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

Peter Conolly-Smith

Contesting the Stereotype in the German Ethnic Press

It was precisely at this juncture that opinion within the German immigrant community began to diverge. Established Germans of older vintage had accepted or, in any case, endured mid- to late-nineteenth-century stereotypes in literature (Little Women's Professor Baehr, for example), in illustrated magazines such as Harper's Weekly, and on the stage (even on their own immigrant stage, as John Koegel has shown), but they now balked at the caricature's more recent incarnation in vaudeville, on-screen, and in the comics (Koegel 274-76). The New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, for example, established in 1834 and, as the oldest and most venerable of all German-language newspapers in America, the acknowledged voice of the community's middle class, found vaudeville's German and his screen and comic strip cousins offensive. German caricatures in the funny pages, the newspaper wrote in 1913, were "the product of an imbecilic mind . . . a stupid and unhumorous travesty" that represented "a lapse in taste at once miserable [jämmerlich] and deplorable [bejammernswert]." The (not so) veiled references to the Katzenjammer Kids will not have been lost on the readership. "Such a German does not exist," the newspaper growled on a separate occasion, "yet American comic strips perpetuate the model because readers laugh at him." And, on vaudeville's Dutch Act: "Such a ridiculous impossible distortion, this small pot-bellied fellow with his drooping mustache and dull eyes, replete with his wooden slippers, balloon-like hat, his long-stemmed pipe, beer glass, and pretzel. Where has one ever seen a German of this type? . . . We German-Americans," the Staats-Zeitung concluded, "do not laugh at him." [4]

Forceful as the Staats-Zeitung's rejection of the stereotype was, there were other, equally influential newspapers within the community that disagreed, such as the popular New Yorker Morgen Journal, established in 1895 and later called the Deutsches Journal. This newspaper self-consciously catered to more recently-arrived German immigrants, capitalizing on their prior exposure to modern mass media by presenting itself as the nation's most up-to-date German daily, whose modern appeal surpassed the ethnocentric focus of the Staats-Zeitung and other such publications. Readers of the upstart Journal, in turn, similarly positioned themselves in conscious contrast to older German immigrants. In the classified ads in which they offered their services on the job market, for example, they emphasized their youth and recent arrival, and their willingness to take on work that required English-language skills, indications that they were willing to deviate from the ethnic norm, not only on the job market, presumably, but in the cultural realm too.

In the Deutsches Journal, many of these new arrivals found a natural forum. William Randolph Hearst-owned and as shrill and garish as the yellow press baron's other newspapers, the Journal was, like its more famous English-language sister publication the New York Morning Journal, characterized by an embrace of modernity expressed, in great part, through a strong visual appeal. The "paper's lay-out was excellent," Hearst biographer David Nasaw has written of the English-language Journal — and the same is true of its German version — "with texts and drawings breaking through columns to create new full-page landscapes and sensational bold headlines that seized the eye and quickened the imagination" (Nasaw, Chief 102). [5] Aside from Hearst's trademark banner headlines, the two sister publications' visual appeal was achieved through graphics, photographs, editorial cartoons and, not least, their regular inclusion of a comic section, the American Humorist, introduced on December 12, 1897 as "eight pages of polychromatic effulgence that make the rainbow look like lead pipe" (Dunn 177). The weekly and later daily "funnies" featured in this section included the adventures of the above-mentioned Katzenjammer Kids, whose antics can be found reproduced — and translated into German — in the earliest surviving copies of the German Journal. While the Staats-Zeitung condemned the Katzies as "imbecilic . . . travesties," in other words, the Journal sold them right back to their source of inspiration, the German immigrant community. In so doing, the newspaper assured its readers that by consuming such images, they were engaging in a pastime so universally-enjoyed that it transcended the narrow concerns of ethnic purists such as the Staats-Zeitung, whom the Journal mocked as backward, "slow, boring, and long-winded." [6]

As proof of its comics' universal appeal, the Journal pointed out that even while "our humorous supplement, Die Lustigen Blätter [the funny pages] numbers among its contributors the best-known American cartoonists," their fruits — including in particular the Katzenjammer Kids — were as popular in Germany as they were in America. Thus a much-publicized special issue of the Journal published for distribution in Berlin reportedly elicited great enthusiasm there, not least for its comic strips: "[Berlin] readers were particularly impressed with the 'look' of the paper . . . with its many supplements . . . and its funny pages," the Journal's correspondent wrote. In as ur-German a locale as the Tiergarten, Berlin's largest public park, he spotted two young women who — just two among thousands he claimed to have seen that day — sat "with expressions of mirth, reading the pranks of the Katzenjammer Kids in the Journal's colored, humorous, comic supplement." [7] If urbane Berliners laughed at the stereotype without taking offense, such reportage implied, then surely German-Americans could too.

Indeed, for German immigrants to have accepted, even laughed at their representation in comics and on the vaudeville stage testified to how far they had come. To such Germans, the Dutch Act of Weber and Fields — upon whom the Journal lavished much favorable publicity — and the comic strip antics of the Katzenjammer Kids represented parodies of how they (and, more importantly, their predecessors) had once acted, looked, and spoken. In this incarnation German ethnics were ridiculous to the host society and even to themselves. This was precisely what they no longer wished to be, nor to be seen as, and by laughing at the caricature, they distanced themselves from its Old World associations. As Miriam Hansen observes, "the stereotypes [of ethnic parody] provided a foil for a new, ostensibly middle-class identity or, rather, for an identification with a specifically American myth of success that blurred all class and ethnic distinctions" (59). For immigrants to whom assimilation into mainstream modern society was a goal, laughing at ethnic stereotypes — especially their own — was one way to signal their arrival.

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

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