensions to all citizens of Prussia in an attempt to undermine German socialists’ calls for even greater changes.

We Americans know better than our racist predecessors, though. We are, you see, a country of immigrants, and that’s what makes us so special.

B. Duncan Moench is Tablet’s social critic at large, a Research Fellow at Heterodox Academy’s Segal Center for Academic Pluralism, and a contributing writer at County Highway.