What was conceived as our first extended vacation trip in Germany, by a twist of events, became a discovery of how the American and German people seem destined to meet in history, and in so many diverse ways.

Heidelberg was our first occurrence with Germany. This university city hosted the “Heidelberg man”, considered the earliest evidence of human life in Europe. Much later, in the mid 1800s, it hosted Mark Twain, possibly one of the first Americans in Germany. Now, Heidelberg boasts one of the largest American communities outside North America.

Mark Twain stayed in Heidelberg during 3 months. His remarks on the German language are still echoed by visitors to this day:

“German is an awful language. Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp. Some German words are so long that they have a perspective.

My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”

Nonetheless, Winfried Fluck, a professor at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at Berlin’s Free University, says Twain is often the first person to come to mind when Germans think of Americans.

Germans have actually been thinking of America for a long time.

German immigration to the British colonies began soon after English colonists founded Jamestown. In 1690 German colonials built the first paper mill in North America, and the Bible was printed in America in German before it was printed in English.

Revolutionary Americans had no army background. Friedrich Whilhelm Von Steuben, a Prussian who came to America independently, trained George Washington’s army and wrote the first drill manual of the United States Army.

At the same time, however, over 16,000 Germans joined the British army to fight American colonists. The large majority, possibly having easily learned the language, never returned to Germany.

A century later, approximately 216,000 German-Americans fought for the Union Army against the Confederates while thousands who were established in the southern states served in the Confederacy. One of the greatest painter of the American civil war is German-American Mort Kunstler.

It might never be confirmed but Mark Twain may have played a pivotal role in World War One. Germans no doubt learned of “soldier Twain” during the civil war and got to appreciate his rather “ungerman” living style during his well documented European trips, leading them to think that Mark Twain was a typical Yankee.

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“Berlin also assumed that Americans were fat, undisciplined and unaccustomed to hardship and severe fighting. They soon discovered these supposedly soft, materialistic Yankees really could fight. The Germans reported that “The qualities of the [Americans] individually may be described as remarkable. They are physically well set up, their attitude is good… They lack at present only training and experience to make formidable adversaries. The men are in fine spirits and are filled with naive assurance.”

By September1918, the Central Powers were exhausted from fighting, and the American forces were pouring into France at 10,000 a day. The decisive Allied counteroffensive, known as the Hundred Days Offensive, began on 8 August 1918—what Ludendorff called the “Black Day of the German army.” The Allied armies advanced steadily as German defenses faltered.”

Doubters should recall that it took some 50 years before Snoopy’s role in the downing of Manfred von Richthofen, the famous Red Baron, was revealed by German-American Charles Shultz.

General George S. Patton became German-American John Pershing’s aid in 1916 and modeled much of his “German-like” leadership style after Pershing who favoured strong, decisive leadership and commanding from the front. It was in Mexico that

“Patton’s first experience with combat came on May 14, 1916 in what would become the first motorized attack in the history of U.S. warfare. Patton, leading a force of ten soldiers and two civilian guides with the U.S. 6th Infantry Regiment in three Dodge touring cars, surprised three of Pancho Villa’s men during a foraging expedition, killing Julio Cárdenas and two of his guards.”

While on duty in Washington, D.C., in 1919, Patton met German-American Dwight D. Eisenhower who “would play an enormous role in Patton’s future career”. Actually, both men played leading roles in the Allied victory in WWII. Curiously, General Patton died in a Heidelberg hospital on December 21, 1945 after a car accident.


The German “counterpart” to General Patton was Albert Einstein. The German-born scientist gave up his German citizenship at 15 years old and became a Swiss citizen at 21. Visiting the U.S. during the Hitler years, he decided to settle in America and became an American citizen in 1940. Einstein was instrumental in the creation of Project Manhattan which eventually led to the U.S. getting the first nuclear bomb that ended WWII, even though Einstein was against using nuclear weapons. He died in Princeton Hospital, New Jersey.

After WWII, Germans, seeking ways to bring American tourists in Germany, designed the Romantic Road which links historical cities from Würzburg to Füssen in the South. In Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a very pretty medieval town just south of Würzburg, we dined at a restaurant where the German owner makes a point of playing only “German music”. We thus spent the evening listening to Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), John Denver (John Deutschendorf), Elvis Presley (Pressler), Linda Ronstadt and James Last, to name a few.

We then drove to Füssen, a quaint little town near the Austrian frontier where Ludwig II built a splendid castle named Newschwanstein which inspired German-American Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. The American show business seemingly could not exist without German-Americans. Among the better known contemporaries are Ben Affleck, Kim Basinger, Sandra Bullock and Kevin Costner but there are many other less obvious characters like Tom Cruise, Leonardo di Caprio, Angelina Jolie, Merryl Streep and Bruce Willis.

Albert Kahn became known as “the architect of Detroit” while John A. Roebling designed the more enduring Brooklyn Bridge. August Schoeborn is responsible for the U.S. Capitol dome, a true American hallmark, under which John Boehner fights to apply German-like frugality to America’s finances. The list of German-American prominent politicians or public officials is as impressive as it is surprising: Eisenhower, Bush, Obama (yes, via his mother), Geithner, Hoover, Kissinger, Palin, Nixon, Roosevelt, Rumsfeld, again to name only a few.

Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic but she was totally outdone by Neil Armstrong who was the first German-American on the moon. Bruno Hauptmann, for his part, kidnapped Charles Lindbergh Jr., a crime investigated by Norman Schwarzkopf Sr., father of Jr. who led all coalition forces in the Persian War.

John Jacob Astor was the first multi-millionaire in the U.S. but he was not the last German-American to succeed. Actually, the list is quite long: Boeing, Bausch, Berlitz, Chrysler, Firestone, Gates, Heinz, Hellmann, Hershey, Hilton, Jobs, Kroger, Lomb, Mayer, Maytag, Merck, Pfizer, Rockefeller, Singer, Strauss, Trump, Westinghouse, Zuckerberg are some of the better known.

Having spent over one week in Germany recently, we found it interesting that many German-Americans have made it big in the food business. I must confess that we were not unhappy to eat Italian food for our last dinner in Germany. In fact, there is so much pork in German cuisine that it seems unlikely that Jewish people, a mere 0.15% of the population, can gain any weight in Germany.

Also noteworthy, though unsurprising, is the number of German-Americans in the U.S. beer business. Wikipedia lists no less than 20 famous German-American brewers from Anheuser, to Pabst and to Schlitz of fondless memory. We tasted so many great beers in Germany that it is a mystery why these people left their recipes in their mother country when they crossed the big pond. Or is it that they did not emigrate voluntarily…

There are some 50 million German-Americans currently living in the USA, some 17% of the U.S. population, making it the largest ethnic group in the country. They are established just about everywhere and deeply involved in American culture. They have influenced history, politics and arts, but also truly American sports.

Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Warren Spahn, Casey Stengel and Honus Wagner, to name but a few of so many famous baseball players, actually helped define America’s national sport. Football fans, likewise, continue to cheer many German-American stars like Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Schaub and Wes Welker while listening to Dan Dierdorf commentaries.

Golf legends like Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus also revolutionized a big American sport.

The U.S. have dominated the world swimming scene for many years, thanks primarily to German-Americans like Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps and Dana Vollmer. Older folks will also remember Johnny Weissmuller, also known in those years as Tarzan.

Even in less spectacular sports have German-Americans often been dominant. Few people know that Rudolph Wanderone, also responding to the name “Minnesota Fats”, has been a master pool player for a large part of the 20th century. And chess grandmaster Bobby Fisher captivated the world when, after beating Russian Gary Kasparov, became world champion between 1972 and 1975.

Angela Merkel, who just won a third mandate during a complicated election process dictated by the Americans after WWII, must be related to Bobby Fisher. Her handling of the financial crisis surely testifies of outstanding chess playing capabilities given the complexity of the European game board. Actually, the “Teflon Chancellor” has something of the “Iron Lady” and of “the Gipper”. Barrack Obama, for his part, has yet to display germanship and earn his nickname. It remains that Germany and the United States have been major players throughout the latest financial crisis.

Oddly enough, during the 20th century, Germany used its might trying to submit and conquer its neighbours and only the eventual U.S. involvement prevented greater German hegemony in Europe. During the financial crisis, German’s might and leadership contributed greatly to save Europe and its single currency, assisted by the U.S.’ handling of its own financial and economic challenges.

Bob Zimmerman was right: “The times, they are a-changing”.

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