German American press

Definition: German-language newspapers catering to German immigrants

Significance: As German immigrants reached the United States and began settling in the interior of the country, the German American press catered to their need for news and information, providing stories about their adopted homeland while keeping in touch with Germany. The German American press became one of the largest and most powerful ethnic presses in the country, aiding German politicians at both state and national levels.

Ethnic presses in the United States were a major force in American journalism during the nineteenth century, when mass European immigration was bringing millions of non-English speakers into the United States. The German-language press was one of the most influential of the ethnic presses. The first Germannewspaper in the British colonies was published by Benjamin Franklin in 1732. However, his Philadelphische Zeitung lasted only a few months, and other German language dailies had similarly short life spans. In 1735, John Peter Zenger was publishing the New York Weekly, a German American paper, when he was charged with libel. His trial expanded freedom of the press by making it more difficult for government officials to sue for libel.

Meanwhile, developments in Europe invigorated the German American press as political turmoil accelerated German emigration. The revolutions of 1848 and subsequent government crackdowns drove millions of central Europeans from the continent. As German émigrés arrived in North America, they found newspapers such as the New York Staats-Zeitung, a major daily established in 1834, already flourishing and ready to cater to German speakers hungry for news about their adopted homeland.

A Growing Presence

As new German immigrants settled throughout the United States, their daily newspapers followed. By the 1850’s, Cincinnati alone had four German-language newspapers, and St. Louis had three. The most influential of these papers were St. Louis’s Anzeiger des Westens, or Western Informant and the Cincinnati Volksblatt. Both papers supported the abolitionist movement and the Republican Party, which formed during the mid- 1850’s. In Illinois, the Staats Zeitung was the official Republican voice in the Germancommunity, and it gained prominence during the 1860 presidential campaign.

As the circulations of German-language papers topped one hundred thousand in cities such as Chicago and New York, German American politicians used the papers as campaigning tools. Carl Schurz, a German-born Republican who became a political reformer and secretary of the interior for President Rutherford B. Hayes, used his part ownership in the St. Louis Westliche Post to promote his own political career. German-language newspapers also closely followed the military exploits of German American generals, such as Franz Sigel. With their large readerships and captive audiences of German immigrants who were not yet familiar with English, the papers became a force in politics and were courted by politicians eager to communicate with their German constituents.

The German American press also aided in the rise of major newspaper magnates, who used ethnic newspapers to expand their overall readership. For example, Joseph Pulitzer published the St. Louis Westliche Post along with his St. Louis Post- Dispatch, providing a gateway as German immigrants adopted English and switched their loyalty to English-language newspapers.

Decline of the Press

European turmoil during the 1870’s and 1880’s drove more Germans to emigrate to North America, increasing demand for German-language papers. New York City alone had more than a halfdozen such papers, while many rural communities with German settlers had their own German papers. However, as German immigration waned, and second- and third-generation German Americans adopted English, the German papers saw their readerships decline. Rural papers were the first to shut down. During the early years of the twentieth century, mergers left most large cities with only one or two German-language dailies each.

American entry into World War I in 1917 proved to be the end of the German American press’s influence in American politics. Much of the fall of the papers may be attributed to the German entrepreneur George Vierek, who established a pro- German newspaper called The Fatherland in August, 1914, at the time the war was starting in Europe. The circulation of the paper grew rapidly, as German Americans sought news about the course of the war. Vierek used his newspaper as a propaganda machine for the German government, receiving reports from the German Information Service. His paper defended the German government against charges of war crimes and brutality against civilians. It also attacked British influence in American foreign policy, taking particular aim at theWilson administration when it tilted in favor of the Allies. Many German newspapers supported the candidacy of Charles Evans Hughes during the 1916 presidential election, believing that he was less likely than President Woodrow Wilson to lead the United States into the war against Germany. Their endorsements of Hughes would not be forgotten byWilson after he won the November, 1916, presidential election and took the country into the war the following April.

In 1918,Wilson signed the Trading with the Enemy Act, which regulated all trade with Germany and its allies. Such trade included news reports passed on to the German-language press. Onerous regulations were imposed requiring costly record keeping by the newspapers as they were forced to record all their contacts with the German government.

Such regulations weakened the German language press, while growing distrust of the loyalty of German speakers led to the demise of half of the German newspapers during the early 1920’s. The end of large-scale German immigration and the general economic turndown of the Great Depression reduced the circulation of the German newspapers, leaving only a few in the largest American cities such as New York. By the turn of the twentyfirst century, fewer than two dozen German American newspapers were still publishing. These included Chicago’s Amerika Woch, New York’s Staats Zeitung, and the Florida Journal.

Douglas Clouatre

Further Reading

  • Fleming, Thomas. The Illusion of Victory. New York: Basic Books, 2003. Discusses how theWilson administration used the national emergency to attack ethnic groups including Germans suspected of supporting their homeland during World War I. 
  • Gross, Ruth. Traveling Between Worlds. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2006. Study of German immigration into the United States that includes coverage of such institutions as churches and the press. 
  • Heinrich-Tolzmann, Don. The German American Experience. Amherst, N.Y.: Humanity Books, 2000. Wide-ranging study of how Germans who emigrated to the United States became an integral part of their new country’s cultural and political system. 
  • Keller, Phyllis. States of Belonging. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979. Examines several German intellectuals, including publishers of GermanAmerican newspapers and journals. 
  • Miller, Sally, ed. The Ethnic Press in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987. Shows how immigrant presses were an important part of arrivals to United States, including the active German American press. 

See also: Austrian immigrants; European revolutions of 1848; German immigrants; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Italian American press; Pulitzer, Joseph; Spanish-language press; World War I.

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