Book Review: Charleston’s Germans
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
A deep and dedicated investigation into how German immigrants assimilated in South Carolina up to the mid-20th century
Charleston’s Germans: An Enduring Legacy is Robert Alston Jones’s study of a local immigrant population from its beginnings in the 17th century through the Second World War. Mining a rich bibliography, Jones weaves contemporary newspaper accounts with historical analysis to tell the story of this community in great detail.
During the mid-1800s, Captain Heinrich Wieting sailed thousands of Germans to Charleston. Some moved on from Charleston; Hermann Knee, a Lutheran, helped the German Colonization Society settle an immigrant community in the town of Walhalla. But many stayed in the city.
By the time of the Civil War, 9 percent of the city’s white population was German. Their ethnic differences remained apparent—for example, through participation in the rifle club called the Schützengesellschaft and its annual Schützenfest—so the rest of the population’s acceptance of them was complicated. Speakers of Plattdeutsch or so-called “Low German” (spoken in the north of Germany) generally had an easier time assimilating than did people from other parts of Germany because their dialect more closely resembled English.
Like other white people in Charleston, a few of these German individuals enslaved African Americans, though most did not—perhaps on principle, or else because they could not afford to do so. During the Civil War, the Germans experienced economic hardships and other losses along with the rest of the city; post-war, they also helped revive the economy. They were merchants and teachers, lifeguards and bartenders. With the way Jones expertly explains the driving forces of the era like race and economics, readers have an anchor to form their own connections to other important parts of history.
In the early 20th century, anti-German sentiment grew stronger. From the First World War, “German-American life was haunted by suspicion, misunderstanding, conflicted emotions, and bewilderment as to what to do,” Jones writes.Other Americans were prejudiced against this community, and they warned against “pan-Germanism, Prussianism, militarism, imperialism.”
In Illinois, a German coal miner was murdered by a mob for supposedly having made an insulting remark about the U.S. president, and South Carolinians worried that tensions might similarly escalate in their hometowns. During the Second World War, a judge shut down Albert Orth’s newspaper, the Deutsche Zeitung, published out of Charleston, and also canceled the U.S. citizenship of Orth and his wife—though Orth appealed and the ruling was reversed.
As Jones explains, the story of German immigration has traditionally centered on states to the north, like Pennsylvania, where larger numbers of Germans settled. In part for that reason, the history of the Germans in South Carolina—notable though it is—was eventually forgotten by many, even by those who were themselves descendants of German immigrants. By the mid-20th century, there were fewer first-generation immigrants, and ethnic differences ceased to be felt as strongly, especially after the Second World War ended.
The Charleston community is rendered with great care in this interesting historical account. Charleston’s Germans succeeds in delivering curious anecdotes while providing high-level analysis. If you think you know a city, think again—just beneath the surface, the history is vast.
Genre: Nonfiction. / Heritage
Print Length: 296 pages
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