More Americans Claim German Ancestry ; Latest Census Data Underscores Nation's European Roots, Growing Ethnic Pride

Article excerpt

The United States, first populated by Native Americans, rediscovered by Europeans and colonized under the flags of the Spain, Britain and France, is now filled with Germans.

More than half of the nation's 3,143 counties contain a plurality of people who describe themselves as German-American, according to a Bloomberg compilation of data from the Census Bureau's 2010 American Community Survey. The number of German-Americans rose by 6 million during the last decade to 49.8 million, almost as much as the nation's 50.5 million Hispanics.

"A lot of people aren't aware that German is the largest ancestral group in the country," said Don Heinrich Tolzmann, author of "The German-American Experience."

"It's an eye-opener, and it's something that's commonly overlooked."

While Hispanics and Asians make up the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population, the increase in those identifying themselves as German-American underscores the nation's European immigrant roots. It also reflects the use of new ancestry-tracking tools, a longing for identity and a surge in ethnic pride after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, more than four decades after Nazi Germany's defeat.

Many families in the Hill Country around Austin, Texas, still speak a hybrid of English and German known as Texas German, said Jean Warneke, executive director of the German-Texan Heritage Society. Though the dialect is more common among older Texans, Warneke said, classes offered by the society have become popular among teenagers as more Austin public schools have dropped German instruction.

Germans have been immigrating in significant numbers to the U.S. since the 1680s, when they settled in New York and Pennsylvania. The bulk of German immigrants arrived in the mid-19th century; they have been the nation's predominant ethnic group since at least the 1980 census.

The increased identification with German culture contrasts with earlier eras in U.S. history, during both world wars, when many kept those ties quiet. The passage of time has replaced that impulse with a search for enduring traditions, said Gregory Redding, a professor of modern languages and literature at Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind.

"The more homogenized our society becomes, the more we see some people seeking to differentiate themselves by forming distinct personal identities," Redding said. "For those who can find Germanic family traditions somewhere in their past, it can be personally fulfilling to cultivate that aspect of one's life. …