Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity

By Leibiger, Carol A | German Quarterly, October 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity


Leibiger, Carol A, German Quarterly


Kazal, Russell A. Becoming Old Stock: The Paradox of German-American Identity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. 383 pp. $35.00 cloth.

Kazal's prodigiously researched study, based on his dissertation, seeks to resolve the paradoxical "eclipse of German-American identity" in Philadelphia, the third largest American city during the period under study and the goal of German immigration since 1683 (2). This long period of immigration resulted in a sizable population of German stock (first- and second-generation German-Americans) and "old stock," (GermanAmericans who could trace their lineage back hundreds of years). Using census information from 1900-1930 for two representative neighborhoods (Girard Avenue, populated by recent German immigrants; and Germantown, America's oldest German settlement but no longer heavily German in 1900), this investigation aims to explain the absence of German-Americans from the national scene in an age of multiculturalism (2). Kazal problematizes the notion of the American "melting pot," identifying the circumstances that led to the assimilation and integration of German-Americans into a larger Northwest European or white establishment; this development preceded the age of multiculturalism and functions as an explanation of the disappearance of the German-Americans in an age when diversity was unappreciated.

Traditionally, the submerging of German stock into a more uniform American identity has been explained by the "contingencies of 20th-century history," i.e., the participation of Germany in two world wars and the resulting backlash against German-Americans (4). While these developments certainly contributed strongly to German assimilation, Kazal demonstrates that German-American identity was already weakening before 1900, as a result of declining immigration and the second generation's restructuring of its identity away from ethnic affiliation and toward assimilation, differentiated along the lines of religion, class, race, and gender. Kazal painstakingly traces the history of middle- and working-class, Catholic and Lutheran, and male and female allegiances, focusing on overt expressions of German-American identity like participation in cultural organizations (the Vereinswesen), the union movement, church membership, and the restructuring of ethnic consciousness away from a German-American identity and toward a Northwest European or white group identity. The roles of mass culture, particularly consumerism and public entertainment, and the nativism associated with the two world wars (particularly World War I) on the development of the German-American identity are also adduced. …

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