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Honoring Those Who Have Fallen

This Memorial Day we mourn those who gave their lives in defending our country. Over the years, many German Americans have been part of the loss of lives that we reflect upon today.

Rituals honoring the dead, especially those who fell in battle against one’s enemy, can be traced back as far as to Ancient Greece. For Americans, Memorial Day is a federal holiday, honoring those in the Armed Forces who fell in service to their country. Germany has a similar day of remembrance called Volkstrauertag, which is observed two weeks before the first Sunday of Advent. On the surface, these two holidays seem very similar, yet there are some noticeable differences: The focus of Memorial Day in America lies in soldiers and those who have served in the Armed Forces, whereas the German Volkstrauertag memorializes all victims of war: soldiers, civilians, and those who fell victim to oppressive systems. This reflects some of the cultural differences regarding how the Armed Forces are perceived in each country. Returning after WWII, American soldiers were praised as heroes and saviors of the Free World. In Germany however, former soldiers were initially eager to play down the Wehrmacht’s involvement in Nazi Crimes and cast themselves as victims, too. Since the 1980s, the perception has changed toward associating Hitler’s Army with Nazi Germany’s shameful past. However, in neither patterns of interpretation did German society give much reason to remember their soldiers as heroes of the nation like in the United States.

The origins of Memorial Day, which was at first known as Decoration Day, can be found in 1868. After the Civil War, Union soldiers would come together to lay flowers at the graves of fallen comrades. Some of these soldiers would most certainly have been German-American immigrants. From the Revolutionary War onward, German-American immigrants have served in U.S. wars alongside their U.S.-born comrades. Sometimes they were welcomed with open arms, and sometimes their attempts to support their new country were met with suspicion.

During the Revolutionary War, for example, German-American immigrants served on both the British and the American sides. For the British, Germans provided auxiliary services. The most famous group fighting on behalf of the British was the elite troop of 12,000 soldiers the Duke of Hesse-Cassel lent to his brother-in-law George III. Many of these soldiers soon succumbed to illness or were captured by the Revolutionaries. On the American side, an interesting example of German-American help is Frederick, Baron de Weissenfels. He first settled in New York and originally fought on behalf of the British, but when the Revolutionary War started, he switched sides and joined the colonists. Germans also served as allies to the Americans within Europe. Many of them had served in the French army beforehand. A well-known figure was Baron von Steuben (1730 –1794), a Prussian and American officer who served as the inspector general and major general of the Continental Army. Even though his heavy German accent made it hard for him to be understood, he was able to introduce new and successful military drills, tactics, and discipline. Alexander Hamilton, who would later become the treasurer of the United States, served under him and was impressed with his military knowledge.

German-American immigrants also served alongside Americans in World War I – a turning point in German Americans’ role in U.S. society. After the United States had entered the war in 1917, Germans were seen as enemy aliens and a “fifth column” seeking to undermine the U.S. war effort. The fear of and the hostility toward Germans, which could have potentially led to rounding up and placing them in internment camps, prompted German Americans, the second largest immigrant group that had kept the language and the culture of the old country alive over generations, to assimilate into U.S. society. One way to demonstrate loyalty to the U.S. and to accelerate assimilation was to voluntarily enter the Army. The question of immigrant loyalty divided the nation as there were German Americans already serving in the Army. All in all, it is estimated that up to 500,000 immigrants from 46 nations served in the U.S. Army during WWI, though the number of German Americans is unknown. One example of a German-American soldier was Otto Radk. He was only 16 years old when he and his cousin, Harry A. Radke, enlisted in the Army. He joined the 132nd Infantry, Illinois National Guard on May 31, 1917. Only 148 days later he fell during a barrage in the French trenches.

A similar situation of conflicted loyalty arose during World War II. German Americans and German refugees tried to prove their loyalty to the U.S. by serving their new country on either the Home Front, or in the Army. For immigrants, military service was not just a way to prove their loyalty, but also to give them an opportunity to obtain U.S. citizenship without a long wait. The OSS (Office of Strategic Services), which would later become the CIA, used German immigrants as intelligence operatives and as a way to gain insight into the German mind and their strategies. German Americans served as spies and to formulate propaganda for the government that would get thrown off into enemy territory. Between 1931 and 1940, 114,000 Germans moved to the United States. Jewish émigrés helped to revolutionize the fields of Humanities and Science. One famous scientist who came to the US to escape the Nazi Regime was Albert Einstein, who went to work on the Oppenheimer Project, which helped develop the atomic bomb, ultimately ending the War. Émigrés in the field of humanities, such as the famous Frankfurt School of Thought, helped drive market research and whose theories inspired the OWI (Office of War Information) in creating their own propaganda machine to rival that of Germany.

German Americans made a huge impact in the United States Armed Forces through the existence of the US. This Memorial Day, we remember those who have fought and died for the US and thank those and their families who have served or are currently serving.