Thursday, June 03, 2010

Traces of German immigrants

The following article is from the May 2010 issue of The Atlantic Times.
Traces of German immigrants The German-American Heritage Museum in Washington D.C. has struck a resonant chord with the American public – By Christoph von Marschall

The museum traces the history of German-Americans in the land of opportunity. The exhibition has already found broad appeal among visitors, and not only those of ethnic German origin.

Considering the fact that it has only been around for a few weeks, this new institution is really making its presence felt. On the opening weekend in late March, about 400 German-Americans came to the German-American Heritage Museum in Washington, D.C., among them Senator Richard Lugar. There was a brass band playing, in tune with widely held American clichés about Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel and D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty sent congratulations by telegram.

The fanfare was accompanied by a veritable controversy over the museum concept – a PR person’s dream, although in this case the dispute was not artificially stoked. Writing in The Washington Post, former Berlin correspondent and current enterprise editor, Marc Fisher, expressed suspicions that the museum was the response of the German government and the German private sector to the Holocaust Museum. “The only way modern, democratic Germany could salvage its reputation in the United States, many Germans in government and the private sector believed, was to counter the Holocaust museum with one of their own. That museum opens this weekend,” wrote Fisher.

That is not quite true, says founding director Rüdiger Lentz. Neither the German government nor the German private sector has financed the museum. Most of its funding has come from the umbrella group of German-American social and fraternal clubs, organizations that bring together Americans of German origin. And as to the content of the exhibit, it does not present the contemporary Federal Republic as liberal antithesis to the Nazi Empire but illustrates the stories of German immigrants to the US, and how they have maintained their customs and traditions for 400 years.

Essentially, Fisher’s argument does not really concern the new museum at all. He merely uses it as yet another example in an article that attacks a new trend in the American culture of remembrance. He thinks it is wrong and even dangerous when ever increasing numbers of groups start presenting their particular stake in the history of the US: the American Indians; the Germans; the African Americans; the Italians; Irish; Latinos and Asians. Such a move brings us closer to what he describes as the “Balkanization” of the US and its history. In Fisher’s view, the emphasis should be on helping future generations to understand “how this country has managed to take many and make one, providing a living translation to E pluribus unum.”

Fisher’s article had readers disputing his view such as American Joseph Grano, who was inspired by the article to visit the German-American Heritage Museum: “I do not believe that Washington can have too many museums...These specialized museums will have unique points of view…The overall result will be a broader, deeper, more nuanced understanding of who we are as a people.”

Lentz is grateful to Fisher for the prominently positioned article, even if he believes the criticism is misleading. “He has given us some publicity,” he said. “And it’s flattering to be mentioned in the same sentence as the National Museum of the American Indian, which is much larger and enjoys much more generous funding.”

USA Today also ran a report on the new museum. The television channel Fox broadcast live from there. Visitor numbers have since leveled off to between 60 and 100 on Saturdays and Sundays, and between 20 and 50 on weekdays. Every week sees visits from up to two groups of tourists or students. Some have even found themselves among the exhibits – two women who recognized themselves in a photograph of the 34th National Singing Festival Northeast, which took place in 1961. And 2,000 people have so far walked up the stairs to the exhibition rooms, steps that are graced with the names of famous ethnic German-Americans such as: Elvis Presley, whose ancestors immigrated in 1710 under the name Pressler; Levi Strauss, inventor of blue jeans; and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who initially designed the V-2 for Hitler and later became a driving force behind the US space program.

This gives rise to criticism of a different sort: that the museum does not make enough of the more controversial aspects of German-American history. For example, should Nazi accomplices, such as Braun be placed alongside those who fled from the Nazi regime, such as Albert Einstein – without any elucidation?

Lentz sighs. He would really like to be able to do more. But space and funds are limited. The compilation of biographies of prominent German-Americans, for example, which could then be consulted at computer terminals, would cost $50,000.

“The market has accepted us,” said Lentz, referring to visitor figures and the broad media coverage. “But the financial future is not secure.” The German-American clubs have exhausted all available funds with the purchase of the building and the costs of the exhibition itself. Now Lentz has to locate new sources of capital – not just to keep the museum running but also to fund improvements to the exhibition.

German-American Israelites?
"Born German, Made American" by Nicholas Kumanoff in The Atlantic Times, reveals how "to prove their patriotism, immigrants abandoned their old identities."

The Holocaust Museum is out of place, unlike the German-American Heritage Museum that focuses on American history and German-Americans.