Masthead small

Casting Teutonic Types from the Nineteenth Century to World War I: German Ethnic Stereotypes in Print, on Stage, and Screen

Peter Conolly-Smith

The Evolution of the German Ethnic Stereotype

Like blackface and minstrelsy before it, ethnic parody's original impetus in nineteenth-century American culture was to demean those it targeted. On stage, ethnic stereotypes "originated as a function of social class feelings of superiority and . . . express[ed] the continuing resistance of advantaged groups to unrestrained immigration" (Boskin and Dorinson 97). Drawing as much on the perceived behavior of immigrants as on their stereotypical appearance, ethnic parody relied on the "readily identifiable" — that is, visually, on "such recognizable traits as modes of dress, style of head and facial hair" and, behaviorally, on "occupations, generalized qualities of character or demeanor, and, of course, dialect" (Diestler 36, 38). For the Irish, among the oldest butts of American ethnic humor, the stereotype included, next to a comic Irish brogue, muttonchops, a pugnacious demeanor, and a simian appearance. Germans, in turn, had atrocious accents and were hairy, rotund, and dull. Whereas the Irish bristled at the caricature — the Order of Ancient Hibernians reportedly protested such representations so vehemently that ethnic comedians sometimes "feared for their lives" — Germans more readily made peace with their portrayal on the American stage (DiMeglio 44). They believed perhaps that such stereotypes, although ludicrous, held positive potential; that as ethnic historians have argued, "the humor of ridicule may support the ladder for upward social mobility" (Boskin and Dorinson 98). "In a polyethnic culture," Werner Sollors explains, following this line of reasoning, "communities of laughter arise at the expense of some outsiders and then reshape, integrate those outsiders, and pick other targets." In other words, by laughing at themselves as portrayed as "Other" on-stage, ethnics in the audience defined themselves as non-Other, as "American." "The community of laughter itself becomes an ethnicizing phenomenon," Sollors suggests, "as we develop a sense of we-ness in laughing with others" (Sollors, 133, 132). When endured as ritual acts of cultural hazing to which all immigrants were subject in America, ethnic stereotypes thus doubled as negative role models that taught the "newly arrived . . . how not to act" (Linneman 38).

Certainly, Germans on the eve of World War I had learned from the evolution of their own stereotype over the course of the nineteenth century. In the antebellum period, theirs had been a well regarded community, thought to exemplify "hard work, thrift, and determination," and to be possessed of a "valuable . . . rich heritage of music, art, and literature as well as a standard for civilized behavior." Contemporaries may have occasionally mocked Germans and "found them somewhat amusing," Leonard Dinnerstein writes, but overall "did not much mind them" (72, 85, 87). The opinion of one such contemporary, James M'Cune Smith, is typical of this generally positive, if sometimes ambiguous attitude. M'Cune Smith found Germans to be characterized by "persistent vitality, strong nationality, intelligence, and a capacity for organized effort." Even their faults he turned into virtues. Thus it was true that "the Germans still drink," he acknowledged — indeed, Germans' well-known love of beer generated significant criticism among the host culture and contributed to the stereotype of the German as pot-bellied, with beer stein in hand. Still, there was "a mildness about their 'lager bier,'" M'Cune Smith allowed, that was "altogether different from the fiery fluid" he associated with the Irish, frequent foil to the Germans, and generally held in much lower esteem (84, 85).

Following Germans' contribution to the cause of the Union during the Civil War — more troops were recruited from their ranks than from any other immigrant group in the country — their collective reputation continued to improve. As one contemporary German immigrant wrote home to his parents, "For us Germans this war is very good, for since the Germans have shown themselves to be the keenest defenders of the constitution, and provide entire regiments . . . they're starting to fill the native [-born] Americans with respect. Now the Americans don't make fun of us anymore" (Kamphoefner, Helbich, and Sommer 402). [2] Later historians agreed. John Higham, for example, writes that, "During the post-Civil War age of confidence the initial distaste for German customs had rapidly worn away. Public opinion had come to accept the Germans as one of the most . . . reputable of immigrant groups . . . law-abiding, speedily assimilated, and strongly patriotic" (196).

Changes in the domestic political scene, however, led to changes in perception. Prior to the war, Germans as a group had generally kept to themselves, rarely getting involved in American public affairs. Indeed, M'Cune Smith had considered them to be a community characterized by political "inertia" which, "combined with their ignorance of the English language, . . . with[e]ld the Germans from a direct interference with the politics of the day" (85). Their confidence boosted by the post-war boon to their reputations, however, combined with the continuing growth of their ranks in America's urban workforce, led Germans in the Gilded Age and early Progressive Era to become prominently involved in working-class politics. By the eighteen seventies and eighties, German-Americans led the national labor movement, holding influential positions in the American eight-hour-day movement, the Socialist Labor Party, the New York-based Communist International, the anarchist movement, and trade unions throughout the nation (Keil 71-94). Predictably, this political engagement caused their public image to suffer a setback. "Almost all our Socialists come from Germany," Truth magazine complained. "There is something in the German intellect, or the German diet, or the German atmosphere which breeds the spirit of discontent" (qtd. in Linneman 35).

Regardless of the significant differences between the various strains of German-American working-class radicalism — between anarchists, socialists, and communists, for example — and regardless of the existence of a substantial German-American middle class, Germans across the board now came to be associated with the likes of New York-based agitator Johann Most, known for his heavy German accent and "frequently lampooned in political cartoons as the quintessential rabble-rousing anarchist" (Waldstreicher 31). Portrayed as "bewhiskered, foreign-looking . . . bomb in one hand, pistol in the other," it mattered not that, in reality, "Most usually dressed in a business suit and had neatly trimmed hair," according to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace (1097). The caricature had simply picked up on the German stereotype's earlier trademark elements — the drunken, hairy German holding forth in a smoke-filled beer hall — and had politicized it to suit the new circumstances of the day. In the popular press, Germans were now demonized as "rag-tag and bob-tail cutthroats of Beelzebub from the Rhine, the Danube, and the Elbe"; "socialist vipers . . . the enemies of general society" (qtd. in Barnard 133; Poore 60).

This too was but a temporary stage in the continuing evolution of America's public perception of the German, however, as historical circumstances again ushered in a new variation of the stereotype. The gradual decline of German immigration towards the end of the nineteenth century, the socio-economic rise of many of those Germans who had previously numbered among the working poor, and the concomitant increase of "new immigrants" who took their place resulted in a change of guard in the American labor movement. Writing for the United States Immigration Commission, Isaac Hourwich thus found, in 1912, that "the greatest activity in the field of [labor] organization coincided with the unparalleled immigration of the past decade . . . from Southern and Eastern Europe." Ignoring the formerly dominant Germans, he concluded that "the origin and rapid growth of organized labor in the United States are contemporaneous with the period of the 'new immigration'" (30 - 31). [3] Germans' rehabilitation was thus brought about as much by their diminished visibility in radical politics as it was by the increased visibility of those who had replaced them. When a second-generation Polish immigrant, Leon Czolgosz, assassinated President William McKinley in 1901, the resulting wave of nativism was directed almost exclusively towards immigrants of Southern and Eastern European descent. Germans, now lumped in safely with the "old immigrants," escaped unscathed (Higham 111, 196).

Along with Germans' return to grace, their caricature, too, shed its more vicious aspects. The staple characteristics that had always defined it remained intact, to be sure: the stereotypical German of the turn of the century was as bewhiskered and besotted as before, his heavily-accented dialect still dotted with the usual "py chiminies" and "py gollies." But the bombs, pistols, and politics were relegated to the past. In print, the caricature found its most famous incarnation in the hugely popular "Katzenjammer Kids," America's first comic strip, introduced in William Randolph Hearst's New York Morning Journal in 1897. In weekly and later daily installments, the strip showed and told the misadventures of an extended German immigrant family: the demon twins Hans und Fritz, their rotund Mama, and her common-law husband the Captain who, along with his bearded sidekick der Inspector, was the constant victim of the twins' anarchic pranks. Their dialogue as stereotypical as their appearance — all characters spoke in German English pidgin — the "Katzies," as they were affectionately known, found their stage counterpart in vaudeville's so-called Dutch Act. Its prefix an Anglicization of "Deutsch" (German), the Dutch Act "relied on heavy German dialect and stereotyped 'national characteristics' for its humor" (Allen 221). Most famously performed by Joe Weber and Lew Fields ("py gollies, itd's as clear as der nose on your face"), Dutch Act comedians' speech, costume, and physical appearance in "peaked cap, short coat . . . padded stomach . . . [and] shoes [of] the large wooden type called 'dugouts'" embodied the German caricature on stage and, soon thereafter, on the silent screen — no longer a threat to society, by the early twentieth century, but still an object of humorous ridicule (Diestler 33; Gilbert 74).

1 | [2] | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | »

Peter Conolly-Smith is Assistant Professor of History at Queens College of the City University of New York.

View Complete Archives